What is not being spoken about at the General Assembly

One of the issues that Israel and the Diaspora don’t seem to see the same way is that of refugees.

The United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, US (photo credit: REUTERS)
The United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, US
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Hundreds of American (and some Israeli) Jewish leaders, donors, professionals and community members have descended upon Tel Aviv this week  for the “General Assembly” of the Jewish Federations of North America and its conference titled “Israel and the Diaspora: We Need to Talk.”
When the federations talk, people listen. Why? Because the federations raise and then distribute hundreds of millions of dollars each year, of which a sizeable chunk is sent to Israel. Donating money is a way of expressing values and influencing the world around us. So when that money amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars, the people allocating that money are in a significant position of power and influence. These days, when the Jewish Diaspora and Israel “don’t always see things the same way,” the question becomes what to do with that power and influence? That’s why I was impressed when I saw the bold honesty of the question that is being posed at the center of the GA this year: “Israel and the Diaspora: We share a heritage and a future, but we don’t always see things the same way. We need to talk.”
One of the issues that Israel and the Diaspora don’t seem to see the same way is that of refugees. Earlier this year, Israel almost deported 38,000 asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea. Due to a range of factors, including the outspoken call from world Jewry, the deportation plan was dropped. Israel almost made a catastrophic mistake that would never be able to be reversed. The political move lacked even a drop of empathy toward people who had fled to Israel to save their lives, a sad fact considering that fleeing persecution has been a reoccurring theme of the Jewish people over the last 2,000 years. The tragic irony of Israel, the state born in the wake of the Holocaust, deporting refugees was not lost on American Jews. It seemed to be lost on Israelis. Despite the fact that this issue consistently captured the attention of world media for three months at the beginning of 2018 and that it divided Israel and the Diaspora, this issue cannot be found on the GA agenda. 
The leaders who broke with protocol and called on the Israel government to change their policy showed great bravery and courage. Mainstream organizations including the ADL, the JCPA and the Jewish Agency took a stand. That doesn’t happen every day. Renowned Israel advocates Allan Dershowitz and Irwin Cotler took a stand. It was inspiring. They contributed to saving thousands of people’s lives. We should talk about that.
We should also talk about the fact that despite not deporting them, almost none of these asylum seekers have received refugee status. 11 people out of the 38,000. Why is it so hard for the Jewish state to acknowledge that there are other people in the world aside from Jews who are refugees? While American Jewry led the world to open their eyes to the genocide in Darfur, the Israeli government refers to the people who fled that genocide as “infiltrators.” Why is that? What went wrong here? These are things that we need to talk about.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the courage and leadership shown by some Diaspora Jews on this issue contributed to saving lives. But just a few months later, literally two weeks before the start of the GA, the Israeli government has announced that they intend to deport the few hundred asylum seekers here from the Congo. Some of them have been in the country for 20 years. There are teenagers who were born here, who read and write and dream in Hebrew, who sing “Hatikvah” and studied Tanach, and in 90 days are going to be deported to a war zone and never be able to return. We need to talk about that. I know that there are people who think, “Yes but what can you do? It’s a Jewish state,” but we should talk about that, too. What does it mean to be a Jewish state? Which part of sending refugees to their death makes us more Jewish?
If the GA want to engage people in the core questions of modern Jewish life, this is surely one of them. The Jewish legacy to the refugee experience, Israel’s treatment of refugees and the great unprecedented privileged position we have to be a safe haven, even to a small number of people, who are fleeing persecution in a period of the greatest number of refugees in the world since the Holocaust. These are things we need to talk about. Not just when this issue is in the world media, now, at the GA, tomorrow, the day after and until Israel changes its way. The fact that we were successful once in stopping deportation should inspire further action. There are Sudanese and Eritreans who have been in Israel for 10 years; they need your voice. There are Congolose who need your voice immediately; the 90 days have started ticking. Israelis, we need your voice. As it says on the GA’s website: “The conversation can’t happen without you. It needs your voice as a global leader. This is why we need to talk.”
The author is the director of International Relations and Development at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Israel’s leading organization protecting the rights of refugees, migrants and victims of human trafficking. [email protected]