I watched, moved, as an elderly Jewish man, a Kindertransport refugee, briefly placed a comforting hand on the shoulder of a young Congolese woman, as she paused, in tears, as she described how she, too, had fled her home.
We were at an event I had co-organised as part of the New Israel Fund’s campaign to raise funds for Israelis working to help African asylum seekers in Israel, and to explore the relationship between Judaism, Israel and refugees through different narratives of exile.
Three refugees shared their stories with us.
Mutasim Ali is originally from Darfur, Sudan. Mutasim’s village was destroyed as part of the government’s ethnic cleansing campaign, and his anti-government activism put him in danger. Unable to find safety in Egypt due to its relationship with Sudan, and recalling how Jewish groups had protested the atrocities in Darfur, Mutasim decided to seek sanctuary in Israel, and risked the perilous journey across the Sinai. Today, Mutsaim is one of only twelve African asylum seekers to have been granted status in Israel, and he explained how much the support of Diaspora Jews means to the asylum seeker community in Israel.
R (who prefers that I don’t use her full name) explained how the Congolese government asked her husband to be a spy and commit torture and, when he refused, used their home for torture and murder. Through tears, R described seeing her mother shot dead in front of her. R was imprisoned but managed to escape to the UK. The support she received from the drop-in centre at Liberal Jewish Synagogue, including food, clothing and job-seeking guidance, has helped her feel human again.
Leslie Brent arrived in the UK as a refugee in December 1938, aged 13, on the first Kindertransport. After experiencing violent antisemitism in his home town, his parents sent him to a Jewish boys’ orphanage in Berlin. Leslie and a few of the other boys escaped to Britain, but most of the boys perished in Auschwitz. Leslie’s family was murdered by the Nazis in 1942. Leslie, a renowned immunologist, has made an enormous contribution to the society which welcomed him, and believes that today’s young immigrants will do so as well.
As Leslie offered comfort to R, their empathy for each other’s stories brought home to us the parallel between our own past, and the present of today’s refugees.
We called the event “For We Were Strangers”, drawing on the Biblical commandments not to oppress, and to love, the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. On seder night, we recall our exodus from Egypt, across the Sinai, to salvation in Israel. Listening to Mutasim’s story of his journey across the Sinai, it was hard not to see parallels.
Mutasim is one of around 64,000 asylum seekers to have made the dangerous journey across the Sinai, hoping to be welcomed by Israel, a nation of refugees. Many Israelis have indeed welcomed them, but, as Israeli lawyer Maayan Niezna explained to us, the Israeli government has consistently sought to make their lives difficult.
This culminated on 1 January 2018, when the Israeli government announced a policy of “voluntary” deportation of asylum seekers, to which the only alternative will be indefinite detention. Israelis, Rabbis and Holocaust survivors are among those who have called on the Israeli government to think again. Yet just last week Netanyahu described African asylum seekers as worse than terrorists.
Listening to Mutasim, R and Leslie tell their stories, it was clearer than ever that the Jewish state can and must do better by those who have come to it seeking sanctuary. This year, the New Israel Fund’s Pesach appeal is supporting the work of Israelis trying to make sure that happens. You can read more about it, and make a donation, here: http://www.newisraelfund.org.uk/pesach2018/.