Saturday, April 13, 2013

Refugees in the Land of Milk and Honey

This week in our learning discussions, we focused on the status of refugees in Israel and visited South Tel Aviv, where we had the opportunity to speak with a man who worked for UNHCR in Israel for a number of years along with a leader of an organization that works with refugees, and we heard stories directly from two refugees living in Israel. I have been interested in refugee issues since college, when I interned at the International Rescue Committee. In fact, one of the reasons I came to Israel was because of my interest in migration. Ethiopian Israelis (and Jews in general) have a very different story from the African refugees coming here, but there are also a number of similarities.

About 60,000 African refugees have come to Israel since 2005, particularly from Sudan and Eritrea by way of Egypt. Even though Israel was one of the signers of the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees along with the 1967 Protocol, there are no clear policies determining the status of refugees in Israel. In 2012, Israel passed the Anti-Infiltration Act, which allows the detainment of asylum seekers for three years without trial, or indefinitely if they come from “enemy” countries like Sudan. There was been a significant rise in racism, not only among citizens, but also government representatives, against African refugees.

Most of the refugees have arrived by foot - crossing the southern border from Egypt. Once in Israel, they are sent to a detainment center (read: jail) until their identity can be determined. When they are given the opportunity to leave the center, they are given a bus ticket to the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, with no other instructions or assistance.

What has struck me the most about Israel's attitude toward refugees have been the contradictions. I understand the real feeling people have towards Israel being a Jewish state for the Jews to be free from persecution. I also understand that maintaining a Jewish majority is an important tenet of people's lives. However, if we are going to say Israel is a Jewish democratic state (although what this means is unclear), and if the state is going to follow some Jewish law and not others, then it has to be clear on this point.

Exodus 22:20
וְגֵר לֹא-תוֹנֶה, וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ:  כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם
"And do not wrong a stranger or oppress them, for you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt."

Regardless of what you think of Torah, the commandment to not wrong or oppress a stranger is repeated multiple times. Our task as a Jewish state is defining the fine line between the need for a Jewish state and running the state with Jewish values. A state with Jewish values would treat refugees with dignity and work to protect them and provide a place in Israel to allow them to make a life. There are a number of organizations advocating for refugee rights, and hopefully, there will be some improvements in the coming years. At the very heart of the issue though it how Israel treats the non-Jewish minority. We are going to be exploring this issues in the next few weeks. Shavua tov!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Yom HaShoah

Yom HaShoah commemorates the 6 million Jews who died in the Shoah (or Holocaust) during World War II in Europe. In Israel, the day is called Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laGvura (the Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day). "Shoah" literally means destruction, which is a better description than Holocaust, which refers to the animal sacrifice offered to a god in which the whole animal is completely burnt, in other words, the "burnt offering" (think about the political implications of that for a moment). Being in Israel on Yom HaShoah has been a powerful and intense experience.

Yom HaShoah began at sundown last night, like all Jewish observances. Stores closed early and events were held throughout the country. My housemates and I went to ceremony at the local high school, where Shoah survivors told their stories and lit candles. A rabbi spoke, the Kaddish prayer was said, and there were a few other short speeches. Then, a few students spoke and sang. The mayor got up and said a few words, and then the ceremony closed with Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. I thought about how few Ethiopian students were present (none participated in the performances) and the Yemenite and other groups of Jews who may not have had direct experience with the Shoah, but have grown up in a culture that highlights the Shoah as a major component of the narrative. I see it as different than our experience in the US, because, while we learn about the Shoah in school and in Hebrew school, I'm not sure how many of us are descendants of survivors or had family that died in the Shoah. I'm meeting more people here who know survivors or family members who died. Of my Jewish friends in the US, it seems, though, that many of our families came to the US before the Shoah.

Today, I was at the elementary school, and they held a ceremony in the morning, with more songs, some dances, skits, and poems. A grandfather of one of the students was a Shoah survivor, and his story was told before more candles were lit. Again, at the end of the ceremony, we sang Hatikvah. Then, at 10am, a siren sounded across Israel for 2 minutes. The siren was different from the usual siren - when rockets are nearby. This siren was one long monotone. Everyone stands and is still for that time. Apparently, if you are in a car, you pull over and get out to stand in respect.

I had many thoughts during the day about the Shoah and Israel. I wondered how many of my students had family members who survived or were killed (rather, I was interested in how they felt connected with the Shoah). As an American Jew, I feel distantly related to the Shoah - I don't know of any family for certain that died then. I don't feel numb to the stories, though. I empathize as part of the human race and understanding what people went through, how they were resilient, and how the trauma may have affected not only the individuals who survived, but also their children and now their great-grandchildren. I wondered today if the kids here become numb to the discussion of the Shoah because it is all around them. I felt that the siren was just as jarring as the rocket sirens for me. I thought about the meaning of the siren while it was happening. I thought about the reality of the Shoah - about the same number of Jews in Israel today died in the Shoah.

I also thought about current anti-Semitism and attacks on Jews throughout the world. It makes me sad to think that there are people who deny that the Shoah ever happened, but it makes me hopeful when I hear stories about people who are critical of Israel and dismiss Jews as a people go to a Holocaust Museum and realize the truth. There have been some great articles about Palestinians living in the West Bank who visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. I don't think that we should continue to use the Shoah as a way for us to prove our victimhood, though. I think Jews have gained enough power in the world to realize how we can use that to our advantage and help make the world a better place.

May we never forget.
May we be resilient.
May we use our power gained for good.