19th Knesset’s dying wish: Drive Africans from Israel


One hour before the 19th Israeli Knesset, or parliament, dissolved forever on Dec. 8, its members made a last-ditch effort to save Holot, the “open” desert prison they created one year prior to detain undocumented Eritrean and Sudanese immigrants.

On the table was a fifth amendment to the half-century-old Anti-Infiltration Law — created to prevent Palestinian refugees from returning to Israel, but amended in recent years to govern the fate of 50,000 Africans who trekked to Israel’s southern border seeking work and asylum.

The latest amendment comes in response to a Supreme Court ruling in September that found Holot to be unconstitutional. Instead of closing it completely, Knesset members proposed that individual prison terms be limited to 20 months, and that prisoner check-ins be cut from three times per day to once each night.

After the final tally on the night of Dec. 8, the bill passed 41 to 29.

Members of the 19th Knesset, known for their high-drama plenum battles, used the vote to stage a final showdown of ideals.

“[We must] keep this country as the nation-state of the Jewish people and not invite a situation in which thousands of infiltrators come here to find work,” said right-wing Knesset member Miri Regev, a member of the prime minister’s Likud Party. “It’s a disgrace that parties who call themselves Zionist, like the Labor Party, opposed this bill.”

Knesset member Nitzan Horowitz, a former TV reporter belonging to the leftist Meretz Party, fired back. “It’s too bad Regev and the interior minister didn’t read the High Court’s first verdict overturning the law,” he said. “They would have understood that in a democratic state, it is impossible to imprison people without a trial. It doesn’t matter whether they’re Blacks from Africa, blonds from Sweden or people from Tel Aviv or Yeruham.”

Between 1,000 and 2,000 asylum seekers waited outside Ministry of Interior offices all day on Nov. 8, but none were admitted inside.

The goal of the new legislation, as stated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when it was drafted on Nov. 30, is to continue driving undocumented Africans out of Israel.

“It fits the reality,” Netanyahu said of the law. “It also fits the rulings of the High Court of Justice. I remind you that Israel has achieved the extraordinary, which I’m very proud of, in blocking illegal migration across our borders — zero illegal migrants. Part of this entails repatriating illegal migrants. This year we repatriated over 6,000
illegal migrants. This legislation is designed to enable us to continue this trend.”

Tel Aviv University law professor Aeyal Gross pointed out that in the Supreme Court majority opinion, Justice Uzi Vogelman wrote that the legal question “isn’t solely quantitative — what is the maximum constitutional length of time for detention in custody — but whether it’s permissible to detain someone in custody for whom there is no effective deportation procedure. To this question I respond … absolutely not.”

Bashir Adam Abdalla, one Sudanese asylum seeker among approximately 2,500 prisoners currently living in rows of tightly packed containers on the remote Holot campus, already has served 10 months. He said another 10 feels like “forever.”

Abdalla said two of his fellow Holot prisoners — who are also his childhood friends from the Blue Nile region of Sudan — recently accepted Israel’s offer of $3,500 to return home. They are among the hundreds now thought to be jailed or disappeared by the Sudanese government after returning from Israel.

“They have a problem in their country, but Israel didn’t help them,” Abdalla said.

Neither Israel’s political left nor right seems very pleased in the wake of the vote. Pundits on both sides called the law a lesser evil that didn’t solve core issues — namely, reducing poverty and crime in South Tel Aviv, where the African immigrants are concentrated.

A 20-month prison term is “without any logic,” said Anat Ovadia, spokeswoman for Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, one of the Israeli nongovernmental organizations that took the Knesset to court for creating Holot. When prisoners are released back into the Israeli public, she said, “They will be in worse shape than before. Before they go to prison, they build a life, a job, a community — and now they have to start all over again. It will make problems for everyone.”

Ministry of Interior security guards said they would not admit any asylum seekers into the Bnei Brak visa center until they formed a more organized line.

Hotline for Refugees and Migrants scored a separate legal victory in late November, when around 180 Holot prisoners were freed on the grounds that they’d already been jailed in Israel for two years without trial.

Last night, by comparison, was a disappointment. “I’m really frustrated, since I believed we could win this time,” said Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator at Hotline.

