Save Darfur and Israel: A personal plea from an American Jew in Israel

Israeli Jews have much to teach Diaspora Jews, through their strength, service and commitment.

Darfur refugees Tel Aviv 311 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerzolomiski)
Darfur refugees Tel Aviv 311 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerzolomiski)
As a Jew committed to the values of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and pikuah nefesh (saving life), I have been engaged in the Save Darfur campaign since I first learned about the genocide, as a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2004. For nearly 10 years I have been following the campaign, contributing time, energy and money where I can, writing letters, signing petitions, raising awareness and praying in synagogues that wave green Save Darfur banners.
I was surprised and amazed, however, when I moved to Tel Aviv two and a half years ago on a volunteer program (fittingly called Tikkun Olam), to discover a community of Darfuri refugees living in Israel.
Since 2005, thousands of migrants from Sudan and later Eritrea have made their way to Israel, suffering during arduous journeys through Egypt and Sinai, seeking a promised land, as our ancestors did many years ago. The first migrants came fleeing genocide in Darfur, others later fleeing the abhorrent forced military conscription in Eritrea or simply seeking a better life for themselves or their families.
Aside from Israel’s decision not to forcibly deport most African asylum- seekers (other than those from South Sudan), the attitudes and measures taken against the migrants by Israelis and especially Israel’s leaders have been rather troubling.
The African refugees have been called “a cancer in our body” (MK Miri Regev) and “a threat to the Jewish and democratic character of the State of Israel” (Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu). There have been calls to deport all of them (despite this violating international law) or otherwise to intern them in “detention facilities” in the desert.
There have been violent attacks by individuals and groups against African asylum-seekers, their kindergartens and businesses. And now, in recent months and days, the situation has come to a head.
In fall 2012, a fence was finally built between Israel and Egypt, and at the same time the Knesset passed an amendment to the “Anti-Infiltration Law” enabling the arrest and detention without trial for up to three years of illegal African “infiltrators.” On September 16, 2013, the Israel’s Supreme Court unanimously overturned this law, demanding that the state evaluate the asylum claims of migrants incarcerated without trial and/or release them within 90 days.
On Wednesday, December 11, the Knesset passed a new so-called “circumvention” amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law, allowing the detention of infiltrators for up to one year without trial, in a so-called “open detention facility” in the middle of the desert.
This amendment has been deplored by human rights groups in Israel and abroad, and by over a dozen leading Jewish organizations in the US (including T’ruah, HIAS, et al.) in an open letter to Netanyahu, though it has yet to raise a significant outcry among the Israeli public, the majority of whom seem to be in favor of the law or at best apathetic.
That is, at least, until two weeks ago. One hundred and fifty African migrants marched from their “open” desert detention facility to Jerusalem to demand freedom and that their asylum claims be heard. I saw with my own eyes – and countless Israelis saw on their TV and computer screens – how the peaceful protesters were brutally torn away from their Jewish supporters, arrested and forced on buses to return to their desert prison. Never in my worst nightmares would I have imagined witnessing such a sight in the Jewish state.
I have been living in Israel for two-and-a-half years, and officially made aliya in January 2013. I was raised in a traditional yet modern, Zionist, proud American Jewish home. I have spent nearly every summer in Israel since I was a child.
I love Israel and the Jewish people with all of my soul, yet I cannot bear to watch the moral travesty currently being inflicted on African migrants in the name of Israel and the Jewish people.
In the home where I was raised, I learned that the greatest message of the Torah, the commandment repeated more than any other, is to love the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Our history of oppression teaches us that as Jews, we must stand up for the stranger and the oppressed wherever he or she may be. When I was young I was taught, for example, to look up to the Jewish Americans who walked side by side with African Americans in the fight for civil rights.
But to whom do I look now? Today I live in Jaffa and work in south Tel Aviv. During the day I teach Torah to young Jews and in the evening, I teach Hebrew to African asylum-seekers. I have seldom met as kind, compassionate and inspiring a group as my African students. Like me, most of my students have been in Israel for just a few years. Like them, I struggle to earn a living here.
However, I teach Torah while they build buildings and clean floors.
My ancestors left Egypt, while they themselves left Egypt. I am a citizen while they dream of asylum.
