Israel has a racism problem. One example is Israel’s intolerable treatment of Eritreans and Sudanese migrants. After suffering persecution and harrowing journeys facilitated by human smugglers, some 40,000 made it across Israel’s border. They believed they had found refuge in a state built by Holocaust survivors and refugees from Arab lands.
Instead, a debate erupted over the Jewish state’s ability to absorb large numbers of gentile foreigners. In and of itself, this was a legitimate discussion, but it quickly turned ugly. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began calling the migrants “infiltrators,” while another government official called them a “cancer.” Holocaust survivors, rabbis and others responded with the Torah’s repeated references to protecting the stranger, but their pleas were not heard.
The border crossings ended years ago, but the migrants’ problems worsened. In Canada, refugee applications should be processed within 60 days (although there is currently a backlog) and 97 per cent of Eritreans who’ve applied have been successful, which is no surprise, given Eritrea’s deplorable human rights record. In Israel, the country’s completely broken refugee process takes years. Shockingly, Israel has granted refugee status to only 12 Africans.
Israel has a racism problem
In the meantime, the government aimed to “make their lives miserable, so that they will want to leave,” as one minister put it.
But except for the 1,845 people who Canada will welcome, the Africans have nowhere to go. Still, this isn’t stopping a disgraceful plan to either imprison unmarried African men, or deport them to some unidentified African state. This cannot be allowed to happen.
Anti-African racism isn’t limited to non-Jews, however. In 2013, Israel admitted that it had coerced Ethiopian Jewish women into taking contraceptives, though it now disputes its own claim. In 2015, police beat a uniformed Ethiopian IDF soldier in broad daylight, without consequences. And today, Ethiopian-Israeli Avera Mengistu languishes in captivity and obscurity in Gaza, in striking contrast to the mass campaigns to free Gilad Shalit.
Moreover, while Operation Solomon, the covert campaign to airlift Jews out of Ethiopia, was a highpoint of the Zionist project, the official story – that the entire Ethiopian community was taken to Israel in one fell swoop – quickly crumbled. Tens of thousands were left behind, with Israeli bureaucrats questioning their Jewishness, even as Russians with no Jewish heritage moved to Tel Aviv with relative ease.
Some of the Ethiopians left behind have since made aliyah, but 8,000 Jewish souls still wait. I wonder if I could sustain the same commitment to my heritage if Israel kept rejecting me, especially as it simultaneously urges people from everywhere else to make aliyah.
For instance, on its website, the Jewish Agency lists aliyah shlichim (emissaries) in such Jewish mega-centres as Gothenburg, Sweden, Mumbai and Quito, but nothing for Gondar, Ethiopia, where thousands wait with their bags packed. There are aliyah fairs in Montreal and Toronto this month, but nothing is ever planned for Addis Ababa. And after the 2015 Paris attacks, Israel encouraged mass French immigration, but our Ethiopian brethren who face similar threats are ignored.
Yehudah Kimani symbolizes the problem. Kimani is part of a tiny Kenyan Jewish community that’s recognized by the Jewish Agency. He has been invited to attend Israel’s Conservative yeshiva for three weeks, but was repeatedly rejected for a visa. He finally received one, landed in Israel and was immediately deported. “I feel like I’m not even a human,” he said.
Outraged, a Knesset committee held hearings into his case. It was then that a government official explained the underlying policy: “Do you want half of Africa here?” he asked rhetorically. This overtly racist response was to a question from Committee Chair Avraham Neguise, the Knesset’s only Ethiopian-Israeli member.
Every country faces the scourge of racism, but Israel is doing a particularly poor job standing up to it. To stay true to Jewish history, Jewish values and its Jewish soul, Israel must do much better.