(With thanks to Margaret Mastrangelo, Rabbi Ben Weiner, and Zvi Rozen)
Like some of you here today, I spent many years of my childhood going to Hebrew school. I know what you’re thinking: that’s a great opening line for a hilarious Purim shpiel. But today, that’s not where I’m headed. And like some of you, I was taught there, or later in Hebrew high school, and certainly by my family and what I saw in my home, that being Jewish especially means standing up for the vulnerable and the oppressed, loving your neighbor as yourself.
Like many of you, at Shabbat services and in rabbis’ sermons, I heard the same teaching from the Torah that you did, the one we read today in Exodus chapter 23:
You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Those values were very much in our hearts and minds when Rabbi Weiner and I wrote an urgent letter last week to the JCA community with ways we can get involved regarding the Israeli governments plan to deport some 38,000 African asylum seekers. We feel the plan is problematic on many levels, and that it is very clearly at odds with the Jewish values many of us grew up with and still claim as fundamental to our Jewish identity.
In our letter, we spoke about the tens of thousands of African asylum seekers who arrived in Israel between 2006-2012. More than 90% are from Eritrea and Sudan, fleeing from the horrors of ethnic cleansing and oppressive dictatorship.
The question that Israel now faces is what to do with these asylum seekers who have been living in legal limbo. Though thousands have applied for asylum and refugee status, the government has offered less than 1% such protection. The state policy has been one of temporary non-deportation. They are increasingly referred to as “ infiltrators” who are taking away jobs and who really are “economic” migrants, not refugees. Government officials say that because they entered illegally, their permanent presence might encourage others to cross the border. Meanwhile they have languished for years, on temporary visas, some but not all are allowed to work but are not entitled to any social, health, or educational services. Many have been kept in a detention center in the Negev run by the Israeli prison service. Others are living in poor areas of South Tel Aviv, where some residents have blamed them for rising crime rates and lobbied the government for deportation.
Some of the asylum seekers have already accepted the government’s offer of a one-time payment of $3,500 to be voluntarily deported. But human rights activists who follow their journeys testify that they have often been robbed of their payments, with some becoming victims of human trafficking or even death as they sought to move on from Israel back to Africa and other places.
According to reports from diverse organizations, like the ADL, HIAS, Rabbis for Human Rights, Jerusalem Post, as well as Human Rights Watch, the government has devised a plan to deport by April all those whose asylum request is not currently pending. Letters to that effect will begin to go out tomorrow to these protection seekers. To carry out this plan, dozens of planes will be chartered and individuals will be given the choice of leaving voluntarily or facing indefinite imprisonment. An apparent deal with Uganda and Rwanda has been negotiated such that each country will receive $5,000 or goods or arms for each refugee they accept.
This news has been painful for many of us who care deeply about Israel. It strikes us as a betrayal of our history as refugees and migrants. It strikes us as a betrayal of Israel’s unique place and responsibility among the nations especially as one that signed on to the 1951 UN Refugee Treaty. We also recognize that this situation mirrors some of what is going on in our own country, as well as in parts of Europe, where an epidemic of nativism and xenophobia seems to be inspiring ongoing waves of fear and demonization of the “Other.”
However, just as we have witnessed a surge in activism and resistance in this country, so now are we hearing growing voices of resistance in Israel and among Diaspora Jews to this whole plan. Just as the sanctuary movement in the US is trying to keep hard-working, decent and undocumented people like Lucio Perez from being deported, so in Israel now, growing numbers of Israelis, with Holocaust survivors among them, are signing up to shelter African refugees in their homes and synagogues. Over 300 families living on various kibbutzim, in towns and cities, have already indicated their intention to help. In addition, growing numbers of El Al pilots and ground crew operators at Ben Gurion Airport have indicated their refusal to participate in any deportation flights.
One of those pilots, Yoel Piteerbarg, wrote movingly on his Facebook page about Jewish memory and the responsibility that memory imposes on us: “The state of Israel, he wrote, “is populated mainly by Jews who in the near and distant past, were refugees in countries around the world. Most went through the Holocaust, many were forcefully expelled from their countries…Out of all people we, the Jews, must be attentive, empathetic, moral and a leader of public opinion in the world in how we treat the migration of refugees, who have suffered and continue to suffer in their countries of origin.”
