Dishonoring the Stranger

Jewish Light Editorial

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. — Exodus 22:20

This time-honored Jewish value mentioned repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible is being severely challenged by an ill-timed and ill-advised decision by the Israeli government to deport up to 40,000 Eritreans and Sudanese living in Israel, including 5,000 children.

Israel’s Cabinet, with the backing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, last month approved a plan and a budget to deport thousands of migrants from Sudan and Eritrea — two African nations wracked by violence and instability.  Despite strong criticism from major Jewish organizations as well as protests within Israel itself, the government has begun serving deportation notices; the first notices are being issued to 20,000 single men without children.

The Eritreans and Sudanese came to Israel not only to escape unrest in their home nations but also to provide much-needed labor in Israel.  They have been required to renew their residence visas every two months.  Now, they are being threatened with indefinite incarceration if they do not leave.

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In an unusually stark and cold statement, Israel’s Ministry of Public Security said, “The infiltrators will have the option to be imprisoned or leave the country.”  The statement added that the mass deportations are designed “to protect the Jewish and democratic character of Israel.”

That statement was swiftly challenged by Rabbi Michael Lezak, co-chairman of T’ruah, a human rights group. He said, “Israel’s failure to follow the Jewish imperative to protect and care for the gerim — the landless sojourners who seek refuge among us — is a far greater threat to the Jewish character of the state than is the community of African migrants and asylum seekers who have escaped forced military service, torture and crimes against humanity in Eritrea and Sudan and sought safe haven in Israel.”

Some Israelis in the Tel Aviv area have complained that the African asylum seekers have made living conditions worse there and in other communities in southern Israel. Netanyahu has thrown his support behind them, promising that he will “return South Tel Aviv to the citizens of Israel.” He claimed that the refugees were really infiltrators looking for work.

Netanyahu’s harsh stance contrasts sharply with the actions of his predecessor Menachem Begin, the late Israeli prime minister. In 1977, he courageously took in boat people escaping from war-torn Vietnam, when no other nations opened its doors to them.  

Begin recalled the tragedy of Jewish refugee ships that were blocked from coming to Israel with refugees, and the ship the M.S. St. Louis, whose passengers were not permitted to land in Cuba or Miami in 1939.  Begin not only took in the Vietnamese boat people but granted them full citizenship; they and their descendants are living in Israel to this day.

No one questions Israel’s concern that it retain its character as a Jewish State and as a democracy.  But allowing the African refugees to remain is the right thing to do and is consistent with Israel’s remarkable record of absorbing refugees from more than 100 nations, including 1 million from the former Soviet Union and 120,000 African Jews from Ethiopia.

Sudan in particular has been mired for decades in civil war and is bogged down in a violent war with its neighbor, South Sudan.  No one should forget that Sudan is the location of the infamous Darfur region, where an estimated 300,000 people were brutally murdered.

Human rights groups, including HIAS, a Jewish humanitarian organization that provides assistance to refugees, has urged Israel to allow the refugees to remain in Israel.  Melanie Nezer, senior vice president of public affairs at HIAS, said that as a signatory to the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, Israel is both legally and morally obligated to protect refugees and others who need international protection.

Nezer told Newsweek, “The Refugee Convention came about after the Holocaust because the international community wanted to make sure that something like it never happened again.  As the first signatory to the convention, Israel has a responsibility to uphold its standards.”

For Israel of all nations to deport asylum seekers and refugees to nations where their very lives would be imperiled would be the height of hypocrisy and inhumanity. We hope that the deportations are halted and that the 40,000 refugees are given the safe custody and fair hearings that they deserve.