Several months ago, in another context, I told you the following story, which I heard from Leonard Fein. I tell it again now, for a different, and very specific, reason:
Ahmad Babikar Abdel Aziz, who is now 30 years old, is originally from a small town in north Darfur, a town lacking in education, health care and security. When he finished high school in Kinanah, a week-long journey from his home, he was admitted to Alzaeim University, in Khartoum, as a student of urban planning. But the war in Darfur broke out during his second year of study, in 2003, and he set out to return to his family’s home.
While making his way home, he was arrested and then imprisoned – and tortured – for four months. When he was at last released, he tried to contact his family. He learned that his mother and brother were in a refugee camp in Darfur and that his father had most likely made it to Chad.
Mr. Abdel Aziz has been in Israel for three years now. He lectures on refugee rights, and helps new arrivals from Darfur become familiar with the availability of health services (not from public agencies but from volunteer doctors), with banking practices, and with prospects of their return to Sudan. He is also a volunteer translator, assisting patients at a refugee clinic at Tel Aviv’s Central bus station by translating their stories into Hebrew so that the doctors will understand them. (He is fluent in English, Hebrew and Arabic.) To make ends meet, more or less, he works when he can as a hotel cleaner, as a dishwasher in restaurants, as a welder for a construction company.
How did this young man end up in Israel? The time had come for him to flee Sudan. It was far too expensive to be smuggled into Europe. With the $600 he’d saved up, he chose to get to Israel.
He went by boat to Aswan and found a Bedouin smuggler who connected him to a group traveling to Israel via the Sinai desert. After crossing the desert surreptitiously, they raced for the fence separating Egypt and Israel. Egyptian soldiers tried to gun them down. Ahmad and his comrades crossed the fence and found the nearby Israeli military camp, thence to a nearby prison facility where they were held for 54 days, and finally released to Beersheba, from which Ahmad made his way to Tel Aviv.
I also want to add to this very contemporary story another tale from a long time ago. We will read it later this morning when we turn, as we do each year on the second day of Shavuot, to the Scroll of Ruth. The end of chapter 1 of this scroll tells us that Ruth – a foreigner, and from the reviled nation of Moab – arrived in Judea, with no assets and almost without family, at the beginning of the spring harvest. And then immediately, at the beginning of chapter 2, Ruth announces to her mother-in-law Naomi her plan to alleviate their poverty and hunger by going to glean behind the harvesters in a field belonging to some Judean stranger. What this means is clear and very striking: it is that one of the very first things that Ruth learned about the culture of Judea was that this was a place where even a foreigner would be cared for if she was destitute and without hope. She would have the rights that any Judean pauper would have. And that right was the key to Ruth’s integration into a Judea that became stronger because of the family that she created, a family that produced David, the most successful Israelite king of all time.
The importance of these current and ancient narratives is what they tell us about how to view what happened in the Hatikvah and Shapira neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv this past Wednesday:
Some background, for those who have not been following the events: There are now about 60,000 African refugees living in Israel, the great majority of them in the impoverished neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv. Most of them come from Eritrea, with a significant minority from Sudan and South Sudan. These are almost all people who are unable to go home, because of unspeakable horrors that they have witnessed and continue to fear in their countries of birth. They have not only paid nearly their last pennies to Bedouin smugglers to arrive in Israel, but many of them have also endured abuse, torture, and rape along the way. And now they are in the Jewish state. Without official refugee status, without legal work opportunities, many without any work at all. Without much hope, other than that they are in a country that they know is the state of a people that has known what it is to be a refugee, what it is to be pursued, what it is to be abused and tortured and to fear for one’s life.
Last Wednesday, there was a demonstration in South Tel Aviv, involving about 1000 members of the permanent population of those already poor and underprivileged communities. They were protesting the enormous presence in their neighborhoods of these Africans who now constitute competition for jobs and for customers of the small business shops. And they were expressing fear about what they saw as rising crime rates in their streets because of this African presence. Before too long, the demonstration turned ugly. Very ugly. Cars with Africans in them were surrounded and their windows smashed. Racist epithets were hurled. T-shirts with the inscription “Mavet La-Sudanim” (“Death to the Sudanese) were in evidence. Reporters covering the events were threatened and had to run for their safety. There was widespread looting of shops owned by Africans.
One thing is very clear. While there is certainly anger and fear among the South Tel Aviv residents, one of the biggest factors that turned the demonstration into a race riot was the fact that certain Members of Knesset (MKs) came from Jerusalem to speak at this rally in ways that crossed many lines of civility and responsibility. MK Miri Regev told the crowd in a shrill tone that the African population in Israel is “a cancer in our body”. She exhorted the crowd to demand that they be “sent back to Sudan”. Other speakers incited the crowd of demonstrators by telling them that they will “have to decide whether you want to live in Israel or Sudan.”
