Israel’s Refugee Crisis
URGENT APPEAL TO THE READERS OF TIKKUN from Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi
There are times when one confronts a non-negotiable moral duty. This is one of those times.
I suspect that most readers of Tikkun in Israel, in America and in Europe, have worn out several pairs of shoes over the decades protesting injustices carried out by their own governments. Something more is demanded of us now. For those of us in Israel, that may mean a serious disruption of our personal lives. For those abroad, it could mean shifting priorities and finding the time and money to help prevent an injustice, which may portend an atrocity.
The facts are simple, though the ramifications are unimaginable—except by reference to the darkest hours in human history. From 2006, some 56,000 Eritrean and Sudanese men, women and children, fleeing persecution, or a lifetime of army service that would have amounted to indentured servitude, made the trek through deserts, brigands and military strongholds to arrive in Israel, where, until 2012, they were admitted under various and stringent conditions. Many of them were told that the only way they could enter was by signing statements that they were not refugees, but rather were seeking work in Israel; this way the authorities could circumvent the treaties related to asylum-seekers to which Israel is a signatory.
From 2006 to today, while some 20,000 left Israel, the remaining Eritreans and Sudanese have found housing in various cities, though the lack of civic planning and concerted attention to their plight have created frictions, for example between their community and the poor residents of southern Tel Aviv. During this period, tens of thousands of others, so-called “foreign workers” from far-flung parts of the world, have been imported into Israel to take care of our aging parents and to literally do our dirty work.
Meanwhile, many of the African refugees, especially the young men, have been sent to the dreaded “Holot” facility in the Negev for varying periods of incarceration. Now “Holot” is about to be closed and the visas of these young people are not being renewed. Cabinet ministers have approved the plan to imprison those who will not leave “voluntarily.” Ads are appearing in the media seeking volunteers who are being offered bonuses to help enforce this nefarious plan. The asylum seekers have been told that if they leave ‘voluntarily’ they will each be given a ‘grant’ of $3,500 and transported to a third country, presumably Rwanda or Uganda, whose leaders have, so the Government states, agreed to receive them. This is proving to be patently false, as the African leaders themselves are making explicit. For clarification on this development, read Naomi Chazan, former MK from Meretz and professor of African studies: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/asylum-seekers-back-to-those-shithole-countries-for-you/
During the years that they have lived here, these young people have learned Hebrew, studied and found gainful employment, even established families; their children attend schools with our children. They cannot, however, ‘blend into the background.’ They are not only goyim; they are black. Sound familiar?
Under the threat of deportation, many have become desperate and at least one young man hanged himself. https://www.haaretz.com/misc/article-print-page/.premium-wadjungah-mohammed-is-one-african-refugee-israel-can-t-deport-by-force-1.5742710
No more: not on our watch!!
In all likelihood, most of you have, by now, heard of what is being popularly referred to as the “Anne Frank Initiative.” The two names most associated with this initiative are, of course, the unfortunate but ‘immortal’ Anne Frank and–may she live a long life–Rabbi Susan Silverman (yes, the Sister of…). The initiative is officially called ‘Miklat Israel’ or ‘Israel Asylum.’ It is an umbrella group composed initially of progressive rabbis of all stripes and spearheaded by the most intrepid of our spiritual leaders, many of them women; their growing phalanx of supporters come from all walks of life and are committing themselves to helping in every possible way, up to and including taking the ultimate step of sheltering those marked for deportation and even standing up to law enforcement agents if the Israeli government carries out its plans. As of this writing, some 300 families from 52 different places in Israel (cities, towns, kibbutzim, moshavim) have signed up and this promises to become a mass movement.
“We call on you to stop the deportation of asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan, men and women carrying horrific scars on their bodies and souls from their journey and from torture camps in Sinai, and children born in Israel who are asking of us only one thing: to live,” reads the letter to Knesset members from prominent Israeli writers, among them David Grossman, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, Meir Shalev, Etgar Keret, Zeruya Shalev, Orly Castel Bloom, Edna Mazya and Joshua Sobol. “In light of the huge wave of refugees inundating the West and Africa, the number of asylum-seekers in Israel is less than half of one percent of its population, and its gates have been locked to them since 2012… Israel has no refugee problem and has 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 35,500 asylum seekers from Africa – fleeing from fire and needing every possible protection – that the Israeli government has made the objects of persecution and forced deportation,” says the letter.
The writers insist that the government’s claim that these people are not asylum seekers is “baseless,” and warn that torture and even execution await them in the third–party country to which they will be sent. Noting that deportation is set to begin just before Holocaust Memorial day, the letter states: “We call on you to act morally, humanely and with compassion worthy of the Jewish people, and to stop the deportation of refugees to the hell from which they fled before it starts. Otherwise, we will have no reason to exist.”
Other groups of professors, doctors, theater people, teachers and professionals of every stripe, have also sent out petitions and declarations. Holocaust survivors and their children are among the organizers of the so-called Anne Frank Initiative. The most recent to raise their voices are a group of El Al pilots who have vowed to refuse to fly the planes that will deliver the asylum seekers to their doom in those African countries where these people are likely to meet every form of degradation, from robbery (the “grant” of $3500 per head is a red flag to prospective vandals and thieves) to rape and murder.
