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African migrants face not feast of freedom, but famine of futility
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African migrants face not feast of freedom, but famine of futility

It is heartbreaking that on April 1 — the second day of Passover, our celebration of freedom — a forced mass exodus of strangers in a strange land will begin. The strangers are mostly young males from Eritrea or Sudan, both under the rule of despotic regimes. The strange land is Israel, our Jewish homeland, founded on the principles of justice and the ingathering of refugees fleeing unspeakable atrocities.

One such stranger (who now speaks Hebrew) is Sumia Omer. Sumia, 33, escaped from Darfur after the Janjaweed militia attacked her village. “I was fleeing for my life,” she said quietly, after witnessing people being raped and murdered and babies boiled in pots. She sought refuge in several places, including her country’s capital, Khartoum, and in Egypt, but she could not find refuge. She then walked across the expanse of Sinai, at times staying with Bedouins, and arrived in Israel — finally finding a safe haven. Sumia now works for the African Refugee Development Center in Tel Aviv, helping other asylum seekers in Israel.

I met Sumia during a recent trip to Israel. While there, I saw posters all over Tel Aviv supporting the migrants with words from the Torah: “Love the stranger, for you were strangers.”

Israel’s African migrant population is relatively small, only about 37,000, and stable. In 2012, Israel effectively shut off illegal immigration with a 143-mile southern border fence. Many of the adults in the population are now employed, working in restaurants and at late-night food stores, serving coffee, and staffing hotels. They pay taxes (actually at a higher rate). Among them are 5,000 children, most of whom remember no other home but Israel. They are Israel’s “dreamers.”

According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which the State of Israel helped draft, the majority of, if not all, asylum seekers would fit the legal definition of a refugee fleeing persecution. Yet many in the Israeli government seek to portray these migrants as work infiltrators and criminals.

Rather than following the convention — which calls on countries to examine every individual claim for asylum — a restricted bureaucratic system has slowed the process, with only a few applications a day being processed, while hundreds line up to be seen. An Israeli human rights organization reported that of the more than 13,000 who applied for asylum, only 11 were granted refugee status. In January, Israel’s refugee office stopped accepting asylum applications.

Now, as Passover arrives, Israel is laying down an ultimatum to the migrants: Leave on a free flight to an undisclosed country, likely Rwanda, with $3,500, or go to prison. On April 1, visas will start to expire, and some asylum seekers will receive deportation notices.

That prospect is frightening. A recent report in Haaretz found that those who took this offer in the past often had their money stolen upon arrival, were transferred to smugglers, and were often imprisoned or killed.

As the countdown to deportation proceeds, resistance is growing. Over 800 American rabbis and other clergy members from around the world signed a letter in January calling on Israel to stop its deportation plan. “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,” the letter read in part.

Hundreds of Israeli academics said Israel has a “historic duty” not to deport the asylum seekers. In February, 20,000 Israelis took to the streets of Tel Aviv to demonstrate alongside Africans.

Susan Silverman, a Jerusalem rabbi, inspired by the story of Anne Frank, has created a movement supporting the migrants, leading to a promise from hundreds of Israeli rabbis to hide migrants facing deportation. Even El Al pilots have refused to fly planes carrying deported Africans.

To be sure, Israel has taken some courageous positive steps. It has allowed tens of thousands of African migrants to enter Israel rather than turning them away, back to the Sinai or repatriating them to their home countries. It has granted large groups temporary protected status and provided health care, children’s education, and more. It has not as yet taken the draconian measure of splitting families through deportation — such as has happened and is happening in our own country.

The world Jewish community — perhaps the entire world — looks to Israel not as a nation among nations but as a moral example. Israel has absorbed millions of our brothers and sisters from all over the world and helped them — albeit with many difficulties — rise from poverty and devastation. Surely the “light unto the nations” can help the African migrants, grant them a fair hearing for refugee status, help their children, provide them a place of dignity and peace.

Those who wish to stay as immigrants must go through the same legal process and must shoulder the same responsibilities as other would-be citizens. For those who wish to return home, when they can do so in safety, Israel can provide a welcoming temporary home, or help the migrants make the move to another country should they wish.

As passionate Zionists and supporters of Israel, this Pesach let’s support Israel in fulfilling its mission of compassion and showing the world a different way. Share your support for the migrants with Israel’s ambassador and consulate; talk about the issue at your family seder and with Israeli friends, relatives, and community partners; and give support to such organizations as the African Refugee Development Center.

The Torah says it all. The full quote, engraved on every Jewish heart, is: “Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)

Allison Sheehan Cohen, staff member of the African Refugee Development Center in Tel Aviv, will speak at Adath Shalom in Morris Plains following Shabbat services on Saturday, March 24, at noon. All are invited for kiddush lunch.

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