What to do about refugees? An olah’s dilemma

Israel has decided to expel its entire population of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda. If such a thing were to occur in the US, I know exactly what my actions would be: A targeted phone-call and email campaign to my congressman and senators, and attending rallies.

But in Israel, I’m at a loss: I could call all the MKs in the party I voted for last election, but to a certain extent, my vote is replaceable: As long as another Israeli (or two) are likely to vote for those MKs in spite of –or because of — their silence on the asylum seeker issue, it doesn’t matter that they lost my vote — they’ll just replace it with another one. This makes the situation very different from America: the New York elected officials know that if enough people in their state/district oppose a policy, it’s in their political interest to also oppose that policy. They can’t just grab votes from Minnesota to replace the ones that they lost from New York.

Of course, Israeli politicians might care if there’s a mass rally. A mass rally shows that enough of the Israeli population cares about an issue, that replacing the votes of Israelis who care with votes from Israelis who don’t will be a challenging task. Although there have been a few rallies thus far, none of them qualify as ‘mass”. Additionally, because we live in a country where the political discourse claims that anybody who supports the rights of non-Jews is a left-wing traitor,  it’s hard for right-wing activists to support African asylum seekers without losing street cred, which results in most of the public support for the asylum seekers coming from the left. Thus, the right-wing politicians in power assume that their voters don’t care about the issue, and that the people at pro-refugee rallies are already lost votes, who decided to vote for the left. Meanwhile, the left-wing parties know that the left-wing voters are stuck with them, and will vote for them no matter what, so they can afford to disappoint their own voters.*

It would also be possible to boycott and to publicly shame the airlines scheduled to fly the asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda through rallies in front of their offices and social media campaigns; in our (social) media-obsessed age, companies understand the way that public shaming can affect their profit margins.

Most of the current activism, however, is focused on awareness raising. Although I applaud such efforts, I also worry that we’re speaking into an echo-chamber: How much of our awareness raising is composed of refugee-rights advocates yelling about refugee rights to a crowd of refugee-rights advocates? It’s only when we convince the section of the Israeli public that is currently apathetic, that we can begin to convince centrist and right-wing politicians — who, for better or worse, are currently the government in power — that this isn’t some pet left-wing cause, but rather, an issue with real ramifications for their political careers, that we’ll be able to effect change.

Another option is to use connections, which, in a country as small as Israel, are easy to obtain: It’s generally a matter of making enough phone-calls to friends and friends-of-friends. But a system where only those with connections are able to have an impact isn’t democracy — it’s oligarchy.

This brings me to the most meaningful price olim pay when they choose to move to Israel: They give up a system they are familiar with for a system they do not know. Whether economic, academic, professional, social, or political, they have to start charting and navigating a new system that they’ve never encountered. As time goes on, you begin to learn; I certainly feel much more familiar with the different systems governing Israeli society than I did when I stepped off the plane five years ago.

But faced with a feeling of powerlessness in the face of an issue I care deeply about, I’m reminder how much further I have to travel in the process of my acculturation into my adoptive homeland.

*It should be noted some left-wing politicians have spoken out on this issue, including Meretz MK Ilan Gilon who offered to shelter asylum seekers in his house to prevent them from being deported.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry.
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