Shayna Abramson

Pondering Refugees on Passover

For a brief moment yesterday, I thought that Zionism — the dream to establish a Jewish, democratic state in the land of Israel — had triumphed: Prime Minister Netanyahu announced a new plan to relocate 16,250 African asylum seekers to Western Europe and Canada, while absorbing roughly 24,000 who would be dispersed throughout the country, and provided with economic training to help integrate them into Israeli society. This plan was to replace an older plan to relocate them to Rwanda and Uganda, which had been heavily opposed by large swathes of the Israeli public, as well as human rights organizations and Israel’s asylum seeker community.

What could be more Jewish than announcing freedom for refugees on the holiday of Passover? What could be more democratic than changing your policy in response to mass mobilization of the citizens, in the form of protests, petitions, articles, etc.?

Israel’s new refugee plan, though not perfect, would have resettled 16,250 asylum seekers in countries where the quality of life is equivalent to that of Israel, through official programs with the help of the UN, meaning that their safety and security would be guaranteed. The 24,000 asylum seekers remaining in Israel would be dispersed throughout the country in order to alleviate the plight of South Tel Aviv, which has complained of over-crowding and high crime rates due to the influx of refugees -even though studies show that South Tel Aviv’s refugee community doesn’t have a higher crime rate than it’s non-asylum seeker population.

The new plan addressed the three main arguments used to justify Israel’s old plan: demography, economy, and South Tel Aviv.

24,000 people would not tip the country’s demographic balance, nor would they pose an economic challenge to integrate – especially since many already have jobs in positions Israelis don’t want to fill. South Tel Aviv would not longer bear the brunt of integrating asylum seekers, since they’d be dispersed throughout the country.

But I triumphed too quickly. After right-wing leaders, including Naphtali Bennet and Gideon Saar, criticized the deal for being too weak, Netanyahu backtracked. In doing so, he showed that the only segment of Israeli citizenry that matters to him is his right-wing base: He’s afraid that if they don’t think he’s right-wing enough, they’ll vote for the competition. Once again, Netanyahu has demonstrated that the only principle he cares about is his own political preservation.*

But why did the right-wing oppose the new plan to begin with? After all, it had two primary ingredients of the old plan: 1. Resettling a large chunk of asylum seekers outside of Israel (According to Netanyahu, most of the asylum seekers eligible to remain  in Israel under the new plan would have been eligible to remain in Israel under the old plan, so the total number of asylum seekers in Israel would not substantially differ from one plan to the other.) 2.Alleviating the plight of South Tel Aviv by relocating the asylum seekers to other locations (which, under the new plan, happened to include places in Western Europe and Israel instead of Rwanda and Uganda)

However, the new plan was missing a crucial third ingredient that had been part of the original plan: Making life difficult for asylum seekers by putting them in situations where their safety and security were threatened, and in countries that are perceived by the Israeli public as having a worse quality of life than Israel.

In other words, the new plan wasn’t mean enough to refugees, and that was unacceptable to right-wing voters and the politicians who represent them.

Given that we’re talking about asylum seekers from Africa, it’s hard to argue that this desire to be mean is not racism.

Where does that leave us as a society? Where does it leave us that a policy had to be rescinded because it wasn’t racist enough to satisfy the right-wing Israeli public? What does it say about our politicians that they pander to this racism? What does it mean that this entire incident happened on Passover, the Torah’s – and the Jewish collective narrative’s -prime example of the historical precedent that should inspire us not to oppress the stranger among us?

These are the questions I am asking myself this Passover, a holiday where we recount our past and ponder its connection to our present and our future, a holiday where we ask questions that have no clear answers.

*I believe that Netanyahu swallowed his own Kool-aid, and believes that if he’s not Prime Minister, the country will fall apart, and it will literally be the destruction of Israel. So there may be altruistic motives to his selfish actions.

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. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.
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