Sunday November 10th and Monday November 11th, I had the privilege to attend the American University Center for Israel Studies’s first ever Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel Conference. For my long-time readers, you know this is a topic near and dear to my heart. I’ve marched and organized and written about this topic over and over again. You can read about some of my adventures with Burmese, Darfuris, Eritreans, Tibetans, West Africans, pro-refugee activism, racism, more racism, politics, and the Palestinian refugee tie-in. I was one of the lead organizers of Olim and Internationals for Refugees, including organizing a march we did through the streets of Tel Aviv and our participation in broader rallies.
All of which is to say I was thrilled to find out that the message activists had been fighting for in Israel had reached America. This conference was academic in nature but including the voices of passionate activists such as Mutasim Ali, Dawit Demoz, and Julie Fisher. Furthermore, this was the first conference of its kind. While the issue is hotly debated in Israel, it is barely on the radar screen of American Jewry. But that is changing, as this conference attests. In addition, I recently attended the J Street conference which held a session on refugees in Israel as well. I am happy to see American Jews standing up and taking notice as the Netanyahu government excludes, criminalizes, and represses African refugees who are seeking safety and freedom from persecution.
Here are a few basic takeaways from the conference and about the refugees and asylum seekers:
- There were over 60,000 refugees in Israel at their peak. Today, the number is about half, at approximately 32,000. This is due to the government pushing people to take the risky journey to repatriate to third party countries such as Rwanda and Uganda as well as building a border fence between Israel and Egypt. There are no new arrivals due to this fence.
- Almost all refugees were forced into detention facilities upon their arrival to Israel.
- Israeli society was ambivalent or non-hostile towards refugees initially, but as the government ramped up incitement and refugees were put in already impoverished areas of South Tel Aviv, the conflict between existing residents and the new arrivals reached new heights. Today, incitement is so grave that an African refugee childcare center had its playground defaced with feces and dead rodents and the Minister of Culture referred to Africans as a “cancer”.
- While perhaps a minority, thousands of Israelis are standing up for refugees and engaging in meaningful activism alongside them. Numerous NGO’s have sprouted up over the past few decades and rallies in the tens of thousands have been held, including a massive one I attended in 2018 as the government tried to deport Sudanese and Eritreans.
- Israel’s draconian immigration and refugee policies are not unique. Australia has offshore detention facilities. The U.S. is separating children from their families. Hungary built a fence around its border to stop Syrians from entering. Even Denmark was mentioned as a country now taking a hardline. The world as a whole is seeing an increase in nationalism and exclusionary policies towards refugees and Israel is one among many countries experiencing this trend.
- What is unique is that Israel brands itself as a country to which refugees (who are Jewish) can escape. Like the U.S., when ruled by gentler politicians. Yet despite the horrific history which plagued the families of Israeli Jews for centuries, many Israelis oppose non-Jewish refugees’ presence in their country. Due to the fear of the “other” (both Arab and, in this case, largely African) and the “demographic threat”, many Israelis are reluctant to give non-Jewish refugees a home. This was to many panelists a disappointment, as many of the original writers of U.N. refugee laws were Jews and Holocaust survivors.
There were many other topics discussed at the conference, including a fascinating art exhibit which you can still visit at the Katzen Center. These items above are just a few I’m taking away with me.
Another thing I’m taking away with me is our capacity to make a difference. In a world increasingly charred by cruelty and shaped by leaders who lack basic empathy, we can do something to counter this trend. Write, read, listen, march, or attend a conference like this one. Because if you don’t educate yourself, no one will do it for you.