Also, in a rare show of unity in Jewish life these days, a petition signed by more than 850 North American rabbis, from across the religious spectrum, has urged the Israeli government to reverse its deportation plan. Hundreds of Israeli psychologists and physicians have submitted similar petitions to the Knesset. Even Alan Dershowitz, a prominent pro-Israel supporter, is taking the Israeli government to task. “The whiff of racism” he wrote, “can’t be avoided when you have a situation where 38,000 people of color are the ones who are being deported en masse, without every single case considered on its own merits.”
Also, some of the most prominent writers in Israel recently sent a letter to the Knesset. It is a powerful piece in my view because it speaks to current immigration realities in Israel. “The number of asylum seekers in Israel,” they write,” is less than half of one percent of its population. Israel has no refugee problem and no economic difficulty taking them in, settling them and directing them to jobs in caregiving, agriculture and construction which are crying out for workers. While some 100,000 foreign nationals predominately from Eastern Europe are in Israel without permits they are neither persecuted nor subjected to forced deportation. It is the asylum seekers from Africa that the Israeli government has made the objects of persecution. We call on you to act morally, and with compassion worthy of the Jewish people, to stop this deportation. Otherwise, we as a nation will have no reason to exist.”
For many of us, Israel’s existence has been a source of pride. We too understood that Israel’s founding was based on the notion of an ingathering of Jewish refugees worldwide brought to live in safety and normalcy. That it would be a country with a deep humanitarian impulse, where other refugees in need would find safe haven. Which is why Israel, despite being a small country, has over the years taken in many refugees in need, whether the Bosnian Muslims in 1993, the ethnic Albanians from Kosovo in 1999, and even the Vietnamese boat people in 1977. Menachem Begin, always mindful of the lessons of the Holocaust, felt deeply that Israel had a natural role to play and so he reached out to welcome and grant them citizenship, in his first act as Prime Minister.
Perhaps Israel no longer feels it wants to have this natural role. Unlike in Germany, where the government has recently taken in large numbers of refugees and created extensive programs for them including housing, job training programs, education and for now settling them throughout the country, Israel has taken no such proactive role. Clearly there are better, more humane solutions. But perhaps, like in this US now, there is less consensus today within Israel on certain values. And if that’s the case, then how do we as Jews in Diaspora think about and react to that? No doubt, you will each have your own response. But here’s why I am particularly worried.
Because just as we sense that the protracted conflict with the Palestinian people has eroded many people’s sense of attachment to Israel, efforts like this planned deportation of African asylum seekers will I fear continue that trend. I worry that many Jews, including the generation of our kids and grandkids, may distance themselves even more, feeling little or no attachment to Israel because of this clash of values.
Others more astute than I have written about this growing estrangement including Prof. Shlomo Avineri, who wrote about this already in the 1980s: “When the Jewish state was in danger of being destroyed,” he wrote, “the preservation of the very existence of Israel naturally became the highest priority. In the long run, however, it will be the content of Jewish life in Israel that will be key… If the content and quality of life in Israel will not make Jews all over the world proud to continue their identification, then this unusual bond will be eroded or severed.”
You may be wondering, why, with all of what we are dealing with in this country, with all our efforts to resist the assault on democracy and human rights, why take on another issue? Why get involved in Israel’s immigration issues when we are busy with our own?
For me, I go back to the fortuitous meeting years ago I had with the Israeli writer David Grossman who has long been a critical member of Israel’s Peace movement. I spoke to him about my own ambivalence about American Jews getting involved in Israel’s politics. “What right do we have to intervene in Israel’s affairs, “ I asked him, “after all we don’t even live there? And given our outsider status, what difference does it really make?”
Essentially he told me: “To us, it makes a huge difference. You in the Diaspora”, he was saying, “with your unique perspectives and experience, can strengthen what we are fighting for, namely, to make Israel a more just and open society, and to make peace with our neighbors. If you care about Israel and the direction in which it is going, it is critical to be involved.”
The Torah reminds us: “You shall not oppress the stranger. For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
It is not metaphor. It is not suggestion. It is a command, one that calls out to us each day and invites us and our better selves to respond.