Passover, Freedom, and People Seeking Asylum in Israel

27 March 2018
By: Madeline Cooper

Walking around Jerusalem, Pesach is ubiquitous: matzah in every store, students preparing for vacation from school, signs for special Pesach events appearing on the sides of the roads. In this joyous time of year, I am so fortunate to be studying and living in Israel. As Pesach draws near, we remember our enslavement in Egypt and give thanks for our freedom.

However, this year, the first day of Pesach holds a different meaning for thousands of people living in Israel. On April 1, 2018, the approximately 38,000 people seeking asylum  who risked their lives to flee danger, war, and oppression, are scheduled to be deported or — if they refuse — incarcerated indefinitely. These individuals entered Israel over a six year period before Israel closed its border in 2012. In a great irony in these days in which we celebrate our freedom from Egypt, an Eritrean newspaper described the situation from which these refugees fled as “slave-like.”

This year, my involvement at NIF as a Froman Fellow inspired me to get involved in this issue. Over the past several months, with NIF’s support, my classmates at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and I have been attending meetings and rallies in support of  people seeking asylum. We have heard the stories of individuals from Eritrea and Sudan who suffered violence at the hands of the government or military, and in some cases, escaped genocide in Darfur. One man who spoke at a demonstration in Jerusalem had not seen his family in a decade. But if he returned to Eritrea, he would either be killed or conscripted into lifelong military service without pay. We heard of the struggles that some of these individuals faced living in south Tel Aviv, as well as their work  to improve their community and their relationship with the other residents of the neighborhood. We heard from a Mizrahi woman living in south Tel Aviv who supported her neighbors seeking asylum and their right to remain in Israel, speaking powerfully about how her own fight against discrimination was tied to this broader struggle against the racism. And we heard from a Jewish Holocaust survivor who saw her story reflected in the stories of people seeking aslyum, using our collective memory of our recent Jewish history as a call to action.

The Talmud teaches us, “[T]he Torah warns 36 times, and some say 46 times, not to oppress the ger (stranger)” (Babylonian Talmud, Bava M’tzia 59b). This year on Pesach, as we remember yitziat mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt), the injunction to care for the stranger in our midst feels particularly relevant. As we remember our own pain in Egypt, may we also remember that many others in today’s world face similar pain. May we be inspired by our Torah not only not to cause harm to the other who lives among us, but also to aid them in their own journeys from mitzrayim – the narrow place of oppression – to freedom.