But the organization plans once again to fight the latest edition of the Anti-Infiltration Law at the Supreme Court level. “[We hope] the next Knesset will finally promote an appropriate solution to South Tel Aviv’s Israeli residents and asylum seekers alike, instead of more incitement and populism,” Hotline said in a statement.

The opposition isn’t much happier. Yonatan Jakubowicz, PR director for the Israeli Immigration Policy Center, an advocacy organization for Israelis living in South Tel Aviv, said that, in general, residents “expected a much stricter law — something more effective.” Especially, he said, after they saw that the law in its previous form, which allowed for indefinite detention at Holot, convinced more than 6,000 Africans to leave Israel.

“The new law is better than the worst evil,” he said. “But I’m skeptical that 20 months in Holot will get the effect we’re looking for, which is that economic migrants will go back to their home countries.”

However, Jakubowicz is hopeful that a less-publicized economic penalty included in the new amendment — one his organization has long been pushing for — will separate migrant workers from asylum seekers.

Under the law, undocumented Africans — thousands of whom have applied for asylum but either have been rejected or received no response — now will have to hand over 20 percent of their salaries to the Israeli government, money that will be returned to them only upon departure from Israel. Employers, too, will pay fines for keeping them on staff.

“Once we take away the option of working, they’ll go back to their countries,” Jakubowicz said.

This could have far-reaching implications for employers of Israel’s Sudanese and Eritrean workforce — a fixture in hotels and restaurants across the country.

The law “may turn them into very expensive employees, much more than an Israeli,” said Shabtai Shay, director of the Eilat Hotel Association in the resort city in the south.

The problem with this, he said, is that Eilat hotels haven’t been able to find Israeli citizens willing to do the job: “There was a plan to hire Israelis, but it failed,” he said. “Israelis didn’t want to come wash dishes and clean floors.”

According to Shay, it’s too soon to predict how employers will respond when the law goes into effect. “We are not fighting for the rights of the refugees,” he emphasized. “We try to employ them in a normal, regular way. But if we can’t, we need an alternative … or it will be reflected in hotel prices.”

Eritrean woman Okbit Demsas, right, said she had been waiting at the tucked-away Bnei Brak facility for almost a week. She showed the Journal a log of hundreds of names that she and other organizers had created to keep track of who was next in line.

Economic sanctions appear to be the new frontier of Israel’s African expulsion plan. The Knesset vote corresponded with a clear push by the Israeli Ministry of Interior to tighten the visa application process for Sudanese — and especially Eritrean — workers. 

In the weeks leading up to the vote, ministry officials closed all African processing centers in central and northern Israel — save for one makeshift office set up in Bnei Brak, a religious suburb on Tel Aviv’s northeastern edge. 

On Dec. 8, Roni Fisher, the employee manager at a popular Tel Aviv marriage hall, rode his motorcycle up to Bnei Brak. Visas for his three Eritrean staff members had expired days before, and the men couldn’t come back to work without proper papers. (Most visas issued to African asylum seekers are good for around two months before they need to be renewed.) Not understanding the holdup, Fisher headed to the ministry to vouch for them.

He was shocked by the scene he found there. “This is the first time it’s like this,” Fisher said.

Between 1,000 and 2,000 asylum seekers, among them dozens of pregnant women and parents toting small children, were crowded around a Ministry of Interior tent that had been erected in a slummy industrial area of Bnei Brak. Babies were crying. Pieces of cardboard littered an abandoned warehouse next door. Asylum seekers had been sleeping there overnight, afraid of losing their spot in line or getting caught by police without papers.  

Terminated or suspended from their jobs until their visas could be renewed, many had nowhere else to be. 

“I’ve been here since last Wednesday,” said 28-year-old Okbit Demsas, a young Eritrean mother. “There is no food, no water, no restrooms. It’s a terrible place.”

Okbit said she couldn’t return to her job as a janitor in Tel Aviv without a new visa. “If I can’t work, I can’t survive,” she said. “I will be kicked out of my apartment because I can’t pay the rent.”

Shielded from Bnei Brak’s looming Yes Planet mall complex by a few jumbo billboards and a highway overpass, the area surrounding the Ministry of Interior setup had become a temporary ghetto overflowing with African asylum seekers who had traveled from their apartments all over the country — Netanya, Herzliya, Tiberias — to secure legal status.

Asylum seekers in line told the Journal that only a handful of people had been admitted into the tent complex over the entire week prior.

