This week, something odd happened. In both my home country of America and my new country Israel the same thing happened. In America, Donald Trump called African countries and Haiti “sh*thole countries“. All while he is preparing to deport 200,000 Salvadorans given Temporary Protected Status- to a country plagued with gang violence. Meanwhile, the Israeli government has decided to deport 40,000 African refugees. Many of whom live in my neighborhood and I’ve become friends with- from Eritrea, Somalia, even Darfur- the place where so many Jews organized around stopping genocide. But now- near silence.
In the case of the resident of the Oval Office, I feel absolute fury. I am disgusted by his behavior and he does not represent me. This man is filled with hate. I’m not talking Republican vs. Democrat, liberal vs. conservative- I’m talking sane and humane versus unstable and hateful. I think back to my Haitian friends who I grew up with, learning West African dance in college, my Ethiopian birthday parties in DC, so much culture. So much history. And so much friendship. And I am sad and angry that the man sitting on Pennsylvania Avenue feels nothing but disgust for it. It is of course a huge insult to all my African, Haitian, and Black friends. It is also a shame that he lives such a narrow life.
In particular, there’s not an adequate word to describe my fury and my unbearable sadness at the President’s decision to deport Salvadorans. They are the largest immigrant group in D.C. and the largest group amongst Hispanics. I grew up with countless Salvadoran friends- playing soccer, going to school, eating their delicious pupusas, and working together at immigrant advocacy NGO’s. To be from Washington is to be a little bit Salvadoran. Salvadorans are not a “they”, they are one of us. Why a billionaire white dude in a gigantic free house in D.C. gets to decide to violently uproot my friends and send them to a dangerous country- I don’t know. But I do hope God is keeping score.
Now to Israel. This is where it gets very emotional. I’m privileged- even blessed- as a Jew to have a homeland dedicated to my people for the first time in 2,000 years. I’m grateful for the people who sacrificed so much to build this opportunity for me. And as problematic as it is to build a new country- and a lot of people Jewish and non-Jewish have been hurt by it- our refuge has kept millions of Jews alive when nobody else cared. Here’s where the problem begins. The modern state – not just Israel – almost universally protects certain people more than others. Some states do this more than others- but do not kid yourself- what we’re seeing in Israel and the U.S. is happening around the world. Some groups get more and some get less. And generally, the rich get richer while everyone else is fighting.
Here’s what really kills me about the debate in Israel: I expected more. I’m angry at the American government and I’m a student of history- I know this is only the most recent in a long string of xenophobic moments. In Israel, almost every Jew here is a refugee or descendant of refugees. Indeed Jews- including my ancestors who fled Eastern Europe for America- have been perhaps the most consistently expelled group for the past 2,000 years. The phrase “wandering Jew” isn’t for nothing.
So what is hard for me to understand is how a people dispersed across the world, banished by force time and again, would not welcome refugees. I understand the State of Israel privileges its Jewish population (which presents its own series of problems vis-a-vis Arabs, worthy of its own blog). I’m glad I can move here and become a citizen by virtue of the fact that I’m Jewish. And I’m deeply disturbed when I meet a refugee from Darfur, a genocide survivor, who has lived here for 20 years and since then hasn’t seen his own family. And is not even allowed to drive here. And is about to be sent home to his death by a cruel and unforgiving government. Why can’t he stay too?
This isn’t just racism. It’s not just privilege (although I’ll say I’m finally starting to understand how White Christians with a conscience feel in the U.S.). It’s about heart.
How does Prime Minister Netanyahu and his cronies- and the 65% of Israelis who don’t think we need to care for refugees- justify their cruelty? Judaism is a religion filled with compassion for the stranger, for the oppressed, for the dispersed. It is a religion that values life. It is an ethic that impels Jews around the world to fight for immigrants rights and the environment and healthcare and peace. We are some of the best progressive activists the world has known. And yet here I am in the supposedly most Jewish place on Earth and I feel like this government has reduced Judaism to mechanics. To lighting Shabbat candles, to partying on Purim, to separating milk from meat, to standing in silence on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
But the ethics? Where are the ethics? The whole point of religion, as I see it, is to make you a better person. More empathetic. Kind. The rituals guide us towards a more ethical life. They help us preserve traditions- and help us develop new ones. All with the goal of being a good human being.
This is the Judaism- and the humanity- that I know and love. If your love only extends to someone else of your faith or your face- I am hurt by your hate.
Can a modern state- Israel, the U.S., Egypt, Hungary, France, Mexico- anywhere. Can it really ever be a source of equality? Will it ever treat its residents equally? I’m not so sure. I don’t have a solution yet, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try. What I can say is the way it is now is not working. And I’m going to do what I can to make it better.
Tonight I headed to Reform services. I had been thinking lately about what I could do to support refugees in my neighborhood. There have fortunately been other Israelis organizing around the issue. I’m not alone. I just needed to find a way that fit me.
The other day I found an amazing Ghanaian store near me. I had a great time chatting with the owner about foufou, batik, the Twi language, and more. He was quite impressed. He even said I was Ghanaian 🙂 I bought a beautiful hand sewn shirt from him, as seen in my cover photo.
So on my way to services, I decided to wear it. I walked through an area crowded with African refugees and one-by-one the West African folks gave me the biggest friggin’ smiles I’ve ever seen. Parading through South Tel Aviv in African clothes is a statement. And without saying a single word, they knew exactly what I meant and loved it.
Each time I smiled back. And my heart grew. My posture straightened. My joy increased.
I don’t have the keys to the Knesset or the White House. I’m not even sure I want them. But I do have the keys to my heart. And heart is what I gave tonight. To people who needed it.
Calling politicians can help. So can showing some kindness to your neighbors- in any country.
It’s time to stop calling them “refugees”. Or “the Africans”. Or people from “sh*thole countries”.
Because first and foremost they are children of God. No less than anyone else. Treat them as such and, more often than not, you’ll find a hand stretched out ready to grasp yours. In friendship. In love. In hope.
Be a human.