An inseparable part of our history as Jews is the record of our transformation from being a people shackled in the chains of Egyptian bondage to a people ennobled by a sacred purpose and destiny. We are commanded to carry with us forever the memory of our meager origins, particularly now that we have secured the privilege of sovereignty in the modern State of Israel.
Over and over, the Torah reminds us that we must conduct ourselves differently once we have power. We are to hear the cry of those who suffer even when it is our enemy. Commenting on a verse in this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, the rabbis say that when the Egyptians were drowning at the Sea, heavenly angels sought to continue to sing praises to God as they would every morning at dawn. God turns to them disapprovingly and says: “The work of my hands is drowning and you are singing?!” It is as if the Creator says that there can be no “business as usual” attitude when my human creations are suffering. That is because, according to our tradition, every human being is created in the image of God regardless of race or religion.
This past week, 35 Israeli intellectuals petitioned the government of Israel to overturn a Knesset recent decision, ratified by the Israeli Supreme Court, to deport foreign workers to Africa. They wrote: “We call upon you to stop the deportation of those seeking refuge from Eritrea and Sudan — men and women who carry on their bodies and in their souls the terrifying scars of their harrowing journey as well as children who were born in Israel who seek only one thing — to live.”
Determining the fate of approximately 40,000 African illegal immigrants is a complex matter. However, let me isolate the plight of one specific group. It is a group of 307 young people who came to Israel 10 years ago when they were children. They arrived without families from Darfur and Eritrea after having escaped the hands of their captors. They fled an inferno of war, ethnic cleansing, and murder where they lost their families and saw their parents perish before their own eyes. The State of Israel gathered these children into their lap, educated them in youth villages throughout Israel, and helped them build life anew.
Now, they face an intolerable situation. They lack citizenship as asylum seekers because they are not defined as refugees, and they have no address to which they can safely return. How can we ignore their cries?
The directors of the youth villages from which these African children graduated took up their cause. Below is an excerpt of the letter they wrote to the Minister of the Interior, Aryeh Deri:
We appeal to you to accommodate these asylum seekers who arrived to Israel as unaccompanied minors, alone, after suffering trials of torture and starvation on their way to Israel and surviving unimaginable agonies in their countries of origin. These young people were adopted into Israeli society…and dreamed of a future in their new country. We urge you to uphold the responsibility that the State of Israel took upon itself when it absorbed them as children and urge you not to deport them to some foreign land, bereft of any relative, friend, or ally, where only danger and uncertainty await them….
Nearly 18 years ago, our country took in these children….They studied Bible and citizenship, Hebrew language and Hebrew literature, and they made friends and gained adoptive families. They began to rebuild their lives and put their past behind them.
Today, they are adults. Most of them live in Israel with renewable residency permits, without health insurance or access to welfare services. Yet, they continue to advance themselves by studying, working, and maintaining close ties with each other, their adoptive families, and the staff of the youth villages.
We urge you, as someone who has the authority under the law to exercise your discretion regarding personal status, to continue down the road of virtue and enable them to remain in Israel. Their entire life and world depend on Israel. Their identity as human beings is Israeli, and it would be a grave injustice to to send them back to an unknown future. We have watched these children grow from survivors to dreamers with a desire for a more certain future. We have instilled in them the values of the State of Israel and have taught them to see themselves as an inseparable part of society. We implore you to show these young people that this was not a lie and act on behalf of this humanitarian call.
The directors of all the youth villages in the State of Israel
When I read a letter like this, how can we go on with “business as usual?!” How can we continue life as it is while the works of God’s hands are drowning in fear and uncertainty? What will we tell our children and grandchildren when they are old enough to ask us what we did on behalf of the African children who were living in Israel? Did we hear the cries of the children who sought refuge in Israel or did we continue singing?