Ministry of Interior spokeswoman Sabine Haddad would not provide the Journal with specific numbers of visa applications processed over this time period. Asked what caused the crisis in Bnei Brak, she said by phone on Dec. 9: “I know that yesterday, more than 2,500 people came there, and it’s a lot more than they can receive. But let me check that.” Later, she wrote in a text message: “We try our best to give good service.” Haddad did not respond to further requests for comment.

The situation outside Ministry of Interior offices changed considerably when, days into the crisis, a Jewish Journal reporter entered the premises.

Asked by the Journal why the line wasn’t moving, security guards said the Africans were acting too rowdy and impatient, and that it would be a security hazard to let them inside.

“They say they want order, but there are so many people here, there can never be order,” said Fisher, the Tel Aviv employer at the scene. (An elderly Bnei Brak resident walked by just then, looking bewildered. “What is all this?” she asked Fisher.)

Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid Party — whose votes critically swayed the new decision to keep Holot open — wrote on his Facebook page on Dec. 5 that Israel needed to separate Sudanese asylum seekers from Eritreans. The former, he said, should be treated “as Holocaust survivors. On the other hand, Eritrean labor migrants, who constitute the majority of those who infiltrated into the country, should be treated as illegal immigrants.”

(Lapid and others in his party, however, voted in favor of the Holot solution, which keeps hundreds of Sudanese asylum seekers jailed without trial and pressures others to return to Sudan.)

Eritreans in line at the Bnei Brak visa center rejected Lapid’s claim. Teclit Beyene, 24, described escaping from prison and fleeing Eritrea after he was jailed for giving a school presentation critical of the dictatorship. Another young man showed the Journal stripes of scar tissue running up his arms — left over from months of torture in the Sinai desert. He said he had been kidnapped from a Sudanese refugee camp by Bedouin traffickers and dumped at the Israeli border fence once his family paid a $30,000 ransom.

Okbit Demsas said she had also been tortured for weeks in the Sinai — all while her Bedouin captors held her small son in the room next door. 

In Israel, Demsas has been working as a janitor at the Channel 2 news studio in Tel Aviv. On Dec. 8, she contacted her employer about the situation. By the time Channel 2 news reporter Gilad Shalmor showed up in Bnei Brak the next morning, the Ministry of Interior office had begun handing out visas again at a slow trickle.

Ministry spokeswoman Haddad texted photos that security guards had snapped of Shalmor outside the Bnei Brak offices to the reporter’s own phone, asking if he needed her help with anything.

Said Channel 2’s Eritrean janitor, Demsas: “That’s why they hide us here. They don’t want anyone to see what they’re doing.”

Protesting African migrants sent back to Israeli detention center


Israeli police on Tuesday sent back to custody about 150 African migrants who had abandoned a desert detention center in protest against a new law allowing them to be kept there indefinitely.

Aided by rights groups, the migrants had travelled to Jerusalem to demonstrate outside the Israeli parliament, which last week passed a law allowing authorities to hold illegal migrants in an “open facility” until they leave the country.

The Israeli government says that most of the 50,000 African migrants, mostly Sudanese and Eritrean, who have since 2006 crossed over the Egyptian border into its territory, are illegal job-seekers who threaten the Jewish state's social makeup.

But rights groups and liberal lawmakers say many are asylum-seekers fleeing hardship and persecution in their homelands.

“We came from a war-place and we want our dignity. We want to save our lives. We are not criminals,” one migrant, who did not give his name, said at the protest.

Police and immigration officers broke up the migrants' demonstration and loaded them on to buses headed for prison. A police spokesman said there were some minor scuffles at the scene, but no one was hurt.

An Israeli immigration official said the migrants would be held in prison for up to 90 days, for breaking the terms of custody in the newly-built open facility that they had abandoned late on Sunday.

The center, in a remote southern Israeli desert, allows the 400 migrants who were moved there from a nearby prison last week, to leave during the day and return at night.

The newly-passed law says they may be held there pending voluntary repatriation, implementation of deportation orders or resolution of their asylum requests.

“The law is the law and it surely applies to the illegal job-seeking infiltrators. The infiltrators who were moved to the special facility can stay there or go back to their own countries,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Rights group have appealed the new law, which replaced previous legislation, annulled by the Supreme Court last September.

Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Angus MacSwan

Holocaust scholars urge Obama to sanction countries hosting Bashir


A group of 70 Holocaust scholars have sent a letter urging the Obama administration support a congressional amendment that would halt U.S. foreign assistance to countries that host visits for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

The letter, sent June 14 and addressed to Atrocities Prevention Board chief Samantha Power, highlights the recent amendment sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) adopted in the House Appropriations Committee that would suspend non-humanitarian assistance to those particular countries.

In the letter, which was sponsored by the Wyman Institute, the signatories endorsed sanctions provisions in the Wolf amendment, saying such sanctions “encourage America’s allies to step up their commitments to fight against perpetrators of genocide.”

Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, noted in a press release that “halting aid to those who host Bashir would be the first concrete step the U.S. has taken to isolate the Butcher of Darfur and pave the way for his arrest. If the Obama administration is serious about punishing perpetrators of genocide, it should support the Wolf Amendment.”

Signatories of the letter included Rabbi Dr. Irving ‘Yitz’ Greenberg, former chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; author Dr. Daniel Goldhagen; Prof. Rev. John Pawlikowski, who chairs the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s Subcommittee on Church Relations; and Prof. Deborah Dwork of Clark University, founder of the first graduate program in Holocaust and genocide studies in the United States.

Israel begins repatriating South Sudanese migrants


A planeload of 120 illegal migrants was scheduled to leave Israel for repatriation in South Sudan.

The migrants reportedly began boarding buses Sunday afternoon headed for Ben Gurion Airport for a flight that evening.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the repatriation “orderly and dignified.”

“We have a Jewish tradition of treating strangers humanely, and even when we need to deport them from our midst due to the state’s desire to control its borders, we must do so humanely and in a manner that finds expression in a restrained and humane manner,” Netanyahu said Sunday at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting.

Netanyahu said that a second plane bound for South Sudan would leave next week.

He added that as of last week, infiltrators are placed in detention and can be detained for years. New detention facilities are being built, he said.

The Population, Immigration and Borders Authority said at the end of last week that it would extend the one-week deadline for illegal migrants from South Sudan to voluntarily leave the country, receiving a cash grant and a flight home in exchange.

Meanwhile, a firebomb was thrown Saturday night at a bar in south Tel Aviv’s Hatikvah neighborhood where migrants from Eritrea gather. One man was wounded.

Firebombs were thrown last month in two separate incidents at apartments in which several African migrants lived.

Israel rounds up African migrants for deportation


Israel said on Monday it had started rounding up African migrants in the first stage of a controversial “emergency plan” to intern and deport thousands deemed a threat to the Jewish character of the state.

Israel Radio reported that dozens of Africans, mainly from South Sudan, had already been detained in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, including mothers and children.

“This is only a small group of the infiltrators,” Interior Minister Eli Yishai said. “I’m not acting out of hatred of strangers but love of my people and to rescue the homeland.”

The goal is to repatriate all the estimated 60,000 African migrants, whose growing numbers are seen by many Israelis as a law and order issue and even a threat to the long-term viability of the Jewish state.

Illegal migration, and the pool of cheap labor it provides, is a common headache for developed economies. Israel is grappling with its own special ghosts as it tackles the problem.

For some in Israel, built by immigrants and refugees, internment and deportation are bad solutions that may damage the international image of the country needlessly.

They say rounding up members of a different racial group and holding them in camps for deportation may invite allusions to the Nazi Holocaust, however unfair such comparisons may be, and betrays Jewish values.

NOT CRIMINALS

About 500 Sudanese men held an orderly protest in Tel Aviv on Sunday against expulsion, the solution chosen by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after two months of heated debate over how to handle the flow of migrants.

“We are refugees, not criminals,” the Sudanese chanted, in a retort to allegations that Africans prey on Israeli citizens, following high-profile rape allegations.

Many Sudanese, including hundreds who escaped from conflict and humanitarian disaster in Darfur, have been in Israel for several years, living in legal limbo without formal refugee status, but peaceably, they say.

Now they are caught up in a wave of hostility towards blacks in general, focused on a poor area of south Tel Aviv where they congregate.

“We’re being called a cancer and an AIDS virus on the Israeli people, by politicians in the Knesset,” said protest organizer Jacob Berri. He accused government right-wingers of racist incitement and inflammatory language.

