We Were Strangers

Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, issued a directive to his national security adviser earlier this month to draft a plan for the expulsion of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers who entered Israel illegally over the last decade. Israel said recently that migrants would be given the choice of receiving a one-time payment of $3,500 to be deported to an African country or be sent to a detention facility for an indefinite period.

The asylum seekers who crossed Africa and entered Israel at its southern border were part of the wave of Africans who fled the continent, seeking better lives and in some cases refuge from wars and upheaval. Many of the migrants claim they are seeking refugee status, but of the some 60,000 who have come through Israel, only ten have ever been recognized by the state as refugees, according to UNHCR data – eight Eritreans and two Sudanese.

Israel started erecting a barrier on the Egyptian border in 2010, completing it in 2013, which has stopped the flow of migrants. The Israeli Defense Ministry said there were only 11 successful attempts to cross the border in 2016.

The forced deportation of these African refugees is a terrible idea for so many reasons. Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of ADL, and Mark Hetfield, the CEO of HIAS, wrote a joint letter reacting to Netanyahu’s intention.

Our objections to the new Israeli government plan stem from numerous reports which indicate that those asylum seekers who previously left Israel have been unable to return safely to their home countries, and many have encountered violence and inhumane living conditions in countries they have sought refuge in, Greenblatt and Hetfield explained.

Testimonies of people who were relocated by Israel to third countries in Africa indicate that they did not find durable protection there and risked their lives by taking dangerous onward journeys through conflict zones in South Sudan, Sudan, and Libya to seek protection elsewhere. Some have drowned at sea en route to Europe, while others were reportedly detained, tortured and extorted by human traffickers.

As American Jews, one of our greatest concerns is the well-being and security of Israel; we want to see it prosper and overcome all of the challenges its precarious location imposes on it. We also care about our shared Jewish values and refugee heritage—a very human concern that reaches across borders and distances—and unifies us as a people.

That the state of Israel would send away people who came to Israel seeking safety and freedom contradicts so many essential aspects of Jewish tradition and values. Why do I have to bring up the adage from the Torah, the one that appears 36 times, that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and that therefore we must have compassion for all strangers… to the Israeli government?

What a disaster! For the Africans who face deportation and their families, it is a nightmare. And for the state of Israel, could there be any more Jewishly inconsistent and alienating act? Do you think Millennials have a problem relating to Israel now? This will create a mess no Birthright trip can salvage.

If this expulsion goes through, I fear that it will be a terrible blow to the heart and soul of the Jewish State. We Jews have come too far and seen far too much not to be horrified by the prospect of Israeli troops and police rounding up Africans and putting them in chains.

We must stand for and with others, particularly the downtrodden and the vulnerable of the world. I’d like to believe that Elie Wiesel would be among those leading the moral opposition to this action by the Netanyahu government. In fact, there is a new nonprofit in Israel called the Anne Frank Home Sanctuary Movement. Hundreds of Israeli rabbis have pledged to provide sanctuary to as many African asylum seekers as they can accommodate, evoking Anne Frank’s memory as an emotional bridge.

I don’t want to descend into melancholy over this political and moral crisis. I don’t want to be a cynic, shaking my head and succumbing to this morose slow-motion train wreck. I will do my best to reach out to the positive, to support the work of the rabbis and activists in Israel to protect the lives of our African brothers and sisters. There is no other option. This is life and death. We cannot stand idly by as our neighbor bleeds.

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