One of the most dramatic moments of the Yom Kippur service this year at Central Synagogue, the historic Reform temple in Manhattan, was the recitation of the prayer for the State of Israel, led in part by three young African men who found a home in Israel after escaping the horrors of genocide in their native Darfur.
Their asylum in Israel, along with tens of thousands of others who came into Israel illegally from perilous countries like Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia, has been fraught with controversy and complexity. Many Israelis have been sympathetic to their plight, echoing the long history of persecution Jews have faced, and proud that their country offers safe haven to “the stranger.” But the Jerusalem government made headlines earlier this year when it sought to deport the asylum seekers, described by the government as “illegal immigrants.” It has branded them as a criminal element, posing a security and demographic danger to society. They are not permitted to work, and many were kept in Holot, a prison-like detention center in the Negev desert.
After an intense backlash, with critics accusing the government of racism, Jerusalem withdrew the deportation order but has resisted calls to grant refugee status to the migrants on a case-by-case basis. The situation remains in limbo.
Despite these hardships, the three guests at Central Synagogue — Usumain Baraka, a graduate student in public policy at Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC), the largest private college in Israel; Monim Haroun, a student at Hebrew University; and Taj Haroon, an IDC graduate pursuing a master’s degree at Tel Aviv University and president of the African Student Organization (asoisrael.org) — praised Israelis for being so welcoming to them.
“We could be Israel’s best ambassadors as we know how we were treated in our own countries,” Haroon told the Central Synagogue worshippers, “and we know the opportunities to study and work we have been given in Israel.”
The three young men recited the prayer for Israel along with three Ethiopian Jewish young women who came to Israel as children, served in the Israel Defense Forces and currently are interning at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
All six were accompanied by their friend and sponsor, Joey Low, a New York businessman and philanthropist who is founder of Israel At Heart (israelatheart.org), a nonprofit that provides educational and employment opportunities for Ethiopian Jews and African asylum seekers in Israel.
“This is not usually the face of Israel we see,” noted Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, senior rabbi at Central Synagogue, in introducing the group to her congregants. “They are all contributing to Israel in extraordinary ways … and helping Israel live up to its highest values.”
The congregants responded with loud and sustained applause.
“We were so proud and happy” to host the group, Rabbi Buchdahl told me the following day. “A highlight of Yom Kippur day.”
“It was one of the most emotional moments in our lives, to see such a large room of people welcoming us, and see the way Judaism” expresses its values, Taj Haroon said during an interview at The Jewish Week last Thursday.
He was joined by Haroun and three fellow asylum seekers visiting the U.S. as part of Low’s sponsorship.
Dahir Said is a Somalian who arrived in Israel in 2012, received his degree from IDC in political science and now lives in a large Somalian community in Minnesota.
Dawit Demoz came to Israel in 2009, lived there more than six years, studying business administration at IDC. He moved to Canada when he was granted a visa. A psychology student, he praised the Toronto Jewish community for its warmth and acceptance.
Yikleo Beyene left his native Eritrea in 2005, came to Israel three years later and settled in Seattle almost three years ago. He has a master’s degree in psychology and now works for a grocery store in consumer services.
A number of stereotypes were shattered for me during our 90-minute discussion. I was impressed that they spoke English well, and their Hebrew is even better. All of them are students or graduates of universities in Israel pursuing advanced degrees (thanks to Low, who provides full scholarships for some three-dozen African migrants currently). They hope to someday put their professional expertise to use in their home countries, though that is not likely anytime soon.
The young men have endured tragedy and harrowing personal experiences, losing family members to genocide, and being separated from loved ones at a young age as each of them made his way, under great danger, through the Sinai desert to arrive in Israel before 2012, when the border was sealed.
They explained that at home, the Sudanese face genocide and Eritreans can be conscripted by the army for life.
