Why Do Jews Care about Refugees Everywhere – Except in Israel?

An African man walks near the Lewinsky park in Tel Aviv; photo by Eyal Warshavsky via HIAS.

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 19“For You Were Strangers in the Land of Egypt” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg

While Jews everywhere seem to be rallying together in support of refugees, there is one place in the world where that is not the case: The State of Israel. While Jews throughout the Diaspora are advocating for policy change, raising money, and opening their doors to non-Jewish refugees – The Jewish State, for the most part, seems to be doing the opposite.

Israel is currently home to approximately 40,000 non-Jewish asylum seekers, mostly from Darfur/Sudan and Eritrea. They have fled genocide, war, dictatorship, and persecution, walked out of Egypt, and sought refuge in the Jewish State. While many Israelis have risen to the occasion, opening their homes, volunteering, donating, and advocating for the rights and wellbeing of non-Jewish asylum seekers, the current Government of Israel and the vast majority of Israelis have not. The Government of Israel has effectively refused to grant refugee status to non-Jewish asylum seekers (granting status to fewer than 1 out of 1000 applicants), has subjected them to arbitrary arrest and extended detention without trial, has coerced thousands to return to their countries of origin despite the dangers they face there, and is now attempting a new policy of deportation to third-party countries (Uganda and Rwanda), which is currently being challenged in Israel’s Supreme Court. Hundreds, if not thousands, of those who have left have gone missing, have lost their lives (including a number of friends of the writer of these words), or have been forced to begin new journeys of refuge. The Government of Israel, as a rule, insists on calling these asylum seekers “illegal infiltrators” and a “threat to the Jewish character of the state,” who must be removed for the sake of the “Jewishness” of the State of Israel. What I personally find most perturbing is the usage of “Jewish” language – the same language used by Jews elsewhere to support refugees – to justify the oppression of refugees and incitement against them. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Israelis have been complacent – if not acquiescent and supportive – of the Government’s approach, and the vast majority of Jews around the world have been deafeningly silent. While Jews are advocating for refugee rights around the world, in the one place where we most truly have the power – and the sovereignty – to make a difference, we are failing.

Why is this so? While I may not be able to provide a complete answer to this question here, I wish at least to raise the question, share a few thoughts, and offer suggestions for moving forward.

Growing up in suburban Jewish Chicago, I was taught that the very essence of Judaism is to “love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19 et al). That to be Jewish means to remember our own past, to support those who are oppressed, and to fight persecution of all forms – be it against our own people or any human beings, having been created in the image of God. When I moved to Israel in 2011, at the height of the arrival of asylum seekers from Africa, I was heartened to see a core group of Israelis working tirelessly on their behalf. At the same time, I became increasingly appalled by the ever-worsening government policies toward the asylum seekers, as well as by the discourse among every day Israelis.

Working with both Diaspora and Israeli Jews, I have come to observe that, Diaspora Jews, for the most part, seem to have a natural tendency to empathize with the African asylum seekers, and to feel that Israel, especially as a “Jewish” state, should do its part to support these refugees, of course in balance with the need to preserve Israel’s sovereignty and security. However, Israeli Jews, for the most part, seem to react to the African asylum seekers with fear and discomfort, seeing them as a threat or danger – either to their own physical safety or to the “Jewish” character of the State of Israel. If there is sympathy, it is often expressed as “I feel bad for them, but they should go somewhere else; this is a Jewish state.” I often prod such Israelis, asking them what it means to be a Jewish state – a state for Jews only, a state governed by halacha (Jewish religious law), or a state of Jewish culture and values, and if so, which Jewish values? They often respond that they have never thought of that question before. For many of them, it seems, a Jewish state simply means a state for Jews.

Indeed, the 2011 Pew Study of American Jews and the (fascinating yet under-discussed) 2016 Pew Study of Israelis have revealed significant differences in Jewish identity and values. One particularly salient difference is that for most American Jews, the main elements of Jewish identity include “leading an ethical and moral life” (69%) and “working for justice and equality” (59%), while this is not so for most Israeli Jews (47% and 27% respectively). For most Israeli Jews, Jewish identity is more a national-ethnic identity than an ethical-values-based identity. And while most may state that they believe it is important for Israel to be a “democracy,” they do not necessarily believe that non-Jews should share in equal rights (21%) or even be part of that democracy (46%).

How did we get to this place? It has oft been said that the greatest threat to Zionism is the realization of its dream. We dreamed of having a state like any other nation, but now that we have a state, it seems that within that state we are losing touch with what makes us uniquely Jewish – our values, our empathy for the oppressed, our striving for justice and equality, our Jewish neshama (soul) – and finding ourselves left with the same ethno-nationalism and xenophobia that characterize so many modern nation- states. Being raised with a Jewish-minority mentality in America, I had friends of many different religions and colors, and I was taught that loving those who are different is an important Jewish value. My Jewish-Israeli peers, however, generally grew up not knowing others who were different, and learned to fear the other. Some may call this a “Jewish-majority” or “tribal” mentality. It is easy for us Diaspora-born Jews to judge our Israeli peers. Though rather than judge, we must seek to understand our Israeli friends, to understand the pain and trauma and systems that led them to feel and fear the way they do, and – while not excusing the un-Jewish and inhumane policies that their feelings have led to – work together to heal and to transform fear into compassion.

For the last several years I have been proud to work for the Israeli-based BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change, which seeks to reshape the Jewish discourse in Israel with renewed study, appreciation and implementation of Jewish social values, working with some of Israel’s most vulnerable populations, from aging Jewish Holocaust survivors to new African asylum seekers – not in spite of, but because of our Jewish values. And here I must also give credit to the good people at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Assaf, ARDC, and HIAS Israel, and others who also work tirelessly to support refugee rights in Israel, as Jews, Israelis, and human beings. While much good work has been done, much more work remains.

I see the current global refugee crisis as a challenge and an opportunity – for Jews and for people everywhere. It is a challenge and opportunity to rethink our identity as individuals, nations and human beings and our shared responsibility to humankind. For too long Jews have been refugees, but today, we have the resources – not the least of which being a sovereign state – to help other refugees. We Jews must use our resources and our global peoplehood to model a global approach to the refugee crisis, working together across borders to share the challenges and burdens of the current crisis and to address the root causes that force people to become refugees. The Jewish people and the Jewish State must lead the way. This crisis is our challenge, our test, our opportunity. We mustn’t fail. We must rise to the occasion.

Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg is an American-Israeli Jewish educator-activist based in Tel Aviv, Israel. He is a senior educator at BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change and co-chair of Right Now: Advocates for Asylum Seekers in Israel.