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Refugees, asylum-seekers, and us

Wars, oppressive regimes, and deteriorating conditions around the world bring a small trickle of refugees to Israel's shores - and they need our help
Illustrative. Ukrainian refugees bound for Israel at Chisinau Airport, Moldova, March 18, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
Illustrative. Ukrainian refugees bound for Israel at Chisinau Airport, Moldova, March 18, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

In a world of population displacement and massive migration brought about by escalating violence, poverty, climate change, pandemics, and political repression, Jews throughout the globe are now preparing for the High Holy days. Centuries of wandering to avoid oppression and persecution in search of freedom and a better life have made us particularly sensitive to the hardships of dispossession and relocation. This is especially true during this reflective holiday season when Jews in all their diversity, as individuals and collectively, ponder once again the contemporary meaning of where they have come from, how they define themselves, and what they are trying to achieve. Given Israel’s history, in today’s uncertain climate at least some of this process should be directed at improving the lot of refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants knocking on its doors.

Shortly after its establishment, Israel became one of the most avid advocates for the creation of a new international consensus on the treatment and rights of refugees and asylum-seekers. It took an active part in the formulation of the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and its subsequent 1967 Protocol. But since then, with few exceptions (notably Menachem Begin’s willingness to absorb some Vietnamese refugees in the late 1970s and Yitzhak Rabin’s gesture towards a handful of people fleeing the horrors of the ethnically-driven massacres in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s), a chasm has emerged between the legal and practical preference it has accorded to Jewish migrants and its extension to others seeking refuge in its midst.

The record during the past two decades has been particularly grim. Successive governments — regardless of party affiliation — have done almost everything possible to prevent the entry of non-Jews into the country and to make the lives of those already here as difficult as possible. At the beginning of the present century, tens of thousands of African refugees were incarcerated in large detention centers, a fence was constructed along the border with Egypt to lower the number of those trying to get into the country after suffering untold horrors at home and on route to a safe haven, and little was done to ease their daily existence. Although Israel eventually granted temporary collective protection to those hailing from Sudan, Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Guinea, and allowed some migrants to work (usually in sub-standard conditions and with minimal if any rights), it also did everything in its power to strip them of these safeguards as soon as possible and to encourage their repatriation or their relocation to third countries. A noxious, xenophobic, atmosphere was cultivated against those who were different racially, religiously, and culturally from the Jewish majority.

A host of Israelis rushed to fill in this humanitarian breach. Whether motivated by Jewish history and norms, universal values, basic human decency or pure outrage, they have done everything in their power to reduce the distress of the foreigners in our midst. Several major organizations were formed to deal with their most pressing needs, to offer basic services, to protect their legal status, to lobby decision-makers and to prevent their dislocation until conditions improved in their home countries. Several major organizations were formed to this end, including the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC), and the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (ASSAF). Religious groups have provided assistance where possible. Local associations have helped with everything from clothes and shelter to food and education — such as the Tel Aviv Municipality’s Mesila program, the Jerusalem African Community Center, and similar initiatives throughout the country. Scores of volunteers have joined these efforts. These incredible Israelis — of all backgrounds, communities, and walks of life — continue to bring some light into the lives of the dislocated and the uprooted.

At the outset of 2022, there remained only about 30,000 asylum seekers in the country (with just a handful, despite concerted efforts, having attained refugee status). Of these, 77.8% come from Eritrea, 18.5 % from the Sudan, 2.5% from the Democratic Republic, and several hundred from other countries in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Over 8,000 are children. This number has grown during the past six months following the Russian invasion of the Ukraine. Although the Ministry of the Interior headed by Ayelet Shaked did almost everything possible to limit their entry, about 14,000 non-Jewish Ukrainians have arrived in Israel during the past six months. They join approximately 15,000 Ukrainians who were in the country prior to the outbreak of hostilities and have now been granted group protection. Along with the remaining asylum-seekers from the global south, they are in dire need of support and understanding.

These are being provided, to a large extent, by the same voluntary organizations and initiatives operating on the ground in recent years. Israeli and Jewish groups (such as IsraAID, HIAS, Magen David Adom, and Hashomer Hatzair) have also extended assistance in the Ukraine and neighboring countries. And a dynamic group of individuals and groups work to provide succor for refugees from other countries (including Afghanistan where daring rescue missions of women and girls were spearheaded by Israelis like Danna Harman and Roni Aboulafia, along with other activists from North America and Europe). Their job, however, has just begun: as long as wars and oppressive regimes continue to hound people and deteriorating conditions make daily subsistence virtually impossible, the small trickle of refugees that reach Israel’s shores need more help now than ever before.

This challenge is universal. It rests especially heavily on the shoulders of every single Jew and Israeli. As a people who have known the horrors of hateful discrimination and displacement and have benefited (however belatedly) from the backing and goodwill of many welcoming countries and diverse communities, the obligation to care for refugees both near and far is an integral party of Jewish identity in the modern era.

There are lots of ways to express empathy. This can be done through small human gestures, including a smile and a kind word, a meal, some clothes, household necessities, and a helping hand with endless bureaucratic demands. It can be achieved through voluntarism wherever possible. It can also be promoted through words and a commitment to changing the acrid climate toward outsiders that permeates the airwaves and the public sphere. It can be advanced through political action, through consistent protests against prejudicial policies (such as excluding asylum-seekers from working in major cities or withholding support to victims of human trafficking). And it can be augmented even more by contributing financially to those who are bearing the brunt of the burden of aiding the refugees and asylum-seekers waiting here until conditions allow them to return to their homes and their lives.

The holiday month which commences next week is an opportunity to look in and reach out. Along with your yearly donations to the people and causes you hold dear, think of embracing migrants — both Jewish and non-Jewish — as well. I am renewing my annual gift to the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants on whose board I am proud to serve in its current crowdsourcing campaign ending this evening. You can join me or give to any one of the organizations and initiatives devoted to this issue. This is one, crucial, way to remember our past, deal with an increasingly bewildering present, and give hope for a better future. Above all, tt is what being a Jew in today’s world is all about.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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