Why Diaspora Jews Care So Much About the Fate of Asylum Seekers in Israel

Even loyal advocates of Israel like Alan Dershowitz have criticized Israel for its plan to forcibly deport Eritreans and Sudanese. Their story has touched a nerve with Jews abroad, who see deporting refugees as a violation of Jewish values and their own history

Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg demonstrating on behalf of African asylum seekers. His sign reads, 'We asked for asylum, we got jail.'
Michael Kaminar/Courtesy of Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg

When Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg was growing up in suburban Chicago in the 1990s, his Jewish day school taught him that being Jewish meant standing up for the oppressed and being compassionate to others. The biblical injunction to love the stranger because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt was not a suggestion but a code of ethics, he says.

But Glassenberg says that when he immigrated to Israel in 2011, he was shocked by the disdain for the “stranger” he saw in the general Israeli attitude toward African asylum seekers – most of them from Sudan and Eritrea – who had made the difficult and often perilous journey overland to the Jewish state from Egypt.

It was not just the government’s policy of detaining the Africans and not recognizing them as refugees that took him aback. It was also the attitude of many of the Israelis he encountered, who seemed, he thought, content to accept the government’s labeling of the asylum seekers as “infiltrators” and possible demographic threats to the Jewish state.

Glassenberg, 34, attributes this to Israelis growing up with existential fears and a succession of wars that reinforced a fear of the “other.”

In contrast, he says, he and many of his Diaspora counterparts were “taught that diversity and pluralism is a good thing.” They also know what it means to be a minority and the feeling of vulnerability, but also the perspective that this can bring, he says. “But many of my Israeli peers – they were brought up not knowing people of color and not knowing people who are not Jewish,” adds Glassenberg, who now works as an envoy (shaliah) for the Jewish Agency in Chicago.

From his Illinois office, he has become involved in the growing organized efforts by North America’s Jewish community to lobby the Israeli government to reconsider its approach to the asylum seekers, who today number an estimated 38,000.

Those efforts have taken on a new urgency in the last month, since the government decided to forcibly deport the majority of the asylum seekers to “third party” African countries (widely reported to be the sub-Saharan states of Rwanda and Uganda) or their homelands or otherwise to jail them for an indefinite period.

Many U.S. Jews are urging Israel to provide the asylum seekers with an opportunity to file applications for their status as refugees, so their backgrounds can be checked fairly and transparently – instead of being labeled en masse as economic migrants, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called them in a cabinet meeting on Sunday.

Approximately 60,000 African asylum seekers have come through Israel over the last decade or so, and some have subsequently accepted the government’s offer of a one-off payment of $3,500 to voluntarily be deported to those “third countries” or their homelands. But deportations have been followed by testimonies alleging they have been moved on or been robbed of their payments. There have also been stories that some faced human trafficking or even death as they sought to move on from Africa to Europe.

After the Israeli government stepped up its efforts to deport the asylum seekers in December, a letter from the heads of several major U.S. Jewish organizations was among the first calling for it to reverse its position. That has snowballed into petitions and letters by rabbis, Jewish professionals, the Reform movement and other concerned Jews overseas.

Most recently, a campaign was launched by Diaspora Jews called Let Us Help. Its social media-minded message is “Join Us. Tell Israel: #DontDeport #LetUsHelp.”

A petition signed by more than 850 rabbis, cantors, and rabbinical and cantorial students from Orthodox, Conservative Reconstructionist and Reform streams around the world implored Israel to reverse course, saying: “As a country founded by refugees, and whose early leaders helped to craft the 1951 International Convention on the Status of Refugees, Israel must not deport those seeking asylum within its borders. We Jews know far too well what happens when the world closes its doors to those forced to flee their homes.

“Our own experience of slavery and liberation, and our own experience as refugees, compel us to act with mercy and justice toward those seeking refuge among us. Please affirm these Jewish values, as well as Israel’s international commitments, by stopping the deportations,” the letter stated.

Among the growing number of Israelis on the ground mobilizing against the deportation – including prominent authors, filmmakers and doctors – are a significant number of Diaspora-born immigrants. Some of them were previously involved in the social activism of earlier eras, first for Soviet Jewry and, later, on behalf of Ethiopian Jews seeking immigration to Israel.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told Haaretz via email that the Israeli government position on African asylum seekers is “simply put, at odd odds with Jewish values.”

Israel at Heart founder Joey Low, who has become an advocate for African asylum seekers in Israel. "I cannot sit by and do nothing," he says.
courtesy of Joey Low

And in a statement last Friday, the Reform movement said: “We recognize that there are many in the world in need of assistance, and it is unreasonable to expect Israel to accept an indefinite number of newcomers. Still, Israel has the ability to assist and absorb the 37,885 asylum seekers already in the country,” it said, citing Population, Immigration and Border Authority data. “The real threat to its Jewish character is the refusal to provide shelter to the persecuted.”

For American Jews in particular, the issue of race is also impossible to ignore.

Even a prominent pro-Israel supporter like Alan Dershowitz is taking the Israeli government to task. “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,” the Harvard law professor told ILTV Daily recently. He said that Israel’s Law of Return, which grants citizenship to any person officially recognized as Jewish, “shouldn’t be a law that excludes others from being valuable citizens.”

Dershowitz added that, in terms of presenting Israel to the world in a positive light – given that “many now consider Israel an apartheid” state – “doing the right thing with regard to these 40,000 people is a test, a true test of Israel’s soul.” He then recounted the story of how 29 members of his own family came to the United States illegally in 1939.

Like many of his Diaspora counterparts, the stories of the African refugees felt personal and relatable to those of their own families fleeing persecution, whether from Nazi Germany, Czarist Russia or elsewhere.

The other ‘other’

But while many Diaspora Jews and Jewish organizations have come out strongly against Israel’s treatment of the African asylum seekers, some of these same people – Dershowitz arguably the most prominent among them – have historically been reluctant to speak out about Palestinian human rights.

Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen, senior director in the New York/Tri-State Region at the New Israel Fund – an organization that has been outspoken on both Palestinian human rights and the asylum seekers (it helped organize the Jewish clergy letter) – suggests this is because the planned deportations are “so egregious that even people not accustomed to criticizing Israel feel compelled to speak out right now.”

Jacobs, meanwhile, notes that “this is a less complicated issue. There appears to be a ready solution to this situation of the asylum seekers – albeit one the government has decided against, but one around which those of us who seek a different outcome can coalesce. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a complex situation, regardless of the concern that we have, as do others, for the character of the Jewish state,” he wrote.

Joey Low is a New York-based investor and pro-Israel activist who spends several months a year in Israel. He founded and donated millions of dollars to the nonprofit Israel at Heart (which sends young Israelis abroad as ambassadors to help promote Israel’s image), but says he’s heartsick over the looming deportations.

A son of refugees who fled Nazi Europe, he says his latest mission is to exert pressure on Netanyahu’s government. “I was always raised knowing my dad was angry at the world for not doing more to help him. He was so vulnerable and no one helped,” Low says. “So now I cannot sit by and do nothing.”