Out of Africa ~ 6 January 2018 / 19 Tevet 5778
January 12 2018

As we begin the Book of Shemot (Names) we should pay attention to its Greek name, Exodus, which means “going out”. The book tells how the Israelites leave slavery in African Egypt and start the saga of their journey through the Wilderness of Sinai to reach the Land of Promise.

As a result of the experience in African Egypt, the Torah repeatedly instructs us regarding the ger, the stranger:

  • You shall not wrong a stranger nor oppress one; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 22.21)
  • If a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not oppress him. (Levit. 19.33)

According to Rabbi Eliezer in the Talmud (Baba Metsia 59b) the Torah “warns against the wronging of a ger in 36 places; other say, in 46 places”.

What is the rationale behind this repeated admonition? Nahmanides (Spain, 1194–1270) writes:

Do not wrong a stranger or oppress him, thinking that no one can save him; for you know that you were strangers in the land of Egypt and I saw the oppression with which the Egyptian oppressed you, and I justified your cause, because I see the tears of those who are oppressed and have no comforter. On the side of their oppressors there is power, and I deliver each one from him that is too powerful. … you know that every stranger feels depressed, and is always sighing and crying, and his eyes turn towards God. [I] will have mercy upon him even as [I] showed mercy to you, as it is written, and the children of Israel sighed because of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up to God…

The Torah not only warns, as a prohibitive injunction, not to oppress the stranger; it also commands, as a positive mitzvah, to love the stranger: You shall love the stranger; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deut 10.19).

As Jews, we should be justifiably proud that Israel has welcomed so many Jewish refugees: Holocaust survivors from Europe, those fleeing oppression in Arab lands, Soviet Jews, endangered Jews from Ethiopia and Syria. As we recited in the Haftarah today: “… those lost in the land of Assyria and those exiled in the land of Egypt shall come and they shall bow down before the Eternal on the holy mount in Jerusalem.” We can also be proud that during the days of Prime Minister Begin, he opened the doors of Israel to 360 Vietnamese boat people, granting them full rights as citizens and government subsidized apartments.

The right to seek asylum from persecution is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the State of Israel is a signatory to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. The 1951 United Nations refugee convention makes clear that asylum claims must be considered, even if those seeking asylum entered a country illegally; refugees are, by definition, fleeing persecution. Yet, despite the Jewish experience, international law and Israel’s welcoming past, this right is not fully protected in Israel today.

According to Israeli data, as of June 2016, there were over 42,000 asylum-seekers in the country. Eighty-five per cent are Sudanese and Eritrean nationals who have escaped ethnic persecution and attack. As you probably know, Eritrea, located in east Africa, is a dictatorship that denies basic freedoms and routinely tortures dissidents. Thousands of Eritreans have fled the country, and many have tried to make their way to Europe through Libya and by boat across the Mediterranean. Over the years, some reached Israel via Sudan and Egypt. Many Sudanese in Darfur were terrorized or killed by the government or janjaweed militia.

Thousands made their way through the Sinai, risking kidnapping by Bedouins or being killed by the Egyptian army. Those who made it into Israel were sometimes placed in detention. Others were granted “temporary group protection”. Those who found work on kibbutzim and in Eilat were better off than those in Tel Aviv, where jobs are scarce and living conditions harsh. Israel does not recognize them as refugees and is, therefore, not obligated to follow international laws and procedures regarding refugees. Just to give you an idea: only four out of 2,408 applicants were granted refugee status, or 0.4 per cent. In Canada in 2016, the acceptance rate was 82 per cent.

Although efforts by the Israeli government to help African migrants was minimal, many non-governmental charities, churches, synagogues, legal and medial aid organizations, and the Tel Aviv municipality did offer support.

The Africans have become a polarizing issue in Israel. Some argue that given the Jewish refugee experience, Israel should be more welcoming. Others say that the Africans could pose a security risk. They are accused of contributing to crime, but those who seek work are identified as “economic infiltrators”. Interior Minister Eli Yishai claims that only 0.01 percent of those entering are truly refugees, while the rest are migrant workers. Without entry limits, there is concern that the Africans would pose a demographic challenge. Yishai says that this “poses an existential threat to Israel”. To cut off the flow of these migrants, in 2013, Israel completed a 140-mile-long fence on its Sinai border to prevent what the government terms “infiltrators” from entering the country.

