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American Jews Outraged by Trump Must Not Forget Israel's Refugees

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Eritrean migrants protest in Israel, urge UN to act against their government. June 25, 2015.Credit: Reuters

Growing up in a traditional Jewish family in Chicago, I was taught by my parents and teachers that the essence of Judaism can be summed up as follows: “You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” I was taught that this mitzvah is repeated more than any other in the Torah, and reminds us of the reason we came into existence a nation, the reason that we have continued to exist, and the purpose for which we must continue to exist. Because we know what it is like to be enslaved, oppressed, persecuted and feared simply because of who we are, we must care for the oppressed, the marginalized, and the outcast both within our people and beyond – to remind ourselves and others of the inherent divinity and dignity of every human being.  That is what it means to be a Jew.

When I moved  to Israel five years ago, I was deeply touched by the stories of the thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum asylum-seekers - many of whom fled modern-day Holocausts - in the Darfur, Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile regions of Sudan and modern-day slavery in Eritrea, came out of Egypt on their own two feet, and have sought asylum in the Jewish State. I was inspired by the many Israelis who were compelled to volunteer and serve this community as doctors, lawyers, teachers and more. I have volunteered with this amazing community since arriving in Israel, teaching English and Hebrew, accompanying friends to doctors and visa offices and courtrooms and horrid detention centers, advocating and protesting tirelessly for their rights and dignity, compelled by my Jewish soul and the essence of my being.

As much as I have been inspired by my fellow Israeli activists, I have never ceased to repulsed and disgusted by the Israeli government’s and politicians’ –- and much of the Israeli public’s – treatment of these refugees as “illegal infiltrators,” who need to be feared, imprisoned, and deported, all in the supposed name of protecting the “Jewish” character of the State of Israel. Several days ago, I stood among roughly 1,000 African asylum seekers and supporters, at a protest in front of Israel’s Supreme Court and Knesset against Israel’s new, cruel policies of deportation and indefinite detention of asylum seekers – while at the very same time thousands of my Jewish friends in America protested Trump’s new proposed anti-refugee policies, most of whom completely unaware of the concurrent protest taking place in Israel.

I cannot help but notice that some of Trump’s new anti-refugee policies are strikingly similar to those that Israel has already enacted for years. Over three years ago Israel built a giant fence on its border with Egypt to prevent any new refugees and migrants from entering. And for nearly a decade the State of Israel has consistently discriminated against refugees and asylum applicants on the basis of religion and race – by virtually refusing to give refugee status to any non-Jews. And Israel has gone even further, by deporting thousands of African asylum seekers – some of whom directly to their deaths – and now proposing to deport thousands more Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers by forcing them to decide between deportation and indefinite imprisonment. These policies must be halted immediately. Thus far our protests have fallen on largely deaf ears and hardened hearts, and the American Jewish community, with few exemptions, has remained silent. Still, the events of the past week have given me hope.

Asylum seekers at the Holot detention center in Israel's south, December 2016.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Over the past 48 hours, I have been deeply inspired and moved by the dozens of statements and articles published (including by ADL CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt, AJWS CEO Robert Bank, Rabbi Shai Held and others) by American Jewish organizations and leaders against Trump’s anti-refugee policies, standing on the proud basis of Jewish values and memory. I am glad that the mainstream American Jewish community is finally waking up the “Global Refugee Crisis” (or “Challenge,” as I prefer) and taking a firm position on where Jews must stand when it comes to refugees. I am glad that Trump has finally woken us from our slumber. I hope that the American Jewish community will continue to sound an unequivocal voice – and take tangible actions – on behalf of refugees. And I hope that these words and actions will not end with Trump, and not stop at the borders of the United States, but will continue with words and actions on behalf of refugees all over the world, in the name of Judaism and the Jewish People, with the Jewish State not exempted. And we must act quickly, for if we do not, we will face certain tragedy, some of it to be perpetrated by the Jewish State itself. We must act now to protect refugees, because we were once refugees and now we are free, and it is for this that we exist.

Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg The author is co-chair of Right Now: Advocates for Asylum Seekers in Israel and a teacher at BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change.

File photo: Two asylum seekers walk past a fence at the Holot detention facility in the Negev.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

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