Thousands of African asylum seekers and human rights activists protest in Tel Aviv, Feb. 21, 2018 (Photo/JTA-Tomer Neuberg-Flash90)
Thousands of African asylum seekers and human rights activists protest in Tel Aviv, Feb. 21, 2018 (Photo/JTA-Tomer Neuberg-Flash90)

There is no moral dilemma: Let the asylum-seekers stay!

Like many Jews in America, in Israel and around the world, I am outraged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to cancel the agreement made between Israel and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which would have given temporary residency status to about 16,000 African asylum-seekers and resettle the same number in Western nations. This ill-advised reversal would be a moral outrage at any time, but is especially so during Passover.

Pesach is the time of remembering the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt, telling the story again and again so we can learn about the importance of freedom. It is the time of inviting the poor and the needy to join us, asking honest and challenging questions and reciting “My father was a wandering Aramean” — in other words, my father was a refugee.

It is also the time for us to speak about the moral imperative of Israel to accept the African refugees in the country’s midst. Judaism speaks to this idea constantly, about welcoming the stranger as we were once strangers. If we do not talk about it and act on it, we are mocking the essence of the Passover holiday.

Most Israelis, as evidenced by the large rallies in Israel, want to do the right thing and let those asylum-seekers, approximately 37,000 from Sudan and Eritrea, to stay in the country. Many live in the squalor of south Tel Aviv under the threat of deportation, while others were held for years at a detention center in Holot until it closed last month. Having been to the area many times, I know they want to work, they want to contribute to society, and they want to be treated as promised by the 1951 Refugee Convention, the U.N. event that defined “refugees” and outlined their rights, as well as the obligation of states to protect them.

The asylum-seekers did not want to leave their homes. As the poet Warsan Shire said about her own experience as a refugee and that of all refugees: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”

No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.

There are all kinds of political, economic and social reasons for Israel to accept these people, many of whom have been there for years and years after fleeing horrific situations in their home countries. However, the more compelling reason is that the vast majority meet the core definition of being a refugee: “A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…”

How can the Israeli government even consider deporting to countries that will probably then send these people back to their home countries, which in most cases will mean a return to persecution?

Israel was among the first countries to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (its official title). However, the reality is that Israel has consistently labeled these refugees as “infiltrators” and “illegal economic work migrants.” Israel has developed an asylum “system” that discourages applicants from applying for asylum, detains them in prisons and then ultimately denies 99 percent of all refugee applications once they finally apply.

How does one reconcile this with our Jewish past and the Jewish ethics and laws found in all our teachings? We can’t.

I am the same age as the State of Israel and a loyal supporter of the Jewish state. All too often, Israel is blamed inappropriately for defending its right to exist and to live safely. I go to Israel often and have never criticized Israel’s foreign policy. However, this is not a matter of national survival; this is a matter of moral and ethical survival. It is not easy to disagree with “family” in public. However, I just cannot stand idly by.

We should bombard Israeli embassies and consulates with letters and calls. We should go to Israel to stand with our Israeli brothers and sisters in their outcry about the prime minister’s decision. We should support the work of the international coalition Right Now: Advocates for Asylum Seekers in Israel, as well as HIAS and other groups, all of whom share a love for Israel and have presented realistic ideas on how to integrate the refugees.

Like all countries that have admitted refugees, Israel society and culture will be enriched by giving these 37,000 people a viable way to stay in the country. Now is the time to take seriously Elie Wiesel’s remarks when he received the Nobel Prize in 1986: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim … Sometimes we must interfere.”

Now is the time to interfere.

Rabbi Lee Bycel
Rabbi Lee Bycel

Rabbi Lee Bycel is the Sinton Visiting Professor of Holocaust, Genocide and Refugee Studies at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of the upcoming “Refugees in America: Stories of Courage, Resilience and Hope in Their Own Words.”