At the very start of January, we learned about the new plan by the Israeli government to force people from Eritrea and Sudan seeking asylum in Israel to leave to a third country — one where their fate was anything but certain.
Those who refused to leave would be imprisoned.
The notion that Israel would recklessly send people who are seeking refuge into harm’s way was — and is — deeply upsetting to many of us in Israel and around the world. Those who would be impacted are individuals who are already contributing to Israeli society, and we knew that Israel had yet to set up a process to fairly examine each person’s case.
Our community in Israel responded in a tremendously powerful way.
Israeli NGOs who specialize in the rights of refugees stepped up their efforts to care for the needs of the asylum seeker community.
Other Israeli groups — those who do not normally focus on this issue — also began organizing. We saw rabbis mobilized. Holocaust survivors spoke out. Zazim – Community Action, an Israeli group incubated by NIF and modeled on MoveOn.org, successfully organized pilots to pledge not to fly deported refugees back to countries where their safety could not be guaranteed. A month ago, 20,000 protested in south Tel Aviv. Another large demonstration is planned for tomorrow night.
In this mobilization was proof that this was not some “niche” issue that only appealed to a few “bleeding heart” liberals, but rather that a great number of Israelis, from all walks of life, believed that Israel could do better and look out for the rights of these people who came to Israel looking for safety.
More evidence of this fact emerged this week, when Social TV released the results of a new poll. It found that 68% of Israelis (and 71% of the residents of south Tel Aviv — whose neighborhoods host most of the refugee population) don’t want the deportations to take place until after the government examines the asylum claims in each case.
This public support, however, did not stop radical ideologues from saying that the push back to the government’s policy was not genuinely Israeli. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even complained on Facebook that NIF was funding the opposition to his policy.
There are important lessons here for all of us who want to help Israelis who press for the values of equality and democracy:
First, we need to invest in ensuring that progressive Israelis have the tools and the leadership they need to bring more and more people to speak out. It is not enough to support NGOs who specialize as advocates on individual issues. We also need to mobilize different constituencies within Israeli society.
Second, we need to keep the courage of our convictions. Those who control the bully pulpits have a vested interest in demoralizing us by making it seem like our camp is small or fragmented. But just because they say so, it doesn’t make it true. We proved they were wrong on this issue and we can do it again.
Next week Passover will start. Many of us will sit down at Seders and retell the story of our Exodus from Egypt. We will see ourselves as individuals who escaped bondage. And we will look at the world around us and identify the ways in which others around us are not yet free.
This year, when we see the plight of asylum seekers in Israel, we will know that, while the struggle to uphold their rights is not yet complete, our collective efforts on their behalf are a light in the darkness, bringing hope and comfort to some of the most vulnerable among us.
On behalf of all of us at NIF, I wish you all a liberating and inspirational Passover.