And at the end of each week we wish each other “Shabbat Shalom” and my heart goes out to them, to my students and friends, who have struggled so much and have taught me so much about what it means to be a human being and what it means to be a Jew in a Jewish state.
I also give tours in south Tel Aviv to Israeli and international Jewish groups. The Jewish groups from abroad are generally fascinated by the diversity of south Tel Aviv, amused by the shop signs in Tigrinya (Eritrean), enamored of the smells of the Sudanese cafes, saddened by the sight of streets and homes in disrepair, and touched by the stories of the refugees in Levinsky Park. It reminds them of home, they say.
The Israelis, especially the young Israelis, however, are quite often appalled and frightened by what they see. “It doesn’t look like Israel,” they say, “I don’t feel safe at all.” I try to engage them with questions – both my Diaspora and Israeli visitors. Why does or doesn’t it look like Israel? What should the Jewish state look like? What, after all, does it mean for Israel to be a Jewish state? A state for Jews? A state based on Jewish values? If so, which values? Growing up Jewish in a Jewish state means that most of the people you know are Jewish and often, you do not know what it is like to encounter different religions and cultures on a daily basis, to wake up every morning and have to decide what it means to be a Jew. A walk through ethnically diverse south Tel Aviv can be very disconcerting for Israelis at first – as, I must admit, was the first time I walked through Harlem on a Sunday morning – but soon I came to appreciate its beauty and its many colors.
To fear what is different is natural and human. The question is: What do we do with that fear? Too many Israelis unfortunately have yet to learn and internalize that such fear can be a problem, that we as Jews are capable of being not only victims of the xenophobia of others, but can be the victims of our own xenophobia. It is this xenophobia, this fear of the other and of the stranger, understandable yet irrational, this mixed blessing of being a Jewish majority in a Jewish state, that I believe has brought Israel to act irrationally and unjustly toward its African migrants, and what I believe to be the greatest threat to the Jewish and democratic character of Israel.
To me, a Jewish state is one that protects the disenfranchised: the orphan, the widow, the stranger in our midst, and all who are oppressed. I understand the fear of Jewish Israelis toward African migrants, the fear of south Tel Aviv Jewish residents toward the changing face of their already neglected neighborhoods, and the fear of the fact that Israel cannot accept every displaced person from Africa. I understand the fear though I do not excuse it and I will not allow it to excuse the immoral, unlawful and un-Jewish measures being taken against African asylum-seekers in Israel.
Israeli Jews have much to teach Diaspora Jews, through their strength, service and commitment.
At the same time, Diaspora Jews have a moral obligation to teach Israel about diversity, pluralism, democracy and what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land. There is no reason to leave our American Jewish values at the doorsteps of Israel. We should hold Israel to the highest standards of Western, democratic, humanistic and rationalistic values. Not out of condescension, but out of empathy and love.
The Torah teaches us: “Do not hate your brother in your heart; reprove your brother and do not bear guilt because of him” (Leviticus 19:17).
I therefore ask all Diaspora and Israeli Jews alike to join me in reproaching Israel, in calling for a just and balanced solution to the African refugee question in Israel, in demanding that Israel finally establish a just, objective and transparent refugee determination process and policy in accordance with the International Convention on Refugees (1951) and in line with the Torah teaching, “You must not deport to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master...
you must not mistreat him” (Deuteronomy 23:16), and apply that process or group protection to African asylum-seekers from Sudan and Eritrea, with all human and civil rights to which they are entitled – because it is the moral, humane and Jewish thing to do.
I call upon my fellow Israelis and Jews everywhere to join me in demanding and supporting the State of Israel in developing and implementing a just and balanced approach that respects the tzelem elokim (divine image) of all human beings, that supports those in our midst who are most downtrodden and in need of our support – be they widow, orphan, stranger, or other; be they a Sabra from south Tel Aviv, an oleh from Ethiopia, or a refugee from Darfur.
To do so would be to build a stronger, more just and more Jewish Israel.
The writer is a native of Chicago who works at the secular yeshiva of BINA, a center of pluralistic Jewish learning and social action in south Tel Aviv. He is a member of Right Now: Advocates for Asylum-Seekers in Israel.