Students and teachers protesting in Tel Aviv against the deportation of African asylum seekers, Jan. 24, 2018. (Photo/JTA-Tomer Neuberg-Flash90)
Students and teachers protesting in Tel Aviv against the deportation of African asylum seekers, Jan. 24, 2018. (Photo/JTA-Tomer Neuberg-Flash90)

Our parents fled their homes for a better life. Israel should welcome Africans who want to do the same.

It’s in our DNA. Rachel’s parents were illegal refugees attempting to “infiltrate” Palestine in the 1940s and were deported to the island of Mauritius for the duration of the war. David’s father came from Poland to study at UC Berkeley in the 1930s, avoiding efforts by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to deport him back to Poland and certain death. He was unable to get his parents out; they died in the Holocaust.

And, so, with Israel planning to deport nearly 40,000 African refugees and asylum seekers, we cannot remain silent. From our home here in Berkeley, we join pilots, school principals, psychologists, doctors, academics and thousands of others in Israel whose memories of when Jews were refugees have prompted one of the largest recent protest movements in Israel.

We are shocked that Israel has failed to examine each and every application for asylum, breaking its obligation under the 1951 International Refugee Convention — which Israel was one of the first to champion. To date, they have done this with only a tiny handful, leaving tens of thousands of applicants in limbo or in detention in the Holot prison in the Negev.

It is also deeply disturbing that as Israel seeks to deport these Africans, most of whom perform jobs that Israelis do not want to do. Israel continues to import foreign workers from “whiter” countries, such as Romania, the Philippines and Thailand. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that a racial bias underlies this inhumane policy.

Moreover, Israel is, in effect, engaging in a “black slave trade” since it is paying Rwanda, a country utterly alien to these refugees, $5,000 per person to take them in. Once in Rwanda, their prospects are exceedingly dim. Those who have already been deported there have been subject to abuse. They have sent back messages to those still in Israel not to go to Rwanda. They are better off in Israeli jails, the messages say.

It also does not escape our notice that if Israel can deport these refugees against the clear intent of international law, it can do the same to Palestinians from the territories. In fact, during 50 years of occupation, it has already deported many from those areas, so that the deportation of the Africans looks like the continuation of an old policy and, alarmingly, the possible prelude to something much worse.


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We are also cognizant that the same critique applies to our own government. Indeed, President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu increasingly look like malevolent twins. As we approach the deadline of March 5 when the DACA program is set to expire, we may witness the deportation of young people who have spent most of their lives in this country. Other vulnerable groups, such as 200,000 from El Salvador, are also in danger of forcible removal. Meanwhile, the United States has cut by more than half the number of refugees it is willing to admit.

This assault on America as a country of refuge is being carried out in part by people whose own ancestors came here to escape persecution and impoverishment. Among those responsible for the current policy is the president’s senior advisor, Stephen Miller whose Jewish great-grandparents fled Russia before World War I.

Both Israel and the U.S. are facing a real crisis of identity. The way we treat the stranger among us is a litmus test for who we are. Are these two countries about which we care so deeply going to be liberal democracies or ethno-nationalist fortresses in which minorities are despised, disenfranchised or expelled?

Hundreds of Israeli rabbis have volunteered to hide the African refugees, as part of a campaign called The Anne Frank Home Sanctuary Movement. While comparisons with the Holocaust are gross exaggerations, today’s refugee crisis conjures up memories of the crisis before World War II. Those in the Anne Frank Movement have not forgotten their history.

And we may soon need an Anne Frank Home Sanctuary Movement in this country. One of David’s students wrote an honors thesis on a German Jewish refugee who fled the Nazis to Shanghai and then to the United States. Recently, David found out that the student is undocumented.

Is the history that he studied now repeating itself so that this student will be compelled to suffer the same fate as his subject? And what will we, who out of our own bitter experience have said “never again,” say to this student?

Rachel Biale
Rachel Biale

Rachel Biale was born and raised on Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin in Israel and worked for many years as a Jewish community professional in the Bay Area.

David Biale
David Biale

David Biale is Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of History at UC Davis.