Israel and the Refugees

11 January 2018

Mutasim Ali has been on my mind this week.

In 2016, Mutasim became the first Darfurian to be recognized by Israel as a refugee. Reaching that point was harrowing. He survived persecution and torture in his homeland and fear for his life in Egypt before he crossed the border to Israel, applied for asylum, and found himself detained in an Israeli jail for months.

This part of the story, difficult as it may be, is not unusual for the roughly 38,000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel. What is unusual about Mutasim’s case is that he managed to have his application for asylum examined and, after seven years of legal appeals, accepted by the government.

Despite, or maybe because of, all that Mutasim has lived through, he is a remarkably positive person. He sees the glass half full. He is thankful for what Israel has offered him. And, as a leader of the refugee community within Israel, he often says, “we are an asset, not a threat.”

Mutasim has been on my mind because it has been one week since the Israeli government adopted a new plan which reportedly steps up their use of the threat of indefinite imprisonment to try to compel asylum seekers within Israel to agree to board planes to Rwanda or Uganda, where, experience shows, their lives would once again be in danger.

It pains me to imagine that the current Israeli government — who govern a state built by Jewish refugees — would turn their backs on Israel’s founding values, would ignore the lessons of the Jewish experience of statelessness, and would push asylum seekers out.

But I know that there is more to Israel than the current governing coalition. There are Israelis who are mobilizing to prevent this policy from being implemented. They are organizing grassroots campaigns. They are preparing legal challenges. We will be sharing with you more about this work in the coming weeks.

You better believe that they are being supported — financially and with expert advice — by the New Israel Fund. And you know that we have also found additional ways to speak out, in coalition with other leaders of the American Jewish community, against the forced deportations.

Time and again, these Israelis who believe in the principles of equality and democracy have been able to slow, to stall, and even to defeat the designs of those who are trying to refashion Israel into a place marked by fear, by xenophobia, and by exclusion.

With our support, they can win.