Arik Ascherman

Will Jewish Institutions That Posted Darfur Signs Help Asylum Seekers in Israel?

I am writing after just having returned from handing out flyers in Jerusalem against the expulsion of asylum seekers whose case hasn’t been fairly heard, for a solution for South Tel Aviv, and for a demonstration on Saturday night the 24th of south Tel Aviv residents against the forced expulsion.  This week I also spent two nights on shifts sleeping overnight in Susya.  The villagers don’t want us to try to prevent the impending demolitions of 7 homes and structures, but hope that our presence will lessen the danger of violence, prevent the demolition of protected structures, and allow us to document how the Jewish state treats non-Jews.

Parashat Trumah is the first of four Torah portions dealing with the building of the tabernacle we carried through the desert, punctuated in three weeks by the story of the golden calf.  We will read that there was such an outpouring of contributions that Moses eventually had to say “enough.” AND, the Israelites will also give generously to build the golden calf.  It seems, we had a great need to serve God by giving, but that we were willing to give without distinction between the One God and a false god.  Rosh Khodesh Adar (Today is the first day of the Jewish month of Adar) is a good time to reflect on the fact the command to become inebriated until we can’t distinguish between good and evil is to be done only once a year. In fact, today many rabbis are calling into question whether we should really be doing so even on Purim.  Usually, we are expected to make a clear distinction between good and evil, to support the good, stop evil and help evildoers return to their truest and highest selves.

When it comes to Israel, our Jewish community here in Israel and abroad is very diverse.  We range from those who make no distinction between Israel’s just and unjust actions because they truly believe that Israel does no wrong, to those who believe we must preserve tribal unity in a hostile world even when we believe Israel to be doing wrong, to those of us who strive for an Israel living up to our highest Jewish and Zionist values, to those who reject the legitimacy of a Jewish state.  But, one of the reasons I haven’t burned out after over 22 years of human rights work, is that what unifies almost all of us across that spectrum, is a desire that we be just.

Getting back to asylum seekers, it was only a few years ago that outside countless synagogues throughout North America were “Save Darfur” banners.  No matter whether we felt that the world was unfairly criticizing Israel, or whether we shared at least some of the criticism, we wanted to be the “good guys” again.  We wanted to show that Judaism stood for justice and human rights, and that we who had been at the forefront of the civil rights movement were still committed activists for non-Jews.  Israel once united us, but now divided us.  Regarding Darfur, we could be united again.

Today, I can only imagine the angst that some are feeling.  Our opposition to genocide and our concern for African refugees/asylum seekers was our chance to prove we were still the good guys.  We thought we could get away from the divisiveness over Israel that we found both inside and outside the Jewish community.  Now, the issue of Darfur is bringing us right back to Israel.  Do we still support those fleeing for their lives when some Israeli leaders are calling them a cancer?  If our need in the Torah to give to the Divine caused us to blur distinctions, I suspect that our desire to still see ourselves as working for justice and human rights is causing some of us to make problematic distinctions between what Israel should do and what the rest of the world should do.

Now is the true test f our values.  It is much easier to champion human rights when the violators are somebody else.  However, if we really stand by our values, we must uphold them in the less comfortable situation where we look inward.

There are some simple steps that can be taken by every congregation, Jewish institution or individual hat put up a Save Darfur sign (and those who didn’t).  Anybody who has not inebriated themselves to the point that they can ignore the facts knows that many of those who we pressure or even force to leave for Uganda and Rwanda will be tortured, murdered, jailed or drown.  While I don’t personally believe that the 37,000 asylum seekers who are still in Israel present a threat to the Jewish character of Israel (Or even the 65,000 who were here), I have been working in recent years to persuade countries that could truly and decently absorb asylum seekers to allow us to serve as a way station, and for Jewish and other communities to sponsor asylum seekers coming from Israel to ensure that they won’t become burdens in their new homes.  At first, even many advocates for asylum seekers opposed this idea because it facilitated moving asylum seekers out of Israel.  Today, several governments are doing this on a small scale, and the U.N. has been in discussions with Israel about doing this on an expanded scale.Many North American Jewish and non-Jewish communities are expressing willingness to help out, as are individual in Israel and abroad.. However, those who are willing to help us out demand that we properly administer RSD  to determine who is deserving of refugee status, and agree to accept some number of asylum seekrs.

Therefore, I respectfully suggest that those who took part in the save Darfur campaign now write to Israeli decision makers and those in your own governments. Express your concern both for asylum seekers, the veteran residents of South Tel Aviv and the soul of the Jewish people.  Make it clear that you do not simply wish to criticize, but help out. Ask the decision makers in your government to help out by offering to absorb, with your help, asylum seekers currently in Israel.

Among all the details in our Torah portion, we are told to build and to light the seven branched menorah.  Here is another case where distinctions are blurred, because we are taught that each of the seven lights came together to form one light.  We have an opportunity to blur our differences, concentrate on our shared desire to be a force for good for all humanity, and shine some light.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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