On Monday, April 2nd, Israel’s prime minister announced a deal with the United Nations refugee agency agreeing to resettle 16 000 migrants to Western countries, and to integrate another 16 000 in Israel.
There was something almost mystical in the Government’s announcement at the end of Pesach, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the Hebrews’ redemption from slavery.
During the seder, Jewish Israelis were retelling the story of their people’s liberation, the long journey out of Egypt with its share of fears and adversities before their eventual liberation on the land of Israel. The parallels between yesterday’s Hebrews and today’s refugees are indeed striking. While some Rabbis and activists around the country held Pesach Seders with refugees, this year’s festivities left us with a bitter taste : how could we celebrate our freedom when our guests were not free? The Haggadah, the story Jews tell every year at Pesach, encourages us to recreate the atmosphere of urgency that preceded our departure from Egypt, by being ready to leave at any moment.
How painfully ironic: indeed some among us are ready to leave, soon to be sent to a foreign land, with little hope of redemption. It is not freedom that awaits them, but yet another affliction.
It was in this atmosphere that the news broke: finally the asylum seekers were offered a solution respectful of their basic rights. Instead of forcefully sending them to Uganda with all the hardships that entailed, they would be offered the choice to go to countries willing to welcome them, such as Canada, or stay in the place they have, for many years, been building there lives: Israel.
But the rejoicing was short lived, and it took the Israeli government less than 9 hours to announce their volte-face. 9 hours, like a good night’s sleep. 9 hours of dreaming of a reality in which the destiny of 32,000 survivors of persecutions would not be instrumentalized for political ends. The Israeli government’s volte-face awoke us back into the nightmarish reality of forced deportations and imprisonments.
Now the asylum seekers are back to square one. Although the deal with Uganda does not seem to be happening, the government is still determined to deport the asylum seekers back to Africa.
Pressure is being directed on Uganda to renounce this endeavor. One of the voices to speak up against it is that of Shoshana Nambi, an Ugandan Jew living in Israel who addressed a petition to her government:
‘As a Jewish Ugandan (Nambi says) , I care deeply for both Uganda and Israel and would love to see my two countries work together in so many aspects but not in this inconsiderate and horrible exchange of Refugees. Uganda, with its limited resources does more than enough in absorbing thousands (I believe the number actually has reached one million) of refugees from other African countries; there is no reason why Israel cannot shoulder a small part in what is currently the biggest refugee crisis since World War II.’
Hope is not lost, Under the Supreme court’s demand, Israel released last Sunday 207 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers who were sitting in jail for refusing deportation.
In spite of everything, the asylum-seekers have continued to demonstrate that their strong, generous spirits can not be broken. Weill we persist.