The number of migrants crossing into Israel over the Sinai desert border has accelerated since 2006. It ballooned last year when revolution distracted Egypt’s attention from policing Bedouin people-smugglers operating in the Sinai peninsula.

Israel has now built a high fence along the frontier.

“My policy with regard to the illegal infiltrators seeking work is clear,” Netanyahu said in a May 29 speech. “First of all, to stop their entry with the fence and at the same time to deport the infiltrators who are in Israel.”

He warns of Africans “flooding” and “swamping” Israel, threatening “the character of the country”. Emergency measures to reverse the influx will include “detention facilities with thousands of units”, Netanyahu said last week.

Berri said the South Sudanese number about 700. They know when they are not wanted and will leave, he said. But their refugee status must first be assured by the United Nations, and third-country resettlement programs established.

TIP OF THE ICEBERG

Israeli human rights and activist groups back the Africans. But right-wing and religious parties say that if they are not stopped today’s 60,000 will become 600,000 in a few years, in a population of 7.8 million.

Poor south Tel Aviv residents say affluent north Tel Aviv Jews can afford to be liberal, because the Africans are not in their back yard. An opinion poll last week showed 52 percent of Israelis agree that the Africans are “a cancer”.

“They’ve come here to rape and steal,” one Israeli woman shouted at a small but ugly anti-migrant demonstration earlier this month in south Tel Aviv. “We should burn them out, put poison in their food,” said an elderly man.

Netanyahu urges restraint. “We are a moral people and we will act accordingly. We denounce violence; we denounce invective. We respect human rights,” he said, but added: “Israel cannot accept “infiltrators from an entire continent”.

The term “infiltrators” is also used by authorities to describe armed Palestinian militants.

Voluntary deportees will get financial assistance.

“Whoever comes forward will get his grant … from the moment you come to immigration authorities and say you will pack up, from that moment you will be given an opportunity to pack up, and the grant of 1,000 euros,” Yishai said.

The first planeload is expected to leave Israel next week.

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Dan Williams and Crispian Balmer; editing by Andrew Roche

Jerusalem court clears way for S. Sudanese migrants’ deportation


A Jerusalem court ruled that Israel could deport South Sudanese migrants who entered the country illegally.

Thursday’s decision in Jerusalem District Court was in response to an appeal by NGOs representing African migrants. The appeal was filed after Israel’s Interior Minister Eli Yishai issued a decision to return the migrants.

Israel recognized South Sudan a day after it officially announced its independence from Sudan on July 9, 2011, and initiated formal ties three weeks later.

The decision paves the way for the deportation of about 1,500 South Sudanese who entered Israel illegally. Yishai said that he hoped the decision would be a precedent to allow the deportation of African nationals from other countries.

“This is not a war against infiltrators,” Yishai said, according to the Jerusalem Post. “This is a war for the preservation of the Zionist and Jewish dream in the land of Israel.”

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said last month that South Sudanese could be repatriated to their country now that it has achieved independence and is deemed safe by the foreign ministry. Each asylum application must be considered individually, he added.

The Jerusalem court said that the deportations could commence since the case had not proven that those South Sudanese to be deported would face “risk to life or exposure to serious damage.”

It is not known when the South Sudanese migrants will be deported.

OPINION: Not in my name


Yesterday, someone shared a picture of an Israeli woman wearing a shirt that read “Death to the Sudanese” on my Facebook wall. The woman was a Tel Aviv resident taking part in a protest on Tuesday night to encourage the Israeli government to deport African asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea. Asylum seekers were violently attacked and their car and grocery store windows were shattered. According to Haaretz newspaper, the protest was organized by Knesset member Michael Ben Ari, and Miri Regev, another Knesset member, called the Sudanese “a cancer in our body.”The Jerusalem Post recently reported on the Molotov cocktails thrown into a Nigerian woman’s open day care and an Eritrean family’s private apartment in Tel Aviv’s Shapira neighborhood. Violence against the African asylum seekers in Israel has been exponentially rising. These incidents reminded me of all the violence and hatred ensuing in Israeli society toward African asylum seekers. This is not the first case of violence against African asylum seekers. There have been many hate crimes perpetrated against Eritrean, Sudanese and other asylum seekers of African descent for the past few years. Whether it’s the government, the media or Israeli society influencing or perpetrating these abominable acts, this racial violence and prejudice must be stopped.