In other government offices, the rhetoric has not been any better. Eli Yishai, the head of the Shas Party and the government’s Minister of Internal Affairs, has said that if only he were given the authorization to do so, he would “lock up all 60,000 of them, and eventually send them all packing.” Even if this were a morally acceptable thing to do, where exactly would he lock up 60,000 “prisoners”? An example of pure, opportunistic political demagoguery. But it was hardly surprising, given the tenor in South Tel Aviv, that there were chants in the crowd of “Ten Le-Yishai Le-Natzeah” (“Let Yishai prevail”). It’s gotten bad enough that graffiti has shown up in Tel Aviv – including at the offices of a lawyer who represents refugees – saying “Kushim Ha-Hutzah” (“Kushim get out”). “Kushim” in classical Hebrew meant “Ethiopians”, but in modern Hebrew they are called “Etiopim”. “Kushim” now translates into an English word that, when uttered in the U.S. in the course of an assault, automatically makes it into a bias crime. I need not elaborate further, except to say this: it is always painful to hear prejudicial and racist language, but it is excruciating – or should be – to hear such ugly and violent words uttered in Hebrew.
You usually have to go to certain elements of the foreign press, and especially the European press, to find the worst condemnations of events in Israel. But this time, you had to go no further than Israel Defense Forces Radio. For that Israeli army media outlet described what happened in South Tel Aviv on Wednesday as “a pogrom”.
Now here are some of the things that I believe we should take away from this:
(1) We should begin by taking pride in the fact that Israel is a place to which oppressed and desperate people want to go. Mr. Abdel Azziz, with whose story I began, said the following, when asked why he risked his life to get to Israel: “I knew that the Jewish people were also under extermination in Germany and so I thought that if the Israelis will not help me, then no one would help me.” But that pride has to be bolstered by a reality that delivers on some of the promise that draws people without hope to come to us.
(2) Prime Minister Netanyahu did indeed make a statement that the actions of the mob on Wednesday were unacceptable. That is commendable. But given how the situation has been festering with no government action, it was too late, and it was without a doubt too little. The PM has gone on record as describing the African refugee presence as raising concerns about both security and “the Jewish character of Israel.” Jewish character??? How narrow a definition do we now have of “Jewish character”? Is it only a matter of what the percentage of Jews is in the population? Is it of a Jewish character to be sending refugees home? Here was one of the worst statements from an MK who whipped up the demonstration on Wednesday. Danny Danon, from the PM’s Likud Party, said that he had been in touch with the President of Sudan, who told him – “no problem, send them all back home to us. We’ll be glad to have them.” Imagine that. Imagine that Franklin Roosevelt had said of the tens of thousands of German Jews who came to the U.S. in the 1930s, “I’ve spoken to the Chancellor of Germany, and he said he’ll be glad to take them in, and we should just send them all home.” Jewish character of the state? Eikh Naf’lu Gibborim (How the Mighty have Fallen)!
(3) Here was another placard seen at Wednesday’s rally. It said: “Bibi: It’s not the Iranians I fear.” This is a revealing protest line that expresses a suspicion about the government from its own citizens: that although the threat from Iran is not fabricated – it’s real of course – nevertheless, the exclusive and obsessive focus on it is a way for the government to avoid having to do anything for deteriorating social and economic conditions for the underprivileged. In particular, it may absolve the government from taking steps on behalf of the residents of Hatikvah and Shapira, or of the Africans, that will upset the coalition or require the kinds of steps that could endanger reelection.
(4) This is, in other words, a classic pitting of one impoverished, underserved and underprivileged group against another. Despite what today’s rhetoric may suggest, Hatikvah was not a beautiful safe neighborhood before the Africans arrived. There was crime of all kinds. And it has been, besides, the center of a sex-slave industry about which way too little has been done over the years. But now there is a scapegoat that can divert attention away from the systemic problem. “It’s the Africans’ fault”. And now that there’s a scapegoat, the next thing you know, they’re being pursued and dehumanized, insulted and beaten, looted, with thoughts of sending them back to uncertain life, and in many cases, certain death.
(5) Governments all over the globe indulge in denial and inaction by letting two desperate groups go at each other. But is this what one expects of a state with a “Jewish character”? Think of the symbolism: Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently sold his apartment in Akirov Towers for almost $8 million (not shekels). [Hint: he was not moving to a more modest place]. And yet nothing is done about the gnawing gap in wealth that turns people into pursuers.
(6) The New Israel Fund is among the organizations actually trying to do something constructive and long-lasting to address this and other social justice problems. Not to treat an entire population like criminals (even though individuals in that population do commit criminal acts), but to recognize that something must de done before it is too late. And what does the NIF get for its efforts on behalf of the security and real Jewish character of the State? You may get the same e-mails I get from self-appointed zealots for “correct” Zionism in advance of next week’s Celebrate Israel Parade. The NIF and other groups are vilified as “enemies of Israel” unworthy of marching in support of Israel. They are the enemies of Israel, not the MKs who incite riots! As Rabbi Joshua’s son is reported in the Talmud to have said: “Olam Hafukh Ra’iti” (“I have seen a topsy-turvy world”).
