Opinion

I'm Not Ashamed to Be Israeli. But I'm Disgusted With Having Become Pharaoh

Living in Israel has turned me into a person who can find a way to live with a government that relates to African asylum seekers and millions of Palestinians as property

In this Feb. 22, 2018 file photo, asylum seekers march during a protest outside Israeli Prison Saharonim, in the Negev desert, southern Israel.
Tsafrir Abayov/AP

>> BREAKING (Apr 3, 12:42 PM) Netanyahu Nixes Deal With UN on African Asylum Seekers Following Right-wing Pushback

The best people I have ever met live in Israel.

They are tireless. They come in all colors and creeds. Their reservoirs of hope, goodness, giving for others, respecting the Other, striving for a better, more human, society - despite everything, despite hatred and graft and incitement and ill-will - are as boundless as they are inexplicable.

Then there is Caroline Glick.

On Monday, when, in a shocking announcement, the government declared that it had abruptly cancelled its plan to deport thousands of African asylum seekers, and that it would grant legal status to as many as 18,000, Jewish Agency Spokesman Avi Mayer hailed the step as "a very big deal, resolving an issue that had threatened to divide Israeli society and drive a wedge between Israel and Jewish communities abroad."

Celebrity-right journalist Glick was swift to respond.

Palestinian paramedics carry a protester injured during clashes with Israeli forces following a tent city gathering at the Israel-Gaza border, April 2, 2018.
SAID KHATIB/AFP

"This is terrible," she tweeted. "U.S. Jewry joined radical Israeli left financed by US Jewry to force govt to ignore it's laws and desire of citizens to allow 18,000 illegal aliens to receive citizenship.

"This is walking, breathing anti-Zionism."

No. This is the country which Israel could have been. Should have been. And which, once in a great while, and not always for the best of reasons, Israel actually is.

In fact, as factually problematic and vaguely anti-Semitic as Caroline Glick's tweet is, it's given me a new lease on hope.

Years ago, when large numbers of refugees from Africa risked their lives to seek shelter and asylum  in Israel, there seemed little to no chance that they would be allowed to stay. In 2009, the government even pushed for a law applying to Israelis that would have made the granting of shelter, sustenance or medical care to refugees a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

And yet for more than a decade, Israelis have worked to fight the deportations, aid the refugees, and expose the fundamental indefensibility and incompetence of the government's contentions and policy moves.

Over the past year, a groundswell of support for the asylum seekers flowed into city streets with massive demonstrations. Pilots, medical personnel, school principals and many others organized opposition. Rabbis, kibbutzim, moshavim and private citizens pledged to hide and shelter asylum seekers in the face of arrest and deportation sweeps.

The world over, protests outside Rwandan embassies struck their mark, convincing the image-conscious Kigali government to refuse to serve as the destination or a way station for Israel's deportation plan.

And yes, the plight of the asylum seekers resonated with a broad swath of U.S. Jewry, and much of U.S. Jewry found its voice in protest.

Who would have imagined that less than two weeks after Benjamin Netanyahu declared that an influx of African migrants was more dangerous to Israel than terrorism, the prime minister stood at a podium and took personal credit for, in essence, having suddenly adopted the major demands of the anti-deportation protests. This, after years of fiercely opposing or staunchly refusing to implement the measures: conferring legal residency status on asylum seekers, granting them work permits, spreading them out around the country, and undertaking a major renovation of the South Tel Aviv region.

Who would have imagined that after this horrible Passover holiday, something would go right.

And then late at night, just as abruptly, and thanks to flak from hardliners like Naftali Bennett and, yes, Caroline Glick, Benjamin Netanyahu slipped back into the role of Pharaoh in the Exodus story. He "hardened his heart, and would not let the people go."

Blaming pressure from the New Israel Fund and the EU on Rwanda to reject his original mass expulsion pan, touting his "concern" for (Likud) pro-deportation activists in south Tel Aviv, ignoring altogether the residents of south Tel Aviv who opposed the deportation and called for exactly the measures he had announced in the afternoon, Netanyahu sent off a pair of weak, disingenuous, flustered and bitter Facebook posts saying he is "suspending implementation for the time being" of the deal he's already signed.

After the river of blood that was Passover on Friday, one of the country's most moderate and measured of voices shocked Israel by posting that he felt ashamed to be an Israeli.

I don't share Army Radio anchor Kobi Meidan's feeling. But he - and Caroline Glick - made me realize what Passover has meant to me for many years: I'm disgusted with having become Pharaoh.

Living in Israel has hardened my heart, formed scales and calluses to armor and wall off my conscience. Living in Israel has made me into a version of Pharaoh.

It has made me into a person who can find a way to live with a government which relates not only to African asylum seekers but also to millions and millions and millions of Palestinians, as property.

I have become Pharaoh. We all have. We have property which speaks. But which we can silence. We have learned that we can move people at will, jail them without trial, punish them for no reason, wake them, roust them, tear them from their families, deny them the rights we take for granted. Call them a danger. All of them. A danger and a cancer.

Living in Israel has hardened my heart. It has made me into a person who cannot believe that Israel will do the right thing. That Israel will make any effort at all to even begin treat the true cancer in our body - the occupation.

And yet, this horrible week, tense, brutal, tragic, something struck us with the speed of a miracle.

Israel, we were abruptly told, need not be Pharaoh after all.

The story of the Exodus from Egypt is, of course, preposterous. And yet, despite everything, despite every instinct of judgment, the Jews got up and did the right thing.

The best people I know live here. Despite everything. And they're working for people to treat each other as humans. Despite everything.

Caroline Glick is not going to like this. Because that iron wall that runs and ruins Israel just got a huge chink in it, emitting light.

Someday, maybe for all the wrong reasons, the occupation will end. We will no longer be Pharaoh. And for the first time in anyone's memory, we Jews will finally be free.