Israel, let us recall, was one of the founding signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention, implemented by the United Nations in response to the abundance of refugees in Europe after the Holocaust. Israel, however, never ratified the convention, and Netanyahu’s government has made the daily life of asylum seekers today as challenging as possible in an effort to get people to leave without actually kicking them out.

Since 2005, asylum seekers from Africa have entered Israel’s borders through the Sinai desert in Egypt. Eritrea’s brutal dictatorship, the genocide in Darfur and the longest-running African civil war (South Sudan) have led to the flight of these people from their homelands. I am often asked why Israel is the destination country for most of these migrants. The answer is: It isn’t. There are millions of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees in other countries, most of them in other African countries or in Egypt, Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia. The 50,000 people who have made their way to Israel are a tiny minority of this entire population of refugees. Without anywhere to go, many asylum seekers started making their way to Israel, seeking out Bedouin-organized smugglers who know the vast Sinai terrain to help them.

While I do fault Egypt for allowing Bedouin criminal organizations to conduct systematic rape, torture and organ trafficking within its borders, I feel that it is also our responsibility, as Jews in Israel and abroad, to assist those who have suffered such abominations and now reside in our country — one that prides itself on existing in the Jewish name and on implementing Jewish values. We pride ourselves on being advocates against another Holocaust taking place, and we have been instrumental in the fight to end the genocide in Darfur, but when it has come to Israel’s treatment of African asylum seekers, we look the other way. It is true that Israel is a tiny country trying to maintain its Jewish majority, but no moral person could accept this rationale as an acceptable excuse for the ongoing strain of misbehavior toward Africans, especially not when the racial undertones to these policies are so obvious.

There have been numerous claims that the asylum seekers are raping and burglarizing the Israelis, but the statistics of the police department prove otherwise. The crime rates among the African asylum seekers are much lower than that of the general Israeli population. While I do not excuse or condone any crime whatsoever, I do believe that it is unacceptable to exaggerate and make erroneous claims about an entire population of people. 

Israel’s lack of policy on refugees is going to explode in our faces sooner than we think. The government provides no services whatsoever to the African asylum seekers and goes so far as to print visas denying permission to work. Netanyahu’s solution to the “problem” is to build a gigantic detention facility isolated in the Negev Desert, where 10,000 “infiltrators,” as the government calls the asylum seekers, will be housed. The facility is designed after the notorious Australian detention facilities, which have proven to lead to high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression, and suicide attempts in both adult and child occupants. Israel’s facility is currently under construction, and the Israel Prison Service will run it. Those detained will be kept in the facility for indefinite periods of time, as they are incapable of applying for refugee status in Israel. Even though it is illegal under international law to treat asylum seekers as criminals, the government’s recent passing of the Anti-Infiltration Law makes it apparent that this is exactly what is happening: “Infiltrators” may now be kept in detention (prison) for up to three years without trial and without due process.

I believe that we, the Jewish people, all of us refugees at some point in our histories, know better. I urge Israel to implement a transparent and just procedure for asylum seekers to gain refugee status and rights, as we requested in the Refugee Convention and as every other Western democratic country in this world has implemented, so that those who are suffering from today’s genocides, dictatorships and atrocities can live in dignity. As Rabbi Hillel stated so pointedly, “In a place where there is no person to make a difference, strive to be that person.”

As a New Israel Fund Social Justice Fellow working for ASSAF, Maya Paley published two reports on the livelihoods and communities of the Sudanese and Eritrean populations in Israel, pointing out the effects of Israel’s policies on their psychological and physical wellbeing.

South Sudanese migrants in Israel get reprieve


South Sudanese migrants will not be forced to leave Israel by the end of the month as planned.

On Thursday, Israel’s Foreign Ministry recommended that the refugees be permitted to remain in Israel for another six months after the Jerusalem District Court issued an injunction preventing their deportation before April 15. The court’s order was in response to a petition by aid organizations against the Interior Ministry’s deadline of March 31 as the last day that the migrants could remain in Israel.

The Foreign Ministry said the conditions were not yet right for the migrants to return to South Sudan, according to Haaretz.

