Holocaust survivors protest against African migrant deportation
by: Rabbi Arik Ascherman
Based on my remarks at a vigil of kheshbon nefesh (Soul Searching) regarding Israel’s treatment of African refugees in front of the home of Interior Minister Eli Yishai on 20.9.12
Minister Yishai, I am a somewhat emotional standing hear and speaking, after speaking just a few hours ago with a friend of mine who you deported to South Sudan. He is now sick with malaria, and for a while was hanging between life and death. I also spoke with somebody who told of the fear, the kidnappings and political persecution of anybody who criticizes the government. Perhaps I also thought that the “only” problems in South Sudan were malaria and malnutrition. However, I was wrong.
This evening I suggest that you watch the film, “The Voyage of the Damned,” about the countries that closed their doors to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany on the “St. Louis.” This is a story that that has repeated itself time after time, in the darkest periods of our history. Minister Yishai, saving fellow human beings fleeing for their lives is not only commanded in the Torah - It is a command of history, seared in the consciousness of a people that is supposed to know the soul of the stranger. For, we were strangers in the land of Egypt, in Germany, Morocco, Salonika Spain, Poland and Iraq… From our long history of doors closed in our times of need, we know all too well the soul of the refugee.
I know that you are not the Education Minister, But, I must ask (As I did ask Education Minister Saar a few months ago). In light of the barrier we are building, in order not to even allow refugees and asylum seekers the opportunity to try and prove that they are truly refugees, how can we continue to condemn in our schools the behavior of the countries that did not lift a finger to help Jews? When we employ on the border a policy of “Hot (Immediate) return, how can we continue to teach in our yeshivot, “You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his/her master. S/he shall live with you in any place s/he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever s/he pleases; you must not oppress him/her (Deuteronomy 23:18)? How do you reconcile the fact that we are inciting hatred against refugees, calling them “infiltrators,” jailing them or denying them work permits even to those refugees that have the right to be here, with the verses, “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him/her. The stranger sho resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shal love him/her as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)? How can we ask the Boreh HaOlam (Creator of the Universe) to sit on the throne of rakhamim (mercy) when judging us on Yom Kippur, when we don’t give a fair chance to asylum speakers to make their case? Where is our rakhamim, when we threaten those who manage to get here with arrest or deportation?
I know that in these days of kheshbon nefesh, I simply can’t point the finger at others and clear myself of all blame. It was all too easy to believe that it wasn’t so terrible for the South Sudanese to be sent back. Both an Israeli court and international human rights organizations said that, even if there are still war torn areas, terrible poverty and hunger, there isn’t the sort of pervasive political or ethnic persecution that would justify blanket protection. In other words, it didn’t seem to be a violation of international law to return refugees to South Sudan, as long as they were allowed to ask for refugee status on an individual basis. However, as I have already said, I have a sick friend and have heard about the persecution, not to mention the at least eight deportees that have died. I also wanted to believe that, although you deported the South Sudanese refugees, you wouldn’t heed the command not to oppress the stranger. We would treat decently the Eritreans and North Sudanese still enjoying blanket protection prohibiting deportation. However, with your promise to jail them, I now realize that I was again looking through rose colored glasses. I also have been at fault for not doing anything other than offer sympathy for the Israelis living in South Tel Aviv, where most of the refugees have been dumped. I knew that the Israelis were also in need, but did nothing. It was easy to relieve myself of responsibility by saying, “It will all work out.” But, it hasn’t.
So, Minister Yishai, I do understand that you may have also given in to the temptation that to hear what you wanted to hear. Perhaps you also deluded yourself into believing you could deport and jail and deny work without really harming anybody. Surely now you also know that this is not the case.
You are also a politician. You read polls and you know what your voters feel. You rightly empathize with the distress of the residents of South Tel Aviv. However, Rabbi Israel Salanter said that any rabbi whose community always agrees with him is not truly a rabbi. This is true for political leaders as well. You have a responsibility not only to chase after your voters and do what is popular. You must lead. When you correctly worry about the Israelis in South Tel Aviv, the solution is not to resort to demagoguery. You must not pit one disadvantaged group against another. You should not be the one to inflame hatred against foreigners. You must not promote that abominable notion found in all too many religions, the idolatrous belief that the God of all existence and of every human being is only concerned for one people. God’s commandments instructing us how to treat our fellow human beings (Beyn adam l’khavero) do not refer only to how we treat fellow Jews.
As Interior Minister, you could you use your authority to help both refugees and the veteran residents of South Tel Aviv. You could spread out the refugee population, and I don’t mean that you should do this by imprisoning them. They could be spread throughout the State, and House of Israel. As we will read on Yom Kippur, “No, this is the fast I desire…It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your house; When you see the naked, to clothe him/her, and not to ignore your own kin. (Haftarah for Yom Kippur Morning, Isaiah 58: 6-7). Minister Yishai, your kin are not just the Jewish people, but all of humanity. The fact that every human being is created in God’s Image unites each and every one of us.
If you believe (And you may be surprised to know that I think there is some truth to this.) that both financially and culturally Israel cannot absorb the tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of refugees that would come here if we allowed it, then I have an idea for you. I have already put out feelers asking how we might convince foreign governments by allowing us to be a way station, accepting refugees that have made their way here. Obviously you can do much more than I. We could ask Jewish communities around the world to lend a hand by sponsoring refugees from Israel, as they once sponsored our brothers and sisters from the Former Soviet Union. When foreign countries knew that those Former Soviet refugees were less likely to become an economic burden, they were more willing to relax immigration laws.
However, rumor has it that you already have received such offers. There have been countries that were willing to accept refugees from Israel, if you would only give them official refugee status. It is rumored that you did not want to do that, fearing it would increase the number of refugees desiring to make it to Israel.
Finally, Minister Yishai, I know you well enough to know that you are capable of change. You came to Hadera in 2005 convinced that the Israeli Wisconsin Plan (Welfare to work program using the carrot and stick approach which RHR took a leading role in defeating. A.A.) was the best thing ever. To your credit, you didn’t duck in the back door, but took the time to sit and listen to the demonstrators that were waiting for you. You were so moved by what you heard that you went back and made major changes in the program.
Here too, I know that you are capable of doing what not too many politicians are capable of doing. I know that there is a difference. The refugees are not fellow Jews and not potential voters. However, when we are talking about pikuakh nefesh (saving human lives), that should not matter You have it in you to listen to those whose eyes are turned towards you, to pause for a moment of kheshbon nefesh, to turn, change direction, and return to the core values of our Torah and our people, thereby answering those in need. I don’t say that it will be easy. But, isn’t that just what this season is about?
G’Mar Khatima Tova (May the Final Seal Be For Good).
Rabbi Arik Ascherman
Rabbis For Human Rights
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