05/25/2012 12:21 pm ET Updated Jul 25, 2012

A Sad Shavuot in Tel Aviv

At sunset on May 26 we observe Shavuot, commemorating the occasion on Mount Sinai when G-d gave the Torah to Moses, the Jewish people, and the world. Shavuot is also the time that Jews read and study the book of Ruth. Born a non-Jew but living among the Jewish people, Ruth embraces the Torah and converts to Judaism. On Shavuot, those observing the holiday all act as converts to Judaism as, like Ruth, Jews receive the Torah and its 613 Commandments into our hearts.

The spirit of Shavuot, however, is marred by this week's mob violence against asylum seekers and undocumented migrants in South Tel Aviv. This is especially painful to witness for the agency which I serve as Senior Vice-President, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. HIAS was founded in 1881 to secure sanctuary for Jews fleeing the mob violence of the pogroms in Russia. Today, we assist migrants of all faiths in Israel, the United States, and ten other countries spanning five continents.

The relatively recent challenge of African asylum seekers fleeing on foot across the Sinai from Egypt into Israel draws obvious parallels from the Jewish experience.

These asylum seekers report that, after being cursed and shot at by Egyptian soldiers, they crossed the border and were rescued by the Israeli Defense Forces. The IDF treated them with respect, gave them water and food, and brought them to safety. Furthermore, Israeli civil society has taken it upon itself to establish voluntary organizations to assist the migrants, and to stand up for the rights of asylum seekers in the well-functioning Israeli justice system. Other Israeli points of light were demonstrated to the world in the recent Academy Award winning film, Strangers No More. The documentary portrays the Bialik-Rogozin school in Tel Aviv, which creates a welcoming environment for the children of Jews, Arabs, asylum seekers, and economic migrants.

HIAS is also proud of the efforts of our Israeli staff to advise and train the Israeli government in its struggle to establish a functioning asylum system. An asylum system is essential to enable Israel to distinguish between refugees, who have a right to be protected from deportation to their home country, and economic migrants, who are not so entitled.

On the other hand, some Israeli politicians and leaders have characterized the migrants in negative terms, referring to them as "infiltrators" and "occupiers," further stoking social tensions in those neighborhoods where the migrants, and the poorest Israelis, live. Even in the wake of the xenophobic riots, the Israeli government's condemnation of the mob violence is undermined by accompanying promises to deport the migrants. These Israeli leaders make no reference to the fact that many are asylum seekers from places like Darfur and Eritrea, whose refugee applications remain unprocessed.

On Shavuot we read the story of Ruth, where Boaz, judge among the Jewish people, said to her: "It has been fully related to me... how you have left your father and your mother, and the land of your birth, and have come to a people whom you knew not before. May G-d recompense your deed, and may a full reward be given you by the L-rd, the G-d of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge."

For the first half of HIAS' 130 year history, the Jewish people were not in a strong position to provide protection to others in the way that the Jews protected Ruth, as Jews were struggling to protect themselves. Throughout that time, there was no Jewish homeland, and no refugee convention to establish a right to seek asylum. With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and with Israel among the first signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the second chapter in HIAS' history has been very different. Whether in Israel or in the diaspora, today Jews not only have the obligation to protect those who flee persecution, but also the opportunity to do so.

Likewise, the Torah not only encourages welcoming the stranger, the Torah commands it. 36 times. This we all need to remember as we accept the Torah into our hearts on Shavuot, and as we reflect on this sad time in Tel Aviv for Israelis and asylum seekers alike. The two groups are really one.