In my experience, most asylum seekers do not come to Israel seeking economic prosperity. They come in search of protection from persecution. Although 96 per cent of asylum requests filed by Eritreans worldwide in 2008 were accepted, the Israeli government refuses to consider their applications. Sudanese seeking asylum are ineligible for protection, since the country that persecutes them is considered an enemy of Israel. As a result, Eritrean and Sudanese nationals receive no entitlements in Israel. Until recently, they did receive immunity from deportation.

That has now begun to change. In recent months, Israeli national and local political figures have articulated increasing hostility towards would-be refugees and asylum seekers living in Israel. Almost 10,000 live in a detention centre in the Negev. The Ministry of the Interior has begun to mark on the temporary visas of asylum seekers that their status does not authorize them to work. This denies them the opportunity to support themselves, adds to the poverty of the community and makes them more susceptible to violence, drug and alcohol abuse and crime—all of which are increased by poverty.

The government has adopted a policy of providing financial incentives for people to leave. They’ve been offered $3,500 and a ticket to a third country that will accept them. More than 6,000 Eritreans have left Israel, most of them to third countries like Uganda and Rwanda, who deny that Israel has secret agreements with them, and where they may not be safe.

Canada has worked with Israel to accept some refugees. Last year, I was on an El Al flight from Israel to Canada with a group of Eritreans on board. They were all dressed formally, the men with ties and jackets, the women with their best dresses. I spoke with a family in the row behind me. They were coming as part of a group of 50 or so for refugee resettlement in Canada. They were Christians, grateful to Israel for having hosted them for seven years. All the children spoke Hebrew.  They understood and accepted the desire of Israel to remain a Jewish state, but wanted to remain in Israel. Since that was not possible, they made contact with distant family in Canada and were prepared to start their life over once again. This family was heading to Regina. Another was going to Edmonton. After admission by the border authorities, the Africans were met by refugee services for paperwork and processing before moving on to connecting flights. I told them that, other than the winter, they would find Canada to be a wonderful country.

According to Nancy Chan, spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, “Between January and November 2016, 910 Eritrean refugees were resettled to Canada from Israel. Almost all fall under the private sponsorship of refugees program”. Canada has a multi-year refugee commitment underway to welcome 4,000 government-assisted Eritrean refugees in Sudan and Ethiopia by the end of 2018. I’m pleased that Canada can find a place for these refugees.

I also believe that Israel could do more to welcome the Africans. Of course, no country can exist without control of its borders and a structure for its internal social services. Israel need not take a disproportionate share of African refugees; it is certainly justified in taking measures to limit entry. But even while continuing to offer funds to those who will settle elsewhere—as Germany and other European countries also do—Israel should also live up to the aspirational ideals of our Jewish tradition.

I have signed a petition calling on Israel to (1) declare many of the Africans already in the country to be refugees, and (2) to be more active in integrating them into Israeli society. While these refugees await a future opportunity to return to their homes, should their countries become safe, Israel can take moral and practical steps to be of assistance. There is a need for entry-level jobs in Israel—cleaning and sanitary work that many Jews don’t want to do. There is a need for caregivers—many of whom are already brought to Israel from Eastern Europe or the Philippines with temporary visas. There is a need for agricultural workers—many of whom now come from the Palestinian areas both legally and illegally. The Israeli economy continues to grow and could, according to economists, easily absorb more of these refugee and asylum seekers than it currently does.

In addition, those who wish to study in Israel—or their children—should be encouraged to do so with the hope that they can bring developed skills and knowledge back to their countries of origin. And if they do not return home (as was the case with the Vietnamese boat people), they will have the capacity to build productive lives in Israel or elsewhere.

Israel should also see these actions as being in its own interests. As it seeks to respond to Jewish imperatives and ideals, combat BDS and enhance its image, Israel does some wonderful things. It provides medical aid to Syrian refugees, assists African nations facing plagues, offers advice internationally about water usage and purification. But Israel’s refugee policy gives it a bad name and makes it harder to defend Israel against its critics.

A more welcoming approach would benefit Israel politically and be in keeping with the mandate of the Torah: “Do not oppress a stranger; for you know the soul of a stranger, because you were strangers in Egypt” (Exodus 23.9).

Since this sermon, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the Anti-Defamation League have called upon Prime Minister Netanyahu to not implement the policy of deportation and to recognize more of the Africans in Israel as refugees entitled to sanctuary according to international law.