Friday, March 16, 2018

The African Refugee Crisis in Israel

Yesterday morning I was one of 13 area rabbis who met with Reuven Azar, Deputy Chief of Mission, and Yaron Gamburg, Minister of Public Diplomacy, at the Israeli Embassy. The meeting was organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council to discuss Israel’s recent decision to deport roughly 38,000 African asylum seekers who have been living in Israel for a number of years.

            This was really an unprecedented meeting which was a response to the fact that a number of mainstream Jewish organizations have called on Israel to reverse this policy -- organizations like the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Anti-Defamation League, HIAS, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and our own local Jewish Community Relations Council on whose board I serve. While there have been other meetings between rabbis or other Jewish leaders and the Embassy in the past, they dealt with “our” issues -- conversion and who is a Jew, religious pluralism, egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. This is the first time I can recall where the mainstream Jewish community has been significantly at odds with the Israeli government on an issue which doesn’t impact our own narrow interests.

            Simultaneously with our meeting, a couple of other things happened concerning this issue. Five prominent American Jewish leaders whose pro-Israel credentials are unchallenged (Alan Dershowitz, Abraham Foxman, and Orthodox rabbis Irving Greenberg, Marvin Hier, and Avi Weiss) issued a statement warning that going ahead with the deportations would cause “incalculable damage” to Israel’s reputation. At the same time, the Supreme Court of Israel put a temporary hold on the deportations, so for the foreseeable future they will not, in fact, be carried out.

            Coverage of the meeting in the Israeli press described the meeting as “frank and respectful” which is diplomatic language which means that there were sharp disagreements and possibly some raised voices, and indeed, that is what happened.

            I don’t want to put words in the mouths of the Israeli diplomats so I won’t try to quote what was actually said, but we also received a written statement of the Israeli Government’s position on the issue which I will be happy to share with you on request. Basically, the statement tries to make the case that Israel has no legal obligation to permit the African refugees to remain and that everything Israel is doing is in accordance with international law. I don’t know whether this is accurate or not as my undergraduate studies in Foreign Service were a long time ago and it’s not my area of expertise.

            Whether or not these deportations are legal, the larger questions for me are “are they moral?” and “are they necessary?” The Israeli government statement says that Israel’s most important obligation is to the safety and well-being of its own citizens, and of course this is correct. But the statement doesn’t even attempt to make the case as to why letting these refugees remain would be harmful to Israel or why Israel couldn’t absorb them rather than expel them.

            Over the last few years Israel has portrayed itself as the “Startup Nation” which is achieving all kinds of technological miracles, or as one of the other rabbis at the meeting put it, “turning air into water.” And of course one of the key slogans of the Zionist movement coined by its founder Theodor Herzl is “im tirtzu, ain zo aggada -- If you will it, it is not a dream.” I find it difficult to believe that Israel couldn’t find a way to successfully settle these refugees if the will to do so were there -- we are talking about 38,000 people in a population of over 8 million which on a per capita basis is roughly the same percentage of the Israeli population as DACA-eligible men and women in the US population.

            I hope and pray that the Israeli government reverses its position and allows these refugees to stay. Those of us in leadership positions in the American Jewish community are constantly alarmed by the erosion of attachment to Israel and the documented fact that the younger an American Jew is, the less likely he or she is to feel that Israel is important to them. Refugees are a hot-button issue in American society right now, and the sight of mass deportations of Africans from the State of Israel to a third country where their safety cannot be guaranteed is not going to make Israel’s image better among young Jews or among Americans generally. For Israel’s own sake, this is not the way.

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