Opinion |

African Lives Matter. Except on Passover Eve. Except Now

Why will this Passover be different from all the others? Because on this night, instead of welcoming the stranger, we will hunt him down and round him up and dump him like a dog in a country that doesn't want him

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Asylum seekers in Israel protest outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, January 17, 2018.
Asylum seekers in Israel protest outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, January 17, 2018.Credit: Oded Balilty/AP
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

Why will this Passover be different from all the others? Because on this night, instead of welcoming the stranger, we will hunt him down and round him up and dump him like a dog in a country that doesn't want him.

We know that time is running out, right now. But for a court-ordered freeze, in less than a week, Israel was to force thousands of African asylum seekers to make a choice. Accept a small bribe and agree to be deported to an uncertain and possibly dangerous fate, or go to prison.

Earlier this month, Israel's Interior Ministry handed out temporary permits allowing some asylum seekers a stay of execution of the choice – but forbidding them all employment and specifically banning them from residence in seven major cities: Tel Aviv, Eilat, Petah Tikva, Netanya, Bnei Brak, Ashdod, and Jerusalem.

The permits expire on March 29, the day before Jews around the world sit down for their Passover seder meal.

In the course of the seder, many will cite the words of Leviticus 19:33-4, “When a foreigner, a stranger resides among you in your land, do not do them wrong. The stranger residing among you must be treated as you would your native-born.

"You shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt. I am the Lord your God."

Why will this Passover night be different from all the others?

Because on this night, instead of welcoming the stranger, we will hunt him down and round him up and dump him like a dog in a country that doesn't want him.

The Netanyahu government used to tell Israelis that people it called "infiltrators" from Africa, would flood Israel with criminals and parasites, a "demographic threat" to a Jewish state, a "national security risk," and a "cancer in the body" of the nation.

They used to tell Israelis that the asylum seekers – who, like the Children of Israel during the Exodus, had crossed the Sinai desert on foot and at peril - were not fleeing oppression, but rather had come to steal their jobs.

We should have known better. Now we do.

Now we know that the government's arguments for the forced expulsion of the asylum seekers were, to a one, hogwash – incitement for the express purpose of raking up votes through racism.

Now we know for sure. There's only one rational reason to slander African asylum seekers:

To keep Benjamin Netanyahu and his Interior Minister Arye Dery firmly bolted to their rickety, threatened jobs.

“They’re going back to their natural place,” Dery told Army Radio in January, despite reports that some of those flown to Rwanda found themselves forced to leave again, some of them winding up in dangerous destinations like South Sudan.

“If only every country treated them the way we did,” Dery said.

We know that early elections could happen in Israel, as early, in fact, as three months from now. And we know that Netanyahu's electoral target is the swing vote of the hardest of the hard right.

This is the political message the deportations are meant to send: "You're under attack. Your grandma in south Tel Aviv is under attack. Your sister, every time she walks out of the house, is in danger. From dark people.

"Left unchecked, they could swamp the country. Save your sister. Your country. Don't leave grandma to the wolves. Only the Likud will ship off these dark people. Only I will put them on a plane."

And yet, we know that last year, the number of African migrants who came to Israel after crossing the Sinai was zero. We know that to reach Israel in the past, the asylum seekers risked horrendous hazards, in order to escape abject genocide in Sudan, and an oppressive Eritrean regime which forces military conscription for terms of as long as 40 years – a status often described as a form of slavery.

We know, also, that the vast majority of foreigners living illegally in Israel are people from the former Soviet Union. In fact, they outnumber the 37,000 African asylum seekers by a factor of two to one.

But the Netanyahu government has nothing to say about the others. The others are not black.

The government, meantime, contends that the expulsions do not place the deportees at risk. But reports from Rwanda and Uganda tell a different story. In Rwanda, for example, the deportees are undocumented, forbidden from working, and vulnerable to robbery and rape, as well as arrest for lack of documents.

Netanyahu supporters have maintained that Rwanda is a modern and welcoming country. But an authority on Holocaust studies and genocide, Haifa University Professor Shmuel Lederman, said last month that "Rwanda is one of the more brutal and murderous regimes in the world."

This month, Israel's Population, Immigration and Border Authority confirmed that although women and children will not be deported, at least at this stage, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender asylum seekers remain eligible for expulsion – despite the risk of persecution and even imprisonment of LGBT people in the expected destinations of Rwanda and Uganda.

