AFRICAN ASYLUM-SEEKERS hold signs during a protest against the Israeli government’s plan to deport part of their community..
(photo credit: ANNA AHRONHEIM)
Once again the eyes of the world are on Israel, but this time for reasons that should make us ashamed: everyone is waiting to see what will happen with the plan to deport tens of thousands of African asylum seekers, most of whom arrived here from Eritrea.
The basic disarray in the asylum system has been known for many years, and Israel has been remarkably slow to establish a proper process for addressing refugee claims. So whereas refugee claims from 90% of Eritrean applicants have been recognized by the European Union, and 97% of refugee claims from Eritreans have been accepted in Canada, according to the Hotline for Refugees and Migrant Workers, Israel has given legal asylum to less than 1% of its asylum seekers. In March, with certain exceptions recently worked out, deportations are expected to begin.
It’s important to remember that thousands of Israelis across the political spectrum have spoken out against this. Former diplomats, legal experts, pilots, rabbis, Holocaust survivors, heads of churches, medical personnel, academics and human rights organizations have protested through petitions, letters, demonstrations and even home asylum plans. Polling suggests that a third of Israelis do not support the deportation of African migrants.
To say that Israel’s treatment of African asylum seekers is morally indefensible is easy. But morality figures only to a limited extent in the way governments weigh policy decisions.
The current government has shown already its willingness to alienate its own citizens and Diaspora Jewry on several issues. But what the government and most Israelis haven’t noticed is the painful blow this draconian treatment of African migrants will deliver to Christian support for Israel.
Generally speaking, our nation has shown itself eager to accept the outstretched hand of financial, political and public relations support of American Evangelical Christians. Our leaders are keen to meet their pastors, our national organizations vie for their contributions.
But when Israelis think about American Evangelicals, they imagine 60 million enthusiastic, flag-waving Israel supporters who look, well, like Mike Pence. That is, over 50, conservative, male and most especially, white.
And we can’t really be blamed – this is often the case also in America. Dr. Anthea Butler, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, reminds us that “histories of American evangelicalism suffer from the problem of whiteness.” There is a great racial divide within American evangelicalism, and the recent special senate race in Alabama bears that out with stark clarity. According to exit polls, while 80% of white Evangelicals voted for Republican Roy Moore, 95% of black Evangelicals voted for Democrat Doug Jones, helping to propel him to victory.
The voting patterns, emphases and styles of white and black Evangelicals tend to be distinctive. African-American Evangelicals are less consumed by issues like abortion, LGBT issues and the war on drugs than are their white counterparts, and more focused on issues of racial justice and poverty.
According the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey of 2017, some 26% of Americans are self-identified Evangelicals.
Of those, 19% are black. It’s easy to forget that this percentage translates into some pretty big absolute numbers: there are around 16 million black self-identified Evangelicals in America. And younger Evangelicals are even more racially diverse than their parents’ generation. Major Christian Zionist organizations recognize the importance of black Christian support for Israel and invest significant resources in connecting the African- American Christian world to Israel.
We honor the way that Jewish history both ancient and modern has inspired and encouraged African Americans in advancing the liberation of their own minority communities.
As such, it is especially painful to see current government policy toward African asylum seekers advance with nary a thought for what this means for our sometimes troubled relationship as Jews and African-Americans. It seems a tragic irony that this is occurring during Black History Month in North America.
Just days ago the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity released a strongly worded statement to the press, condemning Israel’s treatment of asylum-seekers. We can expect more such statements. Many black Christian Zionists are angry. The immediate focus on the deportation of African migrants with no corresponding eagerness to deport illegal migrants from, say, Eastern Europe cannot look anything other than racist in the eyes of the world.
When we bemoan what appears to be dwindling Zionist views among millennial Evangelicals, we might wonder how we measure up in the eyes of a justice-hungry generation.
When we worry about the future of Evangelical Christian support for Israel, we need to understand that 16 million African-American Evangelicals are watching Israel, eager to grab hold of something worthy of support.The writer is director of the Israel Center for Jewish- Christian Relations and a Senior Fellow at the Philos Project. She can be contacted at director@ jewishchristianrelations.com.