Israel was always meant to be both a Jewish homeland and a democracy. Its founders were driven by their experience as stateless Jews to guarantee equal rights for all of the state’s inhabitants in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. These same leaders pushed the international community to create new norms for the humane treatment of refugees fleeing persecution in their home countries.
You and I know that there is a group of ultranationalists who want to tear modern Israel away from this heritage. For years they have been attacking the legitimacy of progressive Israeli organizations. Now they are exploiting the debate about how Israel should treat asylum seekers from Africa in order to further their radical vision of Israel as a place that offers many more rights to Jews than to all others.
NIF exists in order to strengthen democracy and equality in Israel. We believe that Israel can be both a Jewish homeland and a democracy. And we know that when Israel fails to treat needy Africans who seek refuge in its borders with decency and compassion, Israel fails to live up to both the standards of liberal democracy and to the essence of its Jewish heritage.
Two weeks ago, in an amazing display of free speech, African asylum seekers in Israel began a series of protests calling on the government to shed policies pressuring them to self-deport and to embrace an approach more typical of western democracies.
The right wing response to this movement has been to search for scapegoats. Media talking points heard over and over again disparage the notion that these Africans — who are deemed “infiltrators” — are capable of leading their own campaign for basic rights. Instead, they say that progressive Israeli organizations must be “behind” the Africans’ protests.
This conspiracy theory has been turned into a mantra. And some extremists are fanning the flames. One Likud Knesset Member has called for a special government hearing into the relationship between Israeli NGOs and the asylum seekers. A group of radical organizations are planning a protest targeting NIF in Tel Aviv tomorrow.
Let’s be clear: the asylum seekers are organizing their own movement. NIF is proud to work with asylum seekers when appropriate, just as we do with single mothers, the disabled, Palestinian Israeli citizens, the LGBT community, or Mizrachi Israelis. We know that if Israel stops being a place where people can organize to seek their rights, then it will no longer be the Israel we believe in and want to support.
Fortunately, there are many in Israel who hold dear the ideal of a democratic Israel and who remember the commandment to welcome the stranger in our midst. Here’s what President Shimon Peres had to say the other day on the matter:
“Israel is a signatory to an international convention, and it is just. The convention says that expelling a person to a country where there is a danger to his life is not allowed. We remember what it means to be refugees and strangers.”
Israel, like many countries, needs to resolve a series of difficult questions surrounding immigration. There are legitimate arguments that need to be heard on all sides. This necessary debate is being hijacked by those who want to see Israel transformed into a place you and I would not recognize.
Please know that NIF will always support Israelis who hold true to the dream of a shared society, inherently pluralistic, committed to equality and democracy. We will not abandon these voices. We will not be intimidated by the tactics the extremists are now embracing.
I am most thankful for your partnership in this struggle.
Daniel Sokatch, CEO
New Israel Fund