Tens of thousands of migrants from Africa—asylum seekers and those seeking to better themselves economically—have entered Israel illegally though Egypt in recent years. Up to 3,000 of the migrants are reported to be from South Sudan, according to Israel’s Population, Immigration and Borders Authority.

Since South Sudan became an independent nation in July, refugees from the area no longer require protected status in Israel, the Interior Ministry ruled two months ago.

Loyalty to Jews or to humanity? There is no ‘either-or’


The question is whispered and must be answered in a forthright manner: Darfur or Israel? Is your loyalty to your people or to humanity? Is your loyalty to Judaism or to mankind? Are you essentially a Jew or a human being?

Be wary of the framing of the question, because it forces a stranglehold on us, a hard disjunctive either-or choice. It is like the question my aunt asked me as a child: “Tell the truth, dear. Do you love your father or your mother?” That is a cruel option.

For a Jew, to love Judaism is to love humanity. That is basic Jewish theology. God of Israel is global, not tribal. The traditional formula for our liturgy reads, “Blessed are Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe.” Melach ha-olam. We are the custodians of the world and its inhabitants.

The righteous indignation of the Jewish prophets was not restricted to Jews or Judaism. The prophets' call to repentance was not for Israel alone. In Judaism, the defense of human dignity never was, or is, for Jews only. When we open the Bible, we learn that the first Jew, Abraham, first defended not Jews but the pagan citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah and confronted God: “Shall the Judge of all the world not do justice?” Abraham spoke to God in passionate defense of the people of Sodom, none of whom were Jews.

On Yom Kippur, we read that the prophet Jonah was sent to prophesy to the people of Ninevah, none of whom were Jews. They repented for their transgressions, and God repented for his punishment.

The prophet Amos addressed God's concern not only for Israel but for the people in Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon and Moab.

Do you love your people or humanity? We reject the premise.

To be a Jew is to love humanity. To love God is to love His creation. On Rosh Hashanah, we do not celebrate the birth of any of our Jewish patriarchs — not Abraham nor Moses. Our High Holy Day calendar does not celebrate the birth of a Jewish messiah or the accomplishments of any of its Jewish prophets. The Jewish calendar is calculated not as 2006 C.E. or sixth Century B.C.E. but commemorates the birth of the universe and of all humanity.

In the beginning, God created Adam. Adam has no race, no ethnicity and no creed. Adam is each man and each woman and each child created in the image of God. So, in the first chapter of Genesis, we read: “And God created the human being in God's image, male and female, created He them.”

When the sages ask “from what continent? From what corners of the earth — south, west, east or north — and from what color earth was Adam formed?” they reply, “Adam was formed from every corner of the earth and out of black, white, red and yellow dust.”

If you hurt my brother or my sister — black, white, yellow, red — in Europe, Asia, Africa or America — if you humiliate, torture, torment them, you rip apart the image of God. It is my flesh, soul and heart that you wound. It is my flesh that is pierced and my tongue you cut out and my eyes you make blind.

The God of the universe did not create Islam or Christianity or Judaism. God created Adam, the human being, who through his religious choice cultivates religious culture, conscience and compassion.

Wise people repudiate the making of false either-or choices. The choice is not either-or: either our own or others; either we shed tears for our family alone or for the other families of the earth.

Compassion and justice are not like pieces of pie. Cut a slice for yourself; you take away from the other. Your pie is too small. Your god is too small.

True love and mercy are inclusive, expansive, embracing, enlarging. So, our sages taught “mitzvah goreret mitzvah” — one good deed leads to another. Love of the Children of Israel leads to love of all the children in God's world. The moral choice is not either-or. The Jewish response is “both-and.”

Like charity, love begins at home, but it must not end there. If it ends at home, it is not love and charity but tribal narcissism. Therefore, in our tradition, we are mandated to care for the poor, the pariah, the diseased, the murdered of all humanity. We are mandated to feed the hungry of the stranger, together with the hungry of Israel. We comfort the bereaved of the alien, together with the bereaved of Israel. We visit the sick of the nations of the world with the sick of Israel.

Above all, Jews and non-Jews must not fall victim to the humiliating game of “one downsmanship” — “my genocide is worse than your genocide.” Your blood is not as red as my blood. Genocide, no matter its color, ethnicity or religion of any fabric is the ultimate blasphemy to the image of godliness.

