In seems that in America, Israel’s African refugee problem is not often heard about; issues like Iran and the Palestinians appear to dominate the headlines. In Israel, however, the refugee problem is a hot and divisive issue. Recently, what started as a peaceful protest urging the government to deport Israel’s overwhelming refugee population ended as a violent riot against the refugees themselves. At one point, Jews were recorded on video breaking the windows of refugees’ businesses and chanting demands to protect the Jewish character of the state.
While I acknowledge that the perpetrators of this crime were a small minority, the adherents to the attitudes behind it are far more numerous. And it leaves me in a state of disbelief: How have we, the Jewish people, forgotten our history so quickly?
We have been refugees for most of our history. Our patriarchs were refugees. Isaac sought refuge among the Philistines. Jacob fled famine to Egypt. And of course, we have suffered as refugees throughout our exile. We know how disastrous that type of situation can be. Our Torah commands us to take care of the stranger, because we too have experienced fleeing from persecution in Egypt. We are commanded to empathize with fellow refugees: “In every generation one is required to look at himself as if he had left Egypt.” This is a deeply engrained trait of the Jewish people and it must therefore manifest itself in the Jewish state.
That is why I assert that the perpetrators of the heinous riots against the refugees are the real infiltrators of the Jewish state — because they are protesting one of its core principles.
I understand that the influx of non-Jewish refugees poses a serious demographic threat to the Jewish nature of Israel. However, the demography means nothing if those counted as Jews violate core Jewish principles.
There are far more humane ways to approach the demographic threat. We don’t need to be advocating forced deportations of the refugees back to danger in the countries they fled from. One important approach that is being ignored is education. Our history proves that arguably the most important key to surviving refugeehood without assimilating is through education. Whether in Babylon, Spain, Germany, Lithuania, Russia, or Poland, what kept the Jewish people going was that we always made sure to teach our children in a Jewish environment. We preserved our language. We founded yeshivot. When girls started losing their Jewish identities, we founded Beit Yaakov. Most relevantly, we were always able to stress the importance of returning to Eretz Yisrael. We know from experience that education is what keeps peoplehood strong.
The fear of the demographic threat is that the refugees will assimilate, integrate into Israeli society, and challenge Israel’s Jewish majority. According to Jacob Berry, a Sudanese refugee and leader of the Bnai Darfur refugee assistance organization in Tel Aviv, the refugees are struggling to instill in their children their home cultures and the desire to return to their homelands. They are falling in love with Israeli society. The children are rapidly assimilating. They love falafel, they are volunteering for the IDF, and often their only language is Hebrew.
Efforts to integrate the refugees, as practiced, for example, at the Bialik-Rogozin School in Tel Aviv (featured in the award-winning documentary Strangers No More) may seem like wholly worthwhile gestures to assist the asylum seekers; however, such efforts also work to threaten Israel, destroy the refugees’ cultures, and distance the refugees from their own children. These effects should be countered by promoting refugee participation in educating their own young.
Efforts should be made to help the Sudanese and Eritreans raise Sudanese and Eritreans. Under Article 22 of the International Convention on the Status of Refugees, Israel (which played a major part in shaping it) is required to provide “the same treatment as is accorded to nationals with respect to elementary education.” In Israel, there are separate state schools for religious Jews, non-religious, and Arabs. In Israel, providing “the same treatment” means specialized schools should be available for the Africans.
We know better
Groups assisting the refugees also need to severely limit their focus on integration. The African Refugees Development Center has a stated goal “to facilitate integration, by promoting social coherence….” This may be important if we want to help the refugees become self-sufficient, but it can have harmful consequences. Bnai Darfur, on the other hand, has a stated goal of “building a strong sense of community among refugees.” Bnai Darfur understands the threat integration poses to the refugees’ cultures and stresses tight-knittedness and independence.
If the authorities want to make sure that when the refugees are able to return to their home countries, they want to, they must be encouraged to participate in a major way in the education of their kids. If the refugees wish to return to their native countries but are simply waiting for assurances of a reasonable degree of safety, the demographic threat in Israel is drastically reduced.
The refugee problem must be taken seriously. It threatens the Jewish character of Israel. It threatens the cultural identities of the refugees. It has led to violence, crime, and hostility. The story of the Jewish people teaches us what it is to be a refugee. We, the Jewish people, should use that experience to help the Africans. We know better than to open schools and institutions that seek to assimilate the refugees and threaten their cultures. We know better than to persecute asylum-seekers who are simply waiting to return to their homelands. We know better than to treat refugees like second-class people.
The Jewish people, because of our experience, are natural experts in situations like these, so let’s start acting like it.