Visit to Rivesaltes, France underscores Torah Portion’s lessons

Rabbi Haziza-Sokol

By Rabbi Séverine Haziza-Sokol

Our parashah Eikev reminds us that God “upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, befriends the stranger, providing food and clothing – You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19) Scholars often note that the Israelite code of ethics was founded on the belief that God identifies with the vulnerable. This expression of concern for the oppressed, the poor, the stranger is not exclusive to the Book of Deuteronomy (see also verse 24:17). We find it also in Leviticus (19:9, 19:33- 34), Exodus (22:20), and Numbers (15:14). 

Professor Bernard M. Levinson writes in his commentary on Deuteronomy in the Oxford Jewish Study Bible that “the Israelite is not urged simply to love an unfamiliar fellow Israelite. Instead, the Israelite is adjured to love and identify with the non-Israelite. Just as justice must be rendered to Israelite and alien alike, so must love reach across national and ethnic lines.”  

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Yet despite the teachings of our tradition, the anxiety over the presence of “strangers” and what constitutes their rights is a wedge issue that has remained a formidable problem to this day. In every era, proud nations such as the United States and my own country France have absorbed people, and at the same time, stood divided about how, or whether, to integrate the latest wave of immigrants. Even Israel currently faces this debate. Each person also holds their own view.  It is a tough issue to distance oneself from. Discussion about how to embrace the stranger has in some circles become politically untouchable. 

This past June after a four-year absence, I returned to France leading members of my congregation, Kol Am, to the small town of Rivesaltes, not far from the border with Spain. Because of its harsh Mediterranean climate, Rivesaltes has been called the “Sahara of the Midi.” The winds, reaching speeds up to 120 km per hour, can be violent and cold. In the summer the heat is unbearable.

It is here at Rivesaltes that one can find the only traces left in France of the internment of 600,000 people, men, women, children, and elderly. They were held in some 200 French camps between 1938 and 1946. There was a crackdown against foreigners. At Rivesaltes, thousands of Spaniards, Jews, and Sinti and Roma (Gypsies) were interned by the French government in full view of the population.

Jews who were foreign nationals or stateless or Jewish immigrants who had been recently naturalized as citizens all found themselves interned there. Life for the refugees at Rivesaltes was harsh. Famine raged in the camp and malnutrition was rampant. Most deaths in the camps were due to illness, brought on by starvation and poor sanitation conditions. In 1942, the French authorities started emptying the camp out and deporting Jewish internees to Drancy, a suburb of Paris. Most Jews were taken from Drancy to Auschwitz and murdered on arrival. The history of internment was nearly forgotten.

This is why almost 70 years later we traveled to France, to deliver to the staff of the Musée Mémorial du Camp de Rivesaltes, the filmed testimonies of five brave individuals who had survived their internment experience at Rivesaltes. It was our congregation’s way of supporting Holocaust remembrance in France. 

To understand how this backlash against “strangers” in France started we have to review the history. Between 1918 and 1939, France received more refugees per capita than any other European country.  In the 1920s the French government’s policies encouraged immigration.  But the 1930s sorely tested France’s reputation as a country receptive to immigration. In the later half of the decade the total number of foreigners in the country swelled to three mil lion. This surge in population went hand in hand with a growing anti-foreigner sentiment; some of it directed against people who in fact “felt” French and lived in France for years. With added economic woes, the government’s hospitality was increasingly strained. There were calls for population controls. On Nov. 12, 1938, the French government passed a law that allowed for the administrative internment of “undesirable foreigners.” France’s neighbor, Spain, had been engulfed in a civil war since 1936. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children crossed the border seeking refuge in France – 350,000 of them were welcomed into internment camps where they often faced the uncertainty regarding their immediate future surrounded by barbed wire.

As Frederic Raphael wrote in our recent exhibition here in St. Louis: “The French were obliged to accommodate these dispirited and often desperate fugitives here who had nowhere else to go and for whom no one else would take responsibility.” And as a result, by chance, rather than any ideological plan, a system of camps was put in place. With the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, the political climate intensified further and France looked beyond the Spaniards on their soil to address other “security” concerns; people who had not committed crimes but who the government believed posed a potential danger to both State and society. Every nation is concerned with safeguarding the rights of her citizens. But during the Holocaust, the Vichy regime helped ship to their deaths many Jewish immigrants and non-citizens.

Our tradition teaches us that “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God.” ( Levit. 19:33-34). According to a recent study conducted by the United Nations Population Division an estimated 190 million people live outside the country of their birth. More people than ever are seeking sanctuary, a home, a haven to begin a new life. Even the smallest towns here have not remained untouched.  Diversity can not be confined or denied. The world we live in is not homogeneous. Our grandparents, parents, or perhaps even ourselves, arrived here on these shores as immigrants seeking a better life. Immigration has transformed this nation. On the pedestal of the “Mother of Exiles”, the Statue of Liberty (a gift of friendship from the people of France to the people of the United States) is inscribed a poem by the great Sephardic Jewish poet Emma Lazarus. It reads in part “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” It is an extraordinary message of comfort. Who could ever wish to exclude someone from this dream?

Rabbi Séverine Haziza-Sokol serves Congregation Kol Am and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.