On October 25, 2017, my father Gershon Glausiusz came to my daughter’s first grade class in honor of Yom Aliyah — the Day of Immigration to Israel — to speak about his journey to Israel in 1949. After surviving Bergen-Belsen, he and his older brother fled anti-Semitism in post-war Hungary, crossing the Hungarian border on foot into Slovakia, without passports, walking by night and sleeping in hay-stacks and barns during the day. A class of 6- and 7-year-olds listened, fidgeting a bit, as my father described how, with the aid of Youth Aliyah, he and his brother and friends traveled on a train filled with Hungarian refugees through Slovakia, Austria, and Italy, to the port of Genoa, where they boarded a cargo ship, the Negba, that took them to Israel.
On August 11, 1949, when the ship came within sight of the lights of Haifa, all the passengers on the Negba went up to the deck of the boat at dawn, dancing and singing pioneer songs, my father told the class. My mother, Irene, and I joined him as he sang אַרְצָה עָלִינוּ (Artzah alinu): “We have ascended to the land of Israel; we have plowed and sown, but we have not yet reaped.”
Living in the land of Israel today are some 27,500 asylum seekers from Eritrea and 7,800 from the Darfur region of Sudan, who came to Israel via similar tortuous routes. Many experienced rape and beatings in notorious “torture camps” in the Sinai desert, while their families raised tens of thousands of dollars for their release. I listened to some of these asylum seekers describe their long journeys to Israel while interviewing them for an article I wrote last year for Tablet Magazine about The Schoolhouse in Tel Aviv, which offers adult education to refugees, asylum seekers, and migrant communities in Israel.
Like my father, they had come to Israel expecting a refuge: 72 percent of African asylum seekers in Israel fled Eritrea, a totalitarian state with forced, indefinite army conscription, no national elections, no legislature, and no independent media. Twenty percent had escaped genocide in Darfur, and about 7% are from other African countries.
Because of my encounters with these asylum seekers, and because of my father’s own history as a refugee, I was shocked and disgusted when I read, mid-December, that the Israeli Knesset had approved a bill advocating the expulsion of asylum seekers. They will be forced to accept relocation to countries in Africa or face indefinite imprisonment in Israel. Seventy-one Members of the Knesset supported the bill and 41 opposed it.
How is it that a country founded by refugees advocates the expulsion of refugees? As a party to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, “Israel has legal obligations to protect refugees and other persons in need of international protection,” says UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Volker Türk. That is, Israel has a legal obligation to grant refuge to anyone who is unable to return to his or her country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of persecution “for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”
Even so, notes UNHCR, only eight Eritreans and two Sudanese have been recognized as refugees by Israel, whose leader and legislators consistently refer to asylum seekers as “infiltrators.” Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to forcibly deport African asylum seekers to Rwanda, a country which, according to Human Rights Watch, tightly restricts freedom of speech and the ability of opposition parties and civil society groups to function freely, and detains and tortures journalists, human rights defenders and opposition party members.
According to ADRC, the African Refugee Development Center, asylum seekers who have left Israel for Rwanda or Uganda report that their travel documents were confiscated by local authorities upon arrival in their new countries. Some faced arbitrary arrest or demands for bribes, and others were forced to leave the new country shortly after arrival.
On January 17, 2018, at a conference at the Knesset entitled “Not in Our Names: Don’t Expel Refugees to Their Deaths,” organized by Members of the Knesset Michal Rozin (Meretz), Eyal Ben Reuven (Zionist Camp), and Dov Khenin (Joint List), I listened, as courageous representatives of asylum seekers in Israel spoke with dignity and despair about their struggle to stay in Israel.
“I work with Eritrean women,” said Helen Gebremdhin of the Eritrean Women’s Community Center. “I heard a lot of stories from the women — the women run from being arrested, from answering questions from Eritrean authorities: ‘Where is your husband? Where are your brothers?’ After leaving their countries they were kidnapped on their way, they were tortured, burned by fire. They were like slaves, raped by more than two people. When they arrived here, they had hope. They thought at least they would get medicine for their burns. But it was difficult to get medicine, because they don’t have status; they can’t get welfare services or health services. When they try to get help from brothers, friends and neighbors and families who are here, their brothers were sent to the detention camp of Holot,” the detention camp in southern Israel.
She added, “At least 90% of Eritreans who are living here are Christians. We love Israel; it’s our holy land. We are not an enemy; we are ready to protect your Jewish country. If you are Jewish, try to do what your God will ask you to do. To be kind, to help to people who are waiting to get help from you. All of us, we want to go home. We miss our family, our country. Why can’t you wait until our country is peaceful?”
Gebremdhin thanked the audience for their support, as did Asmait Mahar Tzion, an Eritrean Community Mediator for the Israel AIDS Task Force. She spoke movingly about her work supporting Eritrean mothers and their children who live in fear of deportation. “What we went through to get to Israel — rape, torture — should we again return to that situation?” Tzion asked. “In my community center I receive phone calls […] The women say, my boy comes home from school and asks ‘are they expelling us? Where are they sending us?’ Is it rational that a boy of 6 or 7 will think of such things? It’s not rational at all. Where will we go?”
I wish that Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who has said that he intends “to use any possible means to increase the rate of deportation to another country,” would listen to these women and ask his own conscience whether he can justify such hateful words and deeds. I wish that Culture Minister Miri Regev, who has referred to Sudanese asylum seekers as “a cancer in our body,” would listen to them too. I hope that the schoolchildren who listened to my father will grow up and think about what it means to be a refugee in need of a home. Because, when I listened to Asmait Mahar Tzion speak, I could not help but think of my own 7-year-old twins, who never need to fear losing their home here for an uncertain and dangerous future.
“We have ascended to the land of Israel; we have plowed and sown, but we have not yet reaped,” we sang on that October day. It’s true. We have plowed and sown, but we have not reaped the lessons from our own appalling history.