Barbara Sofer

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The Stranger Among Us

March 19 , 2010
Barbara Sofer , THE JERUSALEM POST

 

Why, you would ask, should we care about a couple of Dutch Christians who want to bind their fate to that of the Jewish people?

Tabitha and Vincent Stuker want to pay Jerusalem taxes. They are ready to live here, come what may, for the rest of their lives. Says Vincent, a Dutch-language tour guide, “We identify with the Jewish people, and we feel at home here. We have enjoyed much kindness and goodwill from many a Jewish friend and neighbor. But there is one problem: we’re not Jewish.”

Five years ago I wrote their story for this magazine as they were on the cusp of deportation to their native Holland. The Jerusalem Post column became one of the many documents in their court case, read by a sympathetic judge. He ruled that they could stay. But following-up on their lives half a decade later, their situation today is as precarious as it was before the ruling. They can no longer work in their professions, and they don’t know from month to month if they’ll have to uproot their lives and start all over.

Tabitha has been living here for 20 years. She came as a graduate student in biological research at the Hebrew University. She was glad to be chosen from an international pool of candidates for the research project, because of the high level of professionalism and also because her family had strong positive feelings about the Jewish people. In World War II, her grandfather became the guardian of Alfonse Katan, a Jewish boy in hiding. “Uncle” Alfonse Katan, survived the war and had become part of their family.

Vincent’s family also felt a strong affinity for Israel. His father was a prisoner in a Japanese concentration camp in Indonesia. He’s one of eight children. One sister moved here and converted to Judaism. Visiting his sister, he went to church one Sunday and helped out in the children’s program. Tabitha was already volunteering there. They fell in love and were married. Tabitha and Vincent, childless themselves, are very close to their Israeli nieces and nephews.

I MET them through my late friend Dennis Turner, a paraplegic Israeli whom they helped care for daily. Hands-on care for Dennis was just one of the many good deeds that formed the core of their lives. When asked for personal testimonies to their character, they easily assembled a thick folder of testimonies of good deeds, good character and good intentions.

Other documents in their file include praise from the Tourism Ministry and former employers. But you’d need a degree in immigrant law or in Israeli bureaucracy to follow all the twists and turns in their application process to government ministries. There are copies of forms of applications and postponements from the ministries of Religious Affairs, Tourism, Industry, Trade and Labor and Interior. I doubt if the average clerk would take the time to go through it.

Here’s the short version. Tabitha and Vincent staying here hinges on the decision of that judge five years ago to declare Vincent, who specializes in imparting a love and appreciation of the Jewish roots of the Christian faith through an understanding of Jewish texts, Middle Eastern history and archeology, a foreign “expert.” Tabitha could then stay as the “wife of an expert.” They happily accepted that decision, even though it meant that she couldn’t work in her field. She got a job as an aide in a home for the elderly and physically challenged.

That worked well, at first, but then began the Second Lebanon War, when the flow of tourism to the baptismal font slowed to a trickle. But even as work dried up, they would manage on less, determined the couple. He has proof of guiding the few groups that came while the Katyushas were falling, but the hiatus in his work became a major problem. He no longer had proof of steady employment. Without that, he lost his work permit. Without his work permit, he lost his job when tourism picked up again. Without the job, they lost their right to live here.

But in March 2009 ,Vincent did receive a recommendation from the Ministry of Labor. In the meantime, an entire year has passed and they have yet to hear from the Interior Ministry. (I also haven’t had my query answered, but then I have not been waiting 12 months for a response as Vincent and Tabitha have.)

YOU’LL NEVER hear a word of complaint about Israel from the Stukers. Despite their difficulties, it’s refreshing to talk to them with their love of Israel and Israelis. Vincent’s only regret is that at 38 the army won’t draft him. They wax eloquent on how well everyone they meet treats them – even the hundreds of government clerks they’ve encountered. They’re even understanding of all the suspicions Jews have about non-Jews. Hence, in their humungous file are letters from neighbors and friends, and we learn that they have no missionary designs. I can’t resist quoting from a letter of Tabitha’s.

“We feel grateful for the Jewish people because we recognize that they gave the world the biblical narrative and principles, the Judeo-Christian values (as we now know them) giving rise to wonderful societies that fostered great inventions, developments, cultures that thrived for hundreds of years, societies in which human life had become sanctified, the rights of the weak were protected, and quality of human life was enhanced in many great ways. We as Protestants are aware that we received the Bible from our Jewish brethren in Diaspora (in Spain) during the Dark Ages, and during earlier times as well, whereas we demanded this book should be made accessible by the (Catholic) Church to the common people of Europe, translated from Latin into our own languages, even at the cost of the burning of our leaders (alive) at the stake. While now in Israel it has been our joy to understand more and more of our Jewish roots, that we as Christians have, and to teach this heritage to many Christian pilgrims who come to Israel to learn precisely this.”

In fact, they’d like to become Jews, but to accomplish that, they’d have to go back to Holland where they haven’t lived for decades. Only there can they begin a conversion process which could take years. They’re afraid that if they leave Israel they’ll never be allowed to return.

THEY’VE ALSO been told by government officials that Israel is afraid that if they are given long-term status, it will set a precedent and then tens of thousands more Christians from Holland and other European countries will flood the gates to ask to live here.

Somehow I don’t see tens of thousands of Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, British and German Christians leaving their prosperous, social welfare states to become Israelis. Not even Jewish Europeans come in such numbers.

Why, you may be asking, should we care about a single couple of Dutch Christians who simply want to bind their fate to that of the Jewish people, to live here come what may?

One of the documents calculates that groups led by Vincent brought in more than $3 million in tourism. But this isn’t a question of dollars and cents, it’s of no sense. These are extraordinary people, patient and loving Zionists who want to contribute to the country. But as Vincent admits, they are not Jewish.

We need to care because more than any other commandment in the Torah we’re told to be kind to the stranger – 36 times. That’s more by far than the commandments to rid our homes of leavened bread and to eat matza that so dominate our Passover-oriented days. Be kind to the stranger, we are enjoined, because we too were once strangers. Finding an equitable solution that will allow the Stukers to join our society is our opportunity to fulfill that command.

 

 

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