Since When is Oppressing the Stranger a Jewish Value?

Eriteian women, Tel Aviv 2012; photo by Rockshandy X/flickr Creative Commons 2.0
Eriteian women, Tel Aviv 2012; photo by Rockshandy X/flickr Creative Commons

By Ilene Prusher

Mekonen Niryo came to Israel in 2007 from Eritrea, where he had been an English teacher. For several years, he says, he had a working visa, a job at a nursing home, a life. A little more than a year ago, when he went to renew his visa, he was ordered to report to the new Holot detention facility in the Negev. He had gone from living and working in normal places – Yehud and Jerusalem – to staying in a place that is essentially an open prison in the desert.

His only crime: being desperate to get out of Eritrea. “People have to understand that Eritrea is like a North Korean dictatorship in Africa. My vision is to go back to my country someday soon. But if I were to go back now, I would find myself in prison – or will probably wind up dead,” explains Niryo, 37, to a small group of empathetic Israelis curious to hear his story.

He is one of about 15 African asylum seekers who attended a special gathering Thursday night at the Kol Haneshama synagogue in Jerusalem, under the banner of Kamoch (Hebrew for “like you”) followed by the words “Ger hayiti b’eretz zara” – “I was a stranger in a strange land,” a phrase that has a poignant ring for anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of biblical verse. It is a purposeful choice of words, as Kol Haneshama – teaming up with the Jerusalem African Community Center and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society – used the occasion to launch a new social-awareness campaign aimed at engendering more public support for the approximately 46,000 asylum seekers in the country.

If Israel is so focused on emphasizing its Jewish character that it might even be ready to pass a controversial nation-state law, the reasoning goes, then the most basic Jewish values of caring for the needy and not oppressing “the stranger” should dictate how the country deals with its asylum seekers.

“We’re trying to make this a part of the Jewish conversation in the country,” says Jeremy Leigh, one of the event’s organizers and a lecturer at Hebrew Union College. “This problem is registering with Diaspora Jews, but not with Israeli Jews. There is nobody in the political echelon who’s speaking up on this topic. We decided, if being Jewish and democratic is so high on the agenda, then let’s deal with it from that perspective.”

Three prominent women led a panel discussion of the issues based on Jewish values and texts: Rabba Avital Hochstein of the Shalom Hartman Institute; Rotem Ilan of Association for Civil Rights in Israel; and Tali Farkash, a ultra-Orthodox woman who is a journalist for Ynet. Breaking into smaller groups like the one where Niryo spoke, participants got a chance to hear more about what’s happening in the asylum seekers’ home countries and what brought them to Israel.

Thursday night’s event was the first in a series aimed at getting the public to be more aware of the asylum seekers’ plight. It featured a talk by Prof. Yehuda Bauer, a Holocaust historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and winner of the Israel Prize. Bauer says his only explanation for the way Israeli society is treating these asylum seekers is racism.

“If they were coming from Norway and were light-haired people with blue eyes, believe me, the problem would not come up,” he says. “The tension between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, we call that racism, but it’s really a kind of intra-religious hatred. And the Palestinian conflict, that’s nationalism. But here, it’s racism – it’s a question of skin color in a very clear way.”

It is illogical, he adds, for people who are here and ready to work to be refused that option. “They’re ready to work, so what’s the problem? Give them a minimum wage, give them health-care coverage, and let them stay here until the situation is better,” Bauer says of the asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan. “They’ll want to go back someday, but not back to the hell that people there are living in now.”

The fear in some Israeli circles is that they won’t want to go back, but will settle down permanently here and become a new “demographic threat” for Israel – playing on concerns about Jews maintaining a majority over non-Jews, particularly Palestinian Arabs, who are just over 20 percent of the country. Miri Regev, who recently became culture and sports minister, said at a 2012 anti-immigration rally that the Sudanese asylum seekers were “like a cancer” in Israeli society. She apologized afterward and said her comments were taken out of context, but the damage had been done.

Those words are the opening scene in a new short film, also aired Thursday night, focusing on raising empathy and awareness for asylum seekers in Israeli society. “Anne Frank Comes Out of Africa,” a seven-minute video by Paula Weiman-Kelman and Ricki Rosen, tells the story of Yikaelu Beene, an Eritrean asylum seeker in Israel.

While living in a refugee camp for Eritreans in Ethiopia, he read “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Beene didn’t know how the story ended, so he was deeply saddened to learn that the story’s hero doesn’t survive. He decided to translate it into his native language, Tigrinya, and, eventually, decided to make his way to Israel.

“I was thinking that I will meet someone who knows Anne Frank, someone in the extended family or someone who came out of the Holocaust,” Beene explains in the film. “So when I came across the first soldier, I asked him if he knows Anne Frank,” he relates, with a self-deprecating smile. “I was shocked by how refugees were treated in Israel. I expected them to be more welcoming.”

At the event, Beene and Niryo were among eight guests who are forced to stay in Holot. The organizers had to get permission for the men to leave for an overnight trip. The people held there can technically leave during the day, but most have little means to do so and must sign in each morning and night to prove they’re present in the facility.

“We’re isolated in the desert and don’t live a normal life. It’s not like living in a hotel,” Niryo says, when asked about the conditions in Holot. “They’re putting pressure on us in many ways to get us to agree to leave. One of my friends, Tesfai Kidane, was [in Holot] and then left this way, and was killed by Daesh [ISIS] in Libya. Those who leave are trying to get to Europe, and some of them are getting killed or drowning on the way.”