Rabbis Meet With Israeli Embassy in D.C. to Voice Objection to Asylum Seeker Deportations

One rabbi who attended the meetings says his 'heart is filled with sadness' at the prospect of Israel deporting African asylum seekers, especially before the Passover holiday

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
Asylum seekers protesting outside Rwanda's embassy in Israel, February 7, 2018.
Asylum seekers protesting outside Rwanda's embassy in Israel, February 7, 2018.Credit: Moti Milrod
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON - A group of thirteen rabbis from the Washington, D.C. area met on Thursday with officials in the Israeli embassy to discuss their objections to Israel's policy of deporting asylum seekers from African countries. The rabbis, who represented all major Jewish denominations, sought answers from the Israeli officials, including Reuven Azar, the Deputy Head of Mission at the embassy.

The meeting was initiated by the embassy, following denunciations of the policy by a number of rabbis and Jewish organizations. The embassy reached out to the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, which gathered the group of rabbis.

The embassy officials asked to designate the discussion as "off the record," but at least one of the participants, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the Ohev Shalom synagogue (an Orthodox congregation), objected to that designation. Herzfeld released a statement after the discussion, in which he said that "Normally, stepping into the Embassy—like each time I visit Israel—makes my heart swell with pride. But today my heart is filled with sadness, because the subject of our meeting is nothing short of heartbreaking."

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Herfzeld also stated that "More and more members of the pro-Israel Jewish community agree with me. There is a growing force of dissent and protest—which is painful for most Jews, our instinct is always to support Israel and rally to its defense—but this storm of outrage will only grow. As Jews, we are preparing for Pesach, the Jewish people’s epic story of our redemption and freedom, and we are deeply troubled by the Israeli government’s policy of imprisoning and deporting asylum seekers from Africa."

Herzfeld told Haaretz that he presented a number of questions to the Israeli Embassy officials during the meeting, including one about "the discrepancy between Israel and other countries in the number of Eritrean and Sudanese who are recognized as refugees," and another about "the claim of a demographic threat, when these asylum seekers are such a small community and Israel has already sealed its southern border?" He said that he did not feel comfortable sharing the answers provided by the embassy staff, but that "it didn't seem to me like my colleagues were convinced by those answers."

Rabbi Aaron Alexander of the Conservative Adas Israel Synagogue in Washington, another participant, told Haaretz that the discussion was "frank and respectful." He described it as a "conversation within the family." Alexander said he attended the meeting because "I wanted to hear directly from the Israeli government on its position and polices. It's important for us as family to listen to each other directly, and have a frank conversation."

"I was interested in helping the representatives from the Israeli government understand why some in the Jewish community in America are so passionate about this particular issue," Alexander added. "We all heard from our congregants about this issue. People want to understand why this decision is being made. Some of them find it extremely difficult to justify, in light of the worldwide refugee crisis and how the Jewish community here has advocated against President Trump's travel ban."

Alexander added that "even if there are clear differences between the two cases because of issues like borders, size, geographic region and other criteria, I thought it was important for us to explain to our family members at the embassy why other members of the family find some resemblance, and feel very strongly about the issue." He said that he was still hopeful a solution could be found.

Ron Halber, the Executive Director of the JCRC of Greater Washington, said he was "pleased" to meet with other rabbis to discuss the deportations. “We were pleased to convene, at the Israeli Embassy’s request, a meeting with community rabbis to discuss the issue of the Sudanese and Eritreans in Israel," he said.

"The two hour exchange, which included the presence of high-ranking Israeli diplomats, was frank, thoughtful and productive, and will likely serve as a future model for discussing policy issues. We appreciate the Israeli Embassy reaching out to JCRC and engaging in dialogue with our community rabbis.”

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