I want to share with you my translation of a declaration that was put out immediately after the riot, on Thursday morning, by the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel and the Masorti Movement, our brothers and sisters, who are among those who worry deeply and with activism about the Jewish character of Israel. Here is the text as published in Israel:
In only three instances does the Torah command us to love. Two out of those three are commands to love people. It is difficult to command a person to love; and it is more difficult still to bring yourself to love someone only because you were commanded to do so. All the more so if the subject is a stranger in the land, a foreigner with strange ways, distant and segregated from us. But it is precisely because the commandment to love the stranger is so difficult, that the Torah was constrained to mention it.
Values are tested in tough conditions. It is easy to be tolerant in a utopian setting. It is far more difficult when reality is piercing, congested, and sweaty, and when it pounds you in the chest before it can be taken in by the mind.
The challenge posed by illegal immigrants and migrant workers who have concentrated themselves in recent years in the south of Tel Aviv is one of the most complex problems that the government of Israel must struggle with. The problem was neglected, and as a result, the character of the neighborhoods in questions has changed to the point of being unrecognizable. But distress has no color. Crime and violence, which always increase when distress peaks, have made inroads into the streets, and have turned the lives of residents – veterans, migrants, and illegals alike – into lives devoid of hope, at the very foot of a volcano.
The volcano has now erupted. Its boiling core pierced the streets of Tel Aviv on Wednesday with a dark rain of racism. When mobs range through the streets, rioting, smashing, looting, beating, and injuring – it is our obligation to stand beside the pursued. When leaders give fiery and incendiary speeches, we must remind everyone that we have been there ourselves. More than once. For endless generations we have been objects of incitement. We were the targets of the inciters and the rioters. Throughout history, when a person ran for his or her life from the mob, in the majority of cases that person was a Jew.
In the name of our fathers’ and mothers’ tradition, in the name of the strangers in the Land of Egypt and refugees in wastelands everywhere, in the name of those of our nation and those of other nations who have fled deep abysses and migrated or entered other places illegally out of a hope for a better future, in the name of the morality of the prophets of Israel and in the name of Jewish law – we will not let racism win out. Even as we struggle to maintain the Jewish and democratic character of our state, we are forbidden to lose either our conscience or our memory.
“You know the feelings of the stranger; for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9)
Recall the words on the placard: “It’s not the Iranians I fear.” More precisely, it should have said “it’s not just the Iranians I fear.” Indeed, Israel does not have a special responsibility to absorb every refugee from Africa or from elsewhere in the world. Israel has a right to tighten its borders and to demand of the UN that more be done to reduce the number of refugees, and to distribute the burden of caring for those who must flee in a more equitable way. But we are talking now about those who have already reached Israeli soil, many of whom have small children and have had children born in Israel. Yes, the minority of the Africans who are criminals, and the criminals among the rioters, should be handled the way that all criminals are handled, without stigmatizing entire populations. But the majority on both sides, who all need economic and physical security, cannot be wished away. The Jews of South Tel Aviv cannot be wished away, because Israel is a Zionist state; and the refugees cannot be wished away because Israel is a Jewish state, and Jewish character means something more than what the population data reveal. But most of all, the government must do what governments are elected to do: face problems and use their resources to solve them, not find pretexts for sweeping them under the rug until the next election and the inevitable horse-trading to form a coalition. This government actually now has an unprecedented 94 votes in the Knesset. What will the government’s excuse be for inaction now?
Ruth, the grandmother of David, was a desperate immigrant. We know from Boaz’s warning to his employees not to molest her, that she otherwise could have been expected to be subject to violence. But the laws and Jewish character of ancient Judea protected her, and guaranteed her basic human rights. It is true that she was one Moabite, not 60,000. But even 60,000 refugees, if they are not passively allowed to gravitate to the community least able to care for them, constitute barely one percent of the Jewish population of Israel. Can modern Israel truly not find ways to protect and absorb them (especially since most will want to go home when it is safe to do so), and thus display at least as much Jewish character as ancient Judea?
Here are two things to do: (a) don’t let anyone in your presence define “true Zionist” or being “pro-Israel” in a way that focuses solely on physical survival, and doesn’t include living up to the values, promises, and commitments that have always constituted “the Jewish character”. Challenge them on this; and (b) don’t let any of the official representatives of the Israeli government – who appear so often in our communities – speak at any event without having to answer at least one question about what is going to be done the Israeli underprivileged and for refugees, who look to us for their hope in life. Israeli officials should not automatically be suspected of not caring, but they will care a great deal more if they know that we care and that we are watching.
This is obviously not a typical “Yizkor sermon”. Except for this one central point: When, in a few moments, we ask God to remember our departed, our martyrs, and our misfortunes and tragedies, both personal and national, we should remember that whatever we ask of God we must be willing to do ourselves, to the best of our human ability. That is one of the things Judaism has tried to teach the world. And this becomes especially important when we are looked to as the one hope of those who, we should always remember, have their own martyrs, their own destructions, and their own people and loved ones whom they mourn and remember.