This is not a fantasy but a prediction based on the fate of those poor gullible souls who already took the offer: of the several thousand who already left, we have few documented reports of successful integration in any African country. The reports have reached us that of some 20,000 African asylum seekers who left Israel, in many cases because they were forced to sign documents that they could not read, saying they were leaving of their own free will, those who went to Rwanda were send immediately to Uganda, where they met a dire fate. Some ended up in Libya, some in other countries. The U.S., Canada, and a few European countries have absorbed some. At least 8 people have died in the process, and many more are unaccounted for.
For many Americans and specifically American Jews, the image of immigrants knocking at the gates is a haunting familial memory; for all Americans under Trump, the specter of ICE coming in the night for ‘illegal immigrants’ and deporting them back to their home country has prompted initiatives to provide shelter for these people, in churches, mosques, YMCAs, etc. This may become an urgent and massive challenge in America if DACA isn’t resolved, but in the meantime, it hasn’t reached those proportions.
Here in Israel, there is clear and imminent danger.
Even those not identified with the left of the political spectrum have begun to stand up against this pernicious plan. The national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, joined with HIAS and wrote to Netanyahu this past week: “The sweeping nature of this deportation scheme, coupled with the extreme difficulty to access the Israeli asylum system is having a devastating impact on the refugee community in Israel and betrays the core values that we, as Jews, share.” https://www.hias.org/blog/hias-and-adl-raise-grave-concerns-over-deportation-asylum-seekers-israel
The building pressure seems to be paying off. At the Davos Conference this past week, where Rwandan President Paul Kagame made it clear that his country would not take any refugees who do not come under their own volition, Bibi seemed to agree not to “forcibly deport” any Africans to Rwanda. The massive campaign pressure on Bibi, and the letter writing campaign to President Kagame, have, for now anyway, carried the day: https://www.timesofisrael.com/rwandan-president-tells-netanyahu-he-wont-take-in-forcibly-deported-migrants/
Although the backlash has already begun—the ultra-rightwing organization “Im Tirzu” has called out its troops to stop the “destruction of the Tel Aviv neighborhoods” and stem the tide of “illegal infiltrators”—still, the groundswell of protest by people from all walks of life in Israel is evidence of the viability of the civic spirit that many of us had come to doubt.
Rabbi Arik Ascherman, an intrepid warrior for peace who endangers himself daily to help Palestinian shepherds, poor immigrants in Israel proper, and Bedouin in the Negev, wrote recently about the different lessons that Jewish suffering has taught us: “From almost as long as I can remember I have seen the striking dichotomy between those Jews whose reaction to the oppression of Jews is that looking after what they perceive to be Jewish interests outweighs all other considerations, and those for whom the command emerging from Jewish history is the obligation to ensure that no human being ever again be forced to suffer as we did…. We can no longer judge those who closed their doors to us during the many times in our history that we fled for our lives. We can no longer judge those who remained silent, if we remain silent. When the asylum seekers from the very same countries are given refugee status at rates of over 90% in other countries, we can no longer refuse to properly apply the international tests to determine who is truly a refugee, grant that status to less than a handful of applicants, and then tell ourselves that these never-examined applicants are actually infiltrators looking for jobs. With all the evidence about what really happens to those sent to Rwanda and Uganda, we can no longer continue to tell ourselves the lie that they will be OK in those places. We can’t decry those who said that the Jews would be a cancer threatening their cultures, when we repeat those very same words.”
Holocaust Survivors and their Progeny Protest the Deportations
Here are a few reactions to the Miklat initiative, including from children and grandchildren of Jews who survived because they were hidden by Gentiles in occupied Europe:
“What you are doing is amazing. As the granddaughter of three Holocaust survivors, one of whom was hidden in an attic for a year and a half by a righteous gentile and her daughter, Israel’s treatment of asylum seekers is too familiar. Please let me know what I can do to help.”
“I am the daughter of Jewish refugees who were saved by a Polish family which hid them for three years! They endangered their lives to save ours. If not for them, I wouldn’t be here now!”
“If there is a need for physical resistance—I don’t have room to take anyone in—but I (fem.) am ready to shield them with my body. It is unbelievable that we have come to this pass.”
HERE’S WHAT YOU CAN DO:
To readers of Tikkun in the U.S., I implore you to reach out to everyone you know who can make a difference to create a groundswell of attention—in your synagogues, churches, mosques, schools, universities, local and federal legislatures. Let your voices be heard!!
If you live in the US, Canada or anywhere in Europe, you can help the organizations that are working to absorb the refugees that Israel is not prepared to retain.
For this and all other kinds of support, please write to:
And for your must-reads, here are a few more write-ups and interviews from the Israeli and American Jewish press, in order, I believe, of importance:
Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi
Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi serves on the Board of Tikkun; she has been active in liberal causes in Israel since 1988, is professor Emerita in Comparative Literature at Hebrew University and a Guggenheim Fellow for her current project on Jerusalem and the Return to the Sacred.