Extending my hand to Africans in Israel

Horror stories from the visa office were peppered with the darkest gallows humor. As far as jokes go, I told them, you’re officially Jewish now.

January 23, 2018 21:57
3 minute read.
An African refugee in south Tel Aviv wears a T-shirt with a Hebrew phrase referring to the Holocaust

An African refugee in south Tel Aviv wears a T-shirt with a Hebrew phrase referring to the Holocaust: “I promise to remember... and never forget!”. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Last Tuesday night, as I have on nearly every Tuesday night for the past year-and-a-half, I sat down to learn Torah with three incredible human beings, one from Darfur, two from Eritrea.

They came to Israel as teenagers, with no family, each with their own horror story about the dangerous trek across the desert. And Israel did right by them. One of them was shot by Egyptian authorities as he tried to cross the border, and saved by Israeli soldiers. They were all taken in by Israeli high schools, and after finishing school, with the help of good hearted people who looked after and advocated for them, they did a year of volunteer civil service. When they finished their civil service, they, along with a group of refugees with a similar story, were adopted by the Zion community in Jerusalem.

“Jewish people were the first people who were so good to me,” Michael, a survivor of the genocide in Darfur, tells me. Is it any wonder he should want to become a part of a people who, to him, truly embodied Abraham’s legacy of kindness? The three of them, each one on his own, decided that they wanted to study Judaism more deeply, and after years of their stubborn insistence in the face of many attempts to discourage them, Zion partnered with the Hartman Institute to find them a teacher. And so they join me to study Torah every week, after long hours of a hard day’s work, one of them coming by bus every week all the way from Tel Aviv, and returning after we finish.

But this past Tuesday, the fear and hopelessness were so palpable that we were finding it impossible to learn.

Horror stories from the visa office were peppered with the darkest gallows humor. As far as jokes go, I told them, you’re officially Jewish now.

Not knowing what else to do, I opened up the Book of Exodus, known in Hebrew as Sefer – the Book of Names. Exodus is a much more logical name, I suggested. Why, I asked, is this book known by the names with which it starts, a list we already know? And for the first time, I noticed the way Pharaoh, in his fear and paranoia, robs us of our names. He forgets Joseph, and transforms the variety of the tribes into a single, anonymous threat.

“Behold, the nation of Israel is more great and powerful than we.” We lose our names, we lose our faces, and we are transformed into something to be feared, and something to be controlled.

What is the key to our salvation? When Pharaoh’s daughter has the courage to stand up to the policies of the government, to see the face of the individual, crying child, and to give him a name – Moses.

For so many of us, 37,000 Africans in Israel are “infiltrators,” a faceless, nameless, threatening mob. But I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to get to know just three of them. They have shared Shabbat and holidays in our home. Our children have fallen in love with them, as have we. They are beautiful, special people, who have survived horrors that I cannot fathom, and yet remained resilient, optimistic and loving. They are not a threat.

They have names, and faces, stories and hopes.

So I choose to follow Pharaoh’s daughter, and invite others to do the same. Rather than comply blindly with the government’s policies, I will open my eyes, extend my hand, and say to all who need it: I will be your shelter.

The author teaches at the Hartman Institute’s high school, gap-year program and rabbinical student seminar, and is an activist working to stop Israeli military exports to gross human rights violators. To join the movement to offer sanctuary to asylum seekers facing deportation, email miklatisrael@gmail.com, or visit them on facebook- https:// www.facebook.com/MiklatIsrael.

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