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The Most Jewish Thing

An American in Israel asks why, after 'Save Darfur,' we don't pay more attention to African refugees in the Jewish state.

Sun, 01/05/2014 - 19:00
Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg
Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg

When I made aliyah more than two years ago, I was shocked to discover a community of Darfuri asylum seekers living in Israel. Like so many American Jews I was active in the Save Darfur campaign; I wrote letters, sent money and prayed in synagogues waving green “Save Darfur” banners. Yet to this day, I do not fully understand why I, like so many American Jews, had little awareness of the African asylum seeker situation in Israel.

Before I moved to Israel, I taught North American Jews about Israel, Judaism and Jewish values. I continued to teach those subjects to Diaspora Jews in Tel Aviv since making aliyah, but I gradually started spending more and more of my free time volunteering as a Hebrew tutor to non-Jewish asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan (including many Darfuris).

My African students are some of the most kind, compassionate and inspiring people I have ever met. The bonds of friendship we have formed have enhanced my understanding of what it means to be a Jew, an Israeli and a human being.

Sometimes my friends back in the United States ask me why I came all the way to the Jewish State to teach non-Jewish refugees from Africa. I answer that teaching refugees is the most Jewish thing I could possibly think of doing. In the Jewish home where I was raised, I was taught to love the stranger, for we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. I learned that helping the oppressed is one of the most essential Jewish precepts, because we ourselves suffered from oppression.

Sadly, the Israeli Government has turned a blind eye to oppression of others and a deaf ear to the pleas of modern day strangers, many of whom who had to overcome slavery and torture in Egypt on their quest for freedom. Those in power seemingly have blotted from memory their ancestors’ or their own struggles as refugees.

Since 2005, the State of Israel has stubbornly refused to process African asylum seekers’ applications for refugee status. Until recently, Israel issued Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers “temporary residency permits,” renewable every three months, which allows them to stay in Israel and not face deportation, but guaranteed them minimal rights.

In 2012, the state passed new amendments to its so-called “Anti-Infiltration Law” which allowed the state to hold newly arrived “infiltrators” in indefinite detention without trial. Nearly 2,000 asylum seekers were detained under this law before Israel completed a fence along its border with Egypt that prevented new “infiltrators” from arriving.

While the Israeli High Court unanimously overturned the 2012 Anti-Infiltration Law, legislators recently passed a new version of the Anti-Infiltration Law that allows for any asylum seeker in the country to be detained indefinitely in an “open” internment camp. This “open” facility in the middle of the desert is locked at night, guarded by prison guards, and residents are required to be present for three roll-calls a day. To add insult to injury, the Israeli Ministry of Interior announced this week that it will selectively stop renewing asylum seekers temporary residency permits and instead “summon” people, some of whom who have lived in Israel for years, to pack up their belongings, and report to collection points to be taken to the internment camp.

I understand that Israel cannot provide refuge for every individual fleeing war or oppression in Africa, but Israel has a moral, legal, and Jewish obligation to the strangers already in her midst. The situation is complicated, but the solution to the “African question” is not internment camps, which must be sustained at great financial cost, I might add. The solution is to objectively evaluate the refugee claims of the 54,000 asylum seekers in Israel and to grant refugee status to those who deserve it.

African asylum seekers are not a threat to the Jewish State; they merely want to live a life of human freedom and dignity. My friends and students, like countless other asylum seekers, are more than happy to work, contribute, and demonstrate loyalty to this country that has been their home. The true threat to the Jewish State is the continuation of immoral and un-Jewish treatment of refugees.

I hope that my American Jewish friends will join me and Jewish organizations like T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, New Israel Fund, HIAS and Right Now, which have been advocating for asylum seeker rights in Israel. I believe that as American Jews, who know what it is like to be strangers in a strange land, we must tell our Israeli friends that we find Israel’s treatment of African refugees to be un-Jewish and unjust. If you want to save Darfur, start in Israel. If you want to help Israel, start with Darfur.

A native of Chicago, Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg works at the Secular Yeshiva of BINA, a center of pluralistic Jewish learning and social action in south Tel Aviv, and is a member of Right Now: Advocates for Asylum Seekers in Israel. The opinions expressed in this piece represent solely those of its author. 

African refugees, asylum, HIAS and Right Now, New Israel Fund, Save Darfur, T'ruah

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Really we african refugees are not the threat for theJewish character
We were not and we will not be even for the future. However
the ideology of immorality , inhumanty feelings of some so called elites
Ministers .... leads (causes) the people to devlop hatred , enemity etc over black african
Asylum seekes.
The people should develop awarenes about the Asylum seekers. People like you
they have to say and write what all they know about us The poeple shoul be informed the truth about us tha we are not animals , ciminals but we are poeple that we need peace .
Continue your endavour to agitate the Jewish people to know us as human being .

Google this man's name. He is against a Jewish state, so naturally is in favor of Africans.... Quotes: "We are educators who envision an Israel in which the state is separated from the coercion of religion..."
"We imagine young Israelis who define themselves in terms of what they are rather than what they are not, for then they will know what it means to be a free people in a free land." AND INDEED IN HIS MIND THESE AFRICANS AND OTHER NON JEWS WILL BE THE MAJORITY IN Israel. Why print an oped from this anti Zionist?

This fool Elliot above should give his wife to the Africans as a gesture of peace. They are not residents - and THEY ARE NOT REFUGEES. Refugees cross over a border for freedom, right? What border did they cross from African into Israel? Perhaps they were refugees to Egypt. In Israel, they are illegal aliens who should be deported.

wow this is so twisted, biased, and so wrong. Here is the reality: nothing to do with Darfur. Just 60,000 migrant workers, 99% of young males, most Eritreans (without their families, all stayed in the country, showing how the persecution is a scam) entering the country illegally and now trying to stay with a fake refugee excuse (while you should get this status after crossing the first border, which you usually do with your family, if really persecuted, as none did here), while locals, tired of thefts, burglaries, rapes and harassment, have come to resent them. Israel has immigration policies, and several Georgians staying illegally were expelled last month. Those Eritreans and Sudanese not only breached the law and knew they would be illegal, but have harassed the population so much that no one (except this guy and a few others ignorants and ideologs like him) wants them to stay anymore. Read the truth HERE by an Ethiopian journalist (and please don't call us racists, when your 83 years old neighbor has been raped for hours by a 23 years old Eritrean, along with all the theft violence and harassment and this guy above didn't show any pity, it says it all),7340,L-4239481,00.html
PS Plus many of them say Israel is "stolen Land" so, shows the hypocrisy of this movement, and the lies fed to this guy and his irresponsibility in supporting those illegals.

Spot on! Ellliot's statement that the "true threat to the Jewish State is the continuation of immoral and un-Jewish treatment of refugees" could not be more true. The Ministry of the Interior is making it nearly impossible for refugees to apply for temporary protection visas while the immigration police rounds up and imprisons anyone with an expired visa. This sort of policy will most certainly compromise Israel's reputation as democratic and lose the country any support that it has from the international community.

The title of this piece reflects the message I will take with me.
Thanks for shedding light on what's happening with the African asylum seekers in Israel. I wasn't aware of the situation. I am going to learn more about it.