It’s hard to process what has happened in the last 24 hours. First there was disbelief. Then there was euphoria. Then disbelief again. Then anger.
After years of quiet negotiations, yesterday, Prime Minister Netanyahu signed an agreement with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) and held a press conference to announce that the UN would assist in the resettlement of 16,000 African asylum seekers in Western countries and Israel would give legal protection to the remaining group so they could have temporary safety.
The new agreement would have overturned the mass deportation orders that were pending to send asylum seekers to Rwanda or place them in jail indefinitely, where almost 300 sit today.
Within hours, the prime minister suspended the agreement and is now holding meetings with residents of South Tel Aviv. The residents of South Tel Aviv are very important. They have borne the brunt of the government’s decision to send busloads of newly arrived asylum seekers directly from the Sinai border to their neighborhoods, where they were dumped unceremoniously with only the clothing on their backs.
One of my first introductions to the plight of the asylum seekers was when our synagogue collected coats for the homeless living in Levinsky Park. Thankfully, things have improved for the community, as they found work and housing and became more self-sufficient.
The fence built along the border with Sinai has stopped the flow of asylum seekers. In 2017 not a single person entered Israel from the Sinai. The human trafficking networks and torture camps that were a part of the escape path for this vulnerable population leaving Eritrea and Sudan have shut down. The challenge now is solely to provide legal safety and human dignity for those who are already in Israel.
Politics are complex. The prime minister is under tremendous pressure from his political allies. Political realities, however real, do not negate the legal rights of the asylum seekers to have their refugee status determined in a transparent process and not to be sent to countries where their safety cannot be assured. These rights are based on the 1951 Refugee Convention signed by Israel.
The Jewish value of welcoming the stranger, repeated over and over again in the Torah, is a powerful motivator. We are commanded to love the stranger, to treat the stranger as one of our own, to take care of the needs of the stranger. For me, this is a powerful reminder of our obligations to our fellow humans, especially those who reside with and near us.
Israel has played a central role in my life. I admired Israel from afar for many years, teaching my students to love Israel and develop a strong connection to the Jewish State, as I had. More recently, I have had the incredible opportunity to live here and be immersed in the beauty and complexity that is Israel as she readies to turn 70. My love of Israel inspires me to work for a just and fair solution that is both good for Israel and fair to the asylum seekers.
I have learned that things change very quickly here in the volatile Middle East. I’m hoping that cool heads will prevail and the solid, well-considered plan that was briefly adopted and announced yesterday afternoon will once again go forward.
The asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan have fled violence, forced labor disguised as conscription, and genocide. I have seen their scars and heard their stories. We have a moral and legal obligation to keep them safe. I will continue to work with Israelis, American Jewish leaders, and all others who share our commitment to ensuring that these asylum seekers have the safety and security they deserve.
From disbelief to euphoria to anger. For the sake of a vulnerable population that desperately needs our protection, let us hope that next comes relief.