Loyalty to Jews or humanity? The Torah teaches a kinship of suffering, whether the victims threatened are in Judea, Armenia, Chad, Bosnia, Rwanda or Darfur — all souls are threatened. And on Yom Kippur, we fast for all who are afflicted with drought and famine.

It is a false choice: Do you love your children or the children of others? On the contrary, because we love our children, we love other children. Because we love our families, we love other families. Because we mourn our Holocaust, we mourn the holocausts of the world.

It is perilous to abandon the particular in order to love the universal. It is equally foolhardy to abandon the universal for the particular.

As the philosopher George Santayana noted: “You cannot speak in general without using any language in particular.” Judaism is our particular language through which we address humanity. From out of the depth and memory of our own pain, we cry to alleviate the pain of our brothers and sisters.

Torah Portion


Striking the S-Word

By Rabbi Steven Z. Leder

I never heard the N-word, growing up, because we were Jewish. For my parents, the S-word sufficed. Although they never would have denied someone an opportunity based on skin color, it was ” schvartzes ” who tried to rob my Uncle Max and Auntie Jean at their grocery store. When “schvartzes” moved into the neighborhood, it was time to sell the house. My dad had “a big schvartze” who worked in his scrap yard.

In second grade, I anxiously arrived one morning to tell my teacher, Mrs. Carlson, a joke I heard the night before at a family gathering. I didn’t really understand the joke, but everyone sure laughed loud and long when my cousin told it. So I thought I’d give it a shot.

“Hey, Mrs. Carlson, why doesn’t the United States annex Africa?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied earnestly.

“Because then we couldn’t say, ‘Send them back where they came from,'” I answered with a proudly delivered punch line.

I really don’t remember Mrs. Carlson’s reaction. But I do remember her beginning class the next day with a long lecture about a word called racism and about a student who had told her a joke that she knew he probably didn’t understand, but that was a wrong and hurtful joke nevertheless. Mrs. Carlson made it clear that I had learned something wrong. Maybe you have too.

Remember the scene in “Blazing Saddles” when Mel Brooks played an Indian chief who, along with his warriors, encountered a black family making its way across the plains in a covered wagon?

“Hmm, schvartzes,” he said in a language that non-Jewish moviegoers assumed to be Apache or Sioux, but that cracked up practically every Jew in the theater. The S-word has become so much a part of our life, we don’t think twice before laughing at it. But we’re not quite so nonchalant about Jesse Jackson’s use of the word “hymie,” are we?

While in rabbinical school, I was teaching about the commandment “love your neighbor as yourself” to the adult-education class at my student pulpit in Texas.

“But what if it’s a schvartze?” an older man half-jokingly asked from the back of the room. A lot of the others laughed along with him. Amazingly, the man who posed the question was a Holocaust survivor, a victim of this century’s worst racism.

Last December, a Jewish parent at my kids’ school approached me on the playground and suggested I do something about Chanukah for her son’s class, since “they already had four schvartzes talk about Kwanza.”

Sadly, none of this is really new. According to this week’s Torah portion, some 3,000 years ago, Miriam and Aaron ridiculed their brother, Moses, for marrying a “Cushite” woman. A Cushite woman is another way of saying an Ethiopian or Sudanese woman, which is another way of saying a black woman, which is another way of saying schvartze, which, whether we want to admit it or not, is just another way of saying nigger.

For this obvious racial slur against blackness, God ironically afflicts Miriam with leprous, scaly skin “as white as snow.”

I’ve come a long way since telling Mrs. Carlson why the United States couldn’t annex Africa. It took years of honest conversation with my African-American college roommate, a senior thesis on James Baldwin, organizing conferences and dialogues with young African leaders in Los Angeles, my wife and I making a deliberate decision to send our kids to a multicultural school, refusing to tolerate the s-word from my parents or anyone else, and a willingness to admit the depth of Jewish bigotry while at the same time taking pride in those Jews who have worked to end it.

This week, the Torah makes it clear that Jewish bigotry existed at the highest levels 3,000 years ago. It infuriated God and almost killed Miriam. The truth is that things haven’t changed enough in 3,000 years.

The logical conclusion is really pretty simple. If bigotry was wrong then, it’s wrong now. If we don’t wise up, we, too, shall surely suffer.

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is a spiritual leader at Wilshire Boulevard Temple .