Israeli officials have pointedly ignored the pleas of large numbers of physicians, nurses, social workers psychologists, senior hospital officials, who have all appealed to the government to stop the deportations.

The medical professionals wrote that they recoil from the idea that, instead of taking the asylum seekers in with the view that they are victims “who have come to us in their flight from genocide, torture, violence and rape,” the country was “sentencing them to continued harm.”

El Al pilots have vowed not to fly African asylum seekers if they were to be deported by force. Flight crews also condemned the deportations and urged all airlines to refuse to cooperate with them.

School principals wrote Netanyahu and his education minister urging a halt to deportations. “We teach tens of thousands of students about our past as refugees, persecuted people and asylum seekers during the darkest periods of human history," they wrote, "out of a personal and professional commitment to ensure ‘never again.'"

Rabbis, kibbutzim, moshavim and private citizens have stepped forward, vowing to hide and shelter asylum seekers facing the threat of deportation.

From across the political spectrum, an unprecedented range of prominent Jewish community figures have spoken out to oppose the Netanyahu government's deportation initiative.

In all, more than two dozen North American Jewish organizations have publically opposed the deportations, among them HIAS, the ADL, T'ruah, the New Israel Fund, J Street, the Reform and Conservative movements, IfNotNow, JSpaceCanada, Ameinu, Hashomer Hatzair, the National Council of Jewish Women, and ARZA. Nearly 1,000 North American Jewish clergy have also gone on record in opposition.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have urged the prime minister to halt the deportations.

Longtime Israel advocate and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz was widely quoted when he told an Israeli cable station that “The whiff of racism can’t be avoided when you have a situation where 40,000 people of color are the ones who are being deported en masse, without being individualized and every single case considered on its merits."

Dershowitz added that Israel’s Law of Return, which grants Israeli citizenship to those the government recognizes as Jewish, “shouldn’t be a law that excludes others from being valuable citizens.”

Senior right-wing ideologue Israel Harel, in general a strong supporter of Netanyahu and the government, broke ranks this month over the deportations, arguing this month that "In general, 30,000-35,000 people who integrate in a society of more than eight million are not a burden. With the right absorption they could be an asset."

In a startling move, the para-governmental Jewish Agency, which nearly never departs from a pro-government line, publicly urged Israel to ensure that “every migrant has an opportunity to apply for asylum and receive transparent due process in the examination of their application.”

The Agency knows this: As of last month, out of thousands of requests for asylum, Israel had granted Israel has granted refugee status to exactly one Sudanese man and 10 Eritreans. The rate of acceptance, less than 0.06 percent, is said to be the lowest percentage in the Western world.

Some have lived in Israel for 12 years. Many work in jobs Israel sorely needs, but which Israelis are unwilling to take. Many have raised families, their children fully as Israeli as anyone. This has become their home. And despite the government's contentions depicting migrants as a criminal element, police statistics show that in south Tel Aviv's Neve Shaanan neighborhood, where African asylum seekers constitute 70 percent of the population, they are responsible for only 40 percent of the crime there.

But Israel will not let them work. They cannot get a driver's license. They can only get a license to leave, or be put in jail.

And this, as Israel faces a critical labor shortage. Netanyahu's own Labor Ministry says there are 100,000 available positions nationwide, Channel 10 Television has reported. As tourism to Israel booms this year, hotel chains and restaurants are barred from employing asylum seekers, who have proven in the past to be valuable employees.

Lior Raviv, head of the major Isrotel chain, said recently that tens of thousands of hotel jobs are unfilled. Fattal Hotels CEO David Fattal said "Next year, [entire] floors of hotels will be closed for lack of workers." Restaurateurs complain that they are in severe need of waiters, bartenders, shift managers, dishwashers, cooks, and chefs.

The countdown to expulsion has begun, but it is not too late. Even Israel's Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer, has warned Netanyahu that the deportations could cause grave public relations damage to Israel's international standing.

You can help. Protest can work. Email Benjamin Netanyahu.

Support efforts by human rights groups, synagogues, Jewish community organizations and other groups to stop the deportations. March.

Freedom can take many forms. Sometimes things have to get shaken up.

The seder night should never be just like all other nights.

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