It is easy to get distracted. Every day, sometimes every hour, we hear news of another setback for the values we cherish, both here in America, and also in Israel.
To get our bearings, it helps to understand that what’s happening here in the United States is part of a global trend. Over the past several years, a nativist, neo-authoritarianism has swept across the globe. It has shaped the current political situation in Israel. It is behind Brexit. And it has now reached our shores.
Take, for example, President Trump’s new executive orders slamming shut America’s door to refugees coming to the United States from Muslim countries. His moves, playing cynically on fear and stoking xenophobia, are a betrayal of the values we hold dear as Americans and as Jews. And they are a betrayal of the policies that Jews worldwide pushed for in the wake of the Holocaust. Namely, that refugees should be a protected class of people who must be cared for by the global community.
American Jews remember what happened to the refugees on the doomed ship St. Louis, who were denied entry to America and sent back to gas chambers of Europe. We saw then how national security concerns could be exploited to mask xenophobia. After the war, we worked to make sure that no people in the future would face the same fate.
It should come as a surprise to no one that Israel’s early leaders — impacted by the Jewish experience — were also active in pushing the international community to create new norms for the humane treatment of refugees fleeing persecution in their home countries.
In the late 1970’s then-prime minister Menachem Begin saw a parallel between the experiences of Jewish refugees from Europe and the Vietnamese Boat People, who were escaping their country. Hundreds were granted asylum in Israel. A decade ago, too, as Israel became a destination for refugees fleeing Sudan, Israeli leaders acknowledged that Israel must act to meet the needs of refugees. In 2007, advocating for a proposal to take in a limited number of refugees then Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit said, “Israel, with its history, must offer assistance. It can’t stand by and shut its eyes.”
But the approach of Israel’s current leaders has not reflected these values. To the contrary, the sitting Minister of Culture infamously called the refugees “a cancer in our body.” Going beyond rhetoric, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government has repeatedly passed legislation to imprison refugees at a special facility in the desert. But the situation may not be totally bleak. Today’s unconfirmed report that Israel may take in some orphaned children from Syria would — if true — be a welcome departure from this depressing record of heard-heartedness.
But despite all of this, as I grapple with the changes taking place in our country, I still look to Israel for inspiration. In response to the Israeli government’s draconian approach to refugees, we’ve seen civil rights groups (with modest support from NIF) turn to the courts to resist bad policies. They’ve successfully invalidated laws for the indefinite imprisonment of refugees. And they have helped refugees make their homes, even if temporarily, within Israel. (For a sense of the incredible potential that these refugees can offer any society, it’s worth watching this video of Mutasim Ali, the first Darfurian to receive refugee status in Israel, from an NIF event this fall).
I know that we, here in America, will find the path to resist, and ultimately, reverse bad and heartless policies and to get our country back on track, back to the values of equality and democracy. But we must not lose sight of the fact that our experience is not unique to America, and that neo-authoritarianism is a global phenomenon that impacts our beloved Israel as well. As an NIF supporter in Boston told me just days after the election, it would be a tragic irony, if in this time of rising xenophobia and racism, people like us decide to hunker down and only pay attention to what was happening in our own backyard.