The African asylum seekers have been described by the government and much of the media as lazy and a blight on the country — Miri Regev, the minister of sports and culture, used the phrase “a cancer” that must be removed. But it was clear that those I interviewed last week were bright, resourceful and resilient. They asserted that though they were refused work permits by the government, they and others were hard-working and industrious. Many have found work in the hotel industry and in restaurants, “doing work the Israelis don’t want to do,” one told me without evident bitterness.
Compared to conditions they faced at home, or in the other countries they traversed to get to Israel, the Jewish state was a paradise, they said. And all three emphasized that though the government made life very difficult for them, they felt welcomed by most Israelis they met and relished campus life at the universities they attended.
The young men spoke of being taken in by Israeli friends for Shabbat and holiday meals and having a home away from home with caring families. And they talked of their deep affection for and indebtedness to Low, who is one the most influential and generous activists on behalf of the African migrant cause.
“Joey is like family to us,” Usumain said.
“I like to do what others don’t,” Low told me, half kiddingly, and explained that he has always felt “a kinship with black people.” He said he grew up in New York, played basketball on the city’s courts and visited Kenya when he was 20. “I was close to Rabbi Heschel,” he said of the famed theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, through family ties, “and he and Dr. [Martin Luther] King were inspirations for me.” Low also noted that his mother was a refugee from the age of 5 to 15 from Berlin, going through Belgium, France and Cuba before coming to the U.S. in October 1941.
He acknowledged with some pain that he stopped attending his longtime synagogue after the rabbi he deeply admired — and pleaded with — resisted speaking out on the African asylum issue, worried about offending congregants.
For Low, the issue is more about morality than politics.
Too many of his fellow Jews “have ignored this issue,” he said, citing the Haftorah portion read on Yom Kippur from the Book of Isaiah, mocking those who fast as hypocrites. Better, the prophet said, “to let the oppressed go free… and to take the wretched poor into your home.” (Isaiah 58: 6-7)
From Welcoming To Drastic Measures
The asylum situation began in 2007, when some 500 Africans who made their way from the Sinai desert into Israel were welcomed under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and given temporary residence permits. But as their numbers increased dramatically — at one point as high as 60,000 — and as most of them were settled in a poor, high-crime neighborhood in south Tel Aviv, Israelis grew upset with the newcomers.
The Netanyahu government made conditions harsher for them, in the hopes the Africans would leave. The Holot detention center was built in the Negev desert for thousands of migrants who sought to renew their visas. (It was closed in March.) The government came up with a secret plan to offer migrants several thousand dollars and send them to Rwanda or Uganda, but the Supreme Court insisted the government make the plan public before ruling on it. A wider international deal through the United Nations called for about half of the estimated 35,000 to 40,000 remaining asylum seekers to be sent to Western European countries over the next five years and for the rest to receive temporary resident status and remain in Israel. In addition, many would be resettled in different parts of the country and conditions would be improved in south Tel Aviv. This spring, Prime Minister Netanyahu called it “the best solution” to the problem, but when his coalition members, who favor deportation, balked, he backed off and the stalemate continues.
Faced with the possibility of prison, a number of the Africans have taken the money and left for Rwanda or Uganda, but many who have done so have reported harrowing experiences.
Advocates are urging that the asylum seekers be evaluated on a case-by-case basis rather than collectively.
Meanwhile, each of the young men I met with want to return to their homelands and families someday and hope to use their educational and professional skills to improve their native societies. In the meantime, they look on their experience in Israel and association with Joey Low as nothing short of life-saving.
Low shared with me a letter from an Eritrean young man who had been one of his scholarship students at IDC in Israel for three years and just moved to Canada. “Today is my last day in the holy land of Israel,” he wrote, “and I wish I could be part of this amazing society and stay here, but it seems a bit complicated. But regardless of what happened here, I am completely determined to stand with the people and state of Israel at any time.”
“Reading it made me cry,” Low said. “These are remarkable people and I’m ashamed of how the leaders of the government of Israel are acting, but I hope one day they’ll see the light.”