Banning Refugees for Fear of Terrorism in the Eyes of Halacha
By Dayan Shlomo Cohen / Badatz Ahavat Shalom, Yerushalayim
The war in Syria and uprisings in other parts of the world have uprooted hundreds of thousands of families from their homes. Many of these refugees would face certain death if they were to stay in their countries.
Countries all over the world are willing to open their borders to these refugees, giving them safety and a chance to start a new life.
This is clearly a humanitarian issue on our hands. However, the problem with the open border approach is that due to the rise of terror in these countries, Western countries are rightly worried that amongst these refugees may be terrorists whose intentions are not to find asylum but rather to carry out attacks on civilians.
In this article, I will examine how Halacha approaches this question. In order to do so, we must first define the question.
Defining the Problem
A refugee from Syria may face certain death if he remains there and therefore wishes to enter our country. We, however, are concerned that he may be either an actual terrorist or one in the making and therefore a threat to national security.
If we presume that it is definite that the refugee will be killed if returned to his country, while it is a Safek (doubt) as to whether he will engage in terrorist activity in our country, we have before us a question of whether we are obligated to risk our lives to save someone else from certain death.
The Talmud Yerushalmi relates that Resh Lakish risked his life to save Ribbi Ami from certain death when the latter was taken captive by bandits, and all others had given up hope of him getting away alive. The Bet Yosef proves from here that the opinion of the Talmud Yerushalmi is that one is obligated to risk his life to save his fellow from certain death.
Bavli vs. Yerushalmi
However, in the Shulhan Aruch, Maran omits this opinion of the Yerushalmi, as the Talmud Bavli does not agree, and the Rishonim (Rif, Rambam and Rosh) – when defining the obligation of a Jew to save his fellow from a life endangering situation – do not mention the opinion of the Yerushalmi at all. Therefore, the Shulhan Aruch does not include not risking your life to save another’s life as a form of standing by while the blood of your fellow is spilt (“Lo Ta’amod ‘Al Dam Re’echa”).
The Havot Yair suggests that the Talmud Bavli agrees with this principle based on the following case in the Gemara: Two Jews are walking through the desert, but only one of them has water, and there is not enough for both of them to survive. If the guy with the water does not share it with his fellow traveler, he will survive, and get to the nearest town alive, while his companion will not. Ribbi Akiva says that he may keep the water for himself even though his fellow will definitely not survive.
The Havot Yair understands that this applies only where it is certain that they cannot both survive. Where it is not, there is an obligation to share the water, even though this may endanger the giver’s life. From here it would seem that the Talmud Bavli too agrees that one must risk his life to save another from certain death.
Still, the Shulhan Aruch disagrees with the Havot Ya’ir, as explained above, and therefore, L’Halacha, one would not be obligated to do so.
The Radbaz states clearly that in such a case, there is no obligation to risk one’s life, and one who does so has not transgressed the prohibition to stand aside while the blood of your fellow is being spilt.
However, he continues and says, that despite the above, in any particular situation the degree of risk involved must be carefully weighted up, to see if it is really a risk that needs to be taken into consideration, and how much weight it should be given.
He continues that there are certainly cases where the risk should be taken, citing as a source for this, the Gemara in Bava Metzia that where one can save either his father’s lost property or his own, he may save his own, as he comes first.
Accordingly, if you are on the way to work and you see someone in distress, you are not obligated to help them if you will incur a loss for being late to work as here too, you come first.
Nevertheless, the Gemara continues that while you are allowed to put your interests first, one who continually does so will in the end come to need the favors of others. This is because such a person is not prepared to do acts of kindness which are by their very nature, putting the interests of another before your own.
To conclude, while it may not be an obligation to accept refugees who face certain danger if returned to their countries, as maybe they will endanger our national security, it would certainly be an act of kindness and compassion to do so, after thorough screening to reduce the risk to its minimal possible level.
While it could be argued that all the above only applies to a fellow Jew, we find in many places, such as giving charity and returning lost property, that while the actual Halacha may be different in relation to a gentile – where a Kiddush Hashem and the promotion of peace will result, no differentiation should be made.
Certainly, having a compassionate policy on immigration towards those fleeing war zones is a Kiddush Hashem and one which the Halacha would, in my opinion, encourage after thorough screening to reduce the risk of terrorism to a minimum.
 Terumot 8
 H.M. 426
 H.M. 426:1
 Bava Metzia 62a
 Vol. 3 Ch. 627