What Would My Grandfather Say About Migrant Workers?

We owe it to ourselves − as a society that understands what it means to be refugees − to treat them with basic human decency and respect.

Many of us in Israel are the children or grandchildren of refugees and migrants, people who sought a safer and more decent life for themselves and their families. My own grandfather fled Russia for the United States on false papers, in order to escape the pogroms, and to avoid being drafted into indefinite service in the czar's army. That's not really so dissimilar to the situation of some Eritrean or Sudanese refugees in Israel.

So, I wonder what my grandfather would say about the vitriolic public hatred and the mob violence being directed at the African refugees and migrants living in Israel. That our political leaders incite such violence and fear in the name of preserving the Jewish character of the state, is particularly shameful and ironic.

Shameful, because we have apparently forgotten so quickly what it is like when the tables are turned. And ironic, because the whole notion of international protection for refugees is based on the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 - which Israel helped formulate in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Indeed, Israel was active in putting in place such a convention so that never again would refugees face a situation like that confronted at the Evian Conference of 1938, when 32 nations refused to take in hundreds of thousands of Jews seeking to escape Nazi persecution.

Early Monday morning, Israeli immigration police arrested dozens of refugees, primarily from South Sudan, presumably in preparation for deporting them, despite the continued instability in that newly established country. News accounts suggest that the deportees will face violent tribal conflict, inadequate shelter and food insecurity when they return.

The problem of regulating immigration from poor or war-torn countries, often dictatorships, to economically developed democracies is not unique to Israel. Nor is the jingoistic backlash to an influx of immigrants; or the sharp but often misleading distinctions between political refugees and "economic" ones. I wonder how my grandfather would have been classified in that debate.

Israel is a small country, and we are still wrestling with our identity in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. We have no real immigration policy other than the ethnically based Law of Return. So, when 2,000 people a month stream in from our war-torn neighbors in Sudan, South Sudan and Eritrea, we have difficult policy choices to make. Israel, with limited capacity to absorb more migrants, should not be expected to solve the problem alone simply because of its geographical location. Just as our government has succeeded in convincing the world that Iranian nuclear armament is not solely an Israeli problem, why not enlist the international community in handling the African refugee problem?

Fear, though, makes for bad decisions. Rather than calming fears, providing accurate information and stimulating thoughtful policy debate, the interior minister and many Knesset members demonize asylum seekers and invoke the rhetoric of racial purity. Even the prime minister has made demagogic remarks about these African aliens threatening the Jewish character of the state.

An estimated 60,000 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants from Africa live in Israel today. About 85 percent of them are from Eritrea and Sudan, and have been granted collective temporary protection from deportation, meaning that they will be living here for the foreseeable future. We owe it to ourselves - as a society that understands what it means to be refugees - to treat them with basic human decency and respect. Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino has suggested that allowing them to work would be a good step to help keep them from turning to crime.

At the beginning of the school year, the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism was asked if it would take African refugee children into the preschools it operates in Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem, where there is a community of 1,000-3,000 African refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. The decision was not easy for the movement; it required a tremendous investment beyond running a regular preschool.

The Progressive congregation of which I am a member, Kol Haneshama, volunteered to provide support to the families of the children, and to other refugees who lack the most basic services - health care, transportation, decent homes, as well as jobs. Kol Haneshama has opened the synagogue to refugees, who come to learn Hebrew and English, taught by volunteers.

As a community, we see this as an expression of our Judaism, and our contribution to creating a more respectful city and society. The kind of place in which we want to live. The bill approved on Sunday by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, however, would crack down on such assistance given by Israelis to African migrants, meting out stiff fines and even prison sentences to those employing, housing or transporting the migrants.

As we work toward longer-term solutions, let's treat the African asylum seekers currently living in Israel in the way we would like our grandparents to have been treated when they sought refuge. Or, at least in line with the wisdom of Hillel: "That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor."

Sarah Kreimer is a member of the board of directors of Congregation Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem.