Sparing a Thought on Passover for the Refugees in Israel

This year, I learned the Jewish lessons of Passover from the experience of someone who fled persecution and trekked from Egypt to Israel.

For many of us, fleeing persecution and trekking across a hot desert, seem light years away. We enjoy the great food, intellectual discussions and lively singing, of the Seder, but sitting comfortably, surrounded by our friends and family, it is hard to imagine that we have just escaped slavery.

According to Jewish tradition, each of us should place ourselves in the sandals of our ancestors, feeling what it's like to be a refugee who has just left Egypt (Mishna Pesachim 10: 5), though the Rambam lightens this load by telling us that we have only to act as if we had made the journey, rather than feel as if we ourselves participated.

refugees- Alon Ron
Alon Ron

When one Talmudic sage wanted to deepen his understanding of freedom, he asked his servant Daru, "What would it feel like to go from impoverished slavery to freedom and prosperity?" When the slave explained how wonderful it would be, the rabbi informed his guests that they could now skip reading some of the haggadah. By listening to a gentile slave's testimony, they had fulfilled some of their seder night obligations (Pesachim 116 a).

This year, I too learned from the experience of someone who had fled persecution and trekked from Egypt to Israel. Jeremiah, an Eritrean refugee, now living in Jerusalem, joined our model seder at the Beit Midrash for Human Rights to share his tale.

It was the horrific story of a university student who stood up to the authorities and refused to interrupt his studies to serve in their militia. He was arrested and incarcerated in a crowded underground prison where he shared a tiny cell with nine other men. His epic escape included treks across deserts, a shipwreck on the way to Italy and days stranded at sea with no food, fresh water or communication with the outside world. Eventually, after paying exorbitant bribes, he fled across the Egyptian border into Israel. His best friend was not so lucky. Egyptian soldiers shot him. No one is interested in burying a refugee, so his body is probably still lying unburied in the sand.

African refugees in Levinsky Park in Tel Aviv.
Daniel Bar-On

The first home for many refugees is Tel Aviv's Levinsky Park. Their visas permit them to stay in Israel, but they are not allowed to work, nor do they receive any state benefits, so making a living is challenging. A small drinking fountain serves as the shower, drinking water and washing up facility for five hundred refugees. The lucky few bed down beneath the slides and swings. Hundreds of others are at the mercy of the elements. Even in cold conditions, a sweater and a pair of shoes are enough to ensure survival. Not everyone has that clothing though, and although friends and family help out, cramming as many people as possible into rented rooms in the slums of south Tel Aviv, from time to time, someone in the park dies from exposure.

When Menachem Begin was elected Prime minister of Israel, he declared that he wanted to be a Jewish premier. His first act was to instruct then Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan to give refuge to the Vietnamese boat people. This was just one of Israel's extraordinary achievements in absorbing immigrants, although like any other country it cannot take in everyone who wishes to live here.

Seder night is a time for retelling our Jewish story and engaging in a careful analysis of its laws and meaning. As we remember our own experience of oppression, we dare not forget that the most oft repeated command in the Bible is to love and care for the stranger: "You know the heart of the stranger, for you too were strangers in the Land of Egypt."

As we celebrate Passover, perhaps we should spare one more thought for the refugees sleeping rough tonight in Levinsky Park.

Gideon Sylvester is the British united Synagogue's Rabbi in Tribe Israel and directs the Rabbis for Human Rights Beit Midrash for the study of Judaism and Human Rights at the Hillel House of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Readers wishing to know more about our refugees and how we can help them are invited to contact African Refugee Development Center.