I was always raised to be incredibly thankful to America for offering shelter to my family when they were fleeing persecution. Hearing stories, like that of the ship SS Exodus 1947 which carried Holocaust survivors, was refused entry to British-occupied Palestine and then sent back to British-occupied Germany, make me all that much more thankful that my immigrant fore-bearers were taken in.
It is no coincidence that the ship was renamed Exodus, as Jews have been cast from country to country as refugees seeking a better life since Biblical times.
Given this history, I find the attitude of many Jews and that of the State of Israel towards immigrants shocking.
Immigrants cause problems. There are issues of employment and housing, of taxation and health, security and crime. However, we can not forget where we came from or how we came to be where we are now. Individual human lives are at stake. How can we not appreciate that?
Both Israel and America are rare in the world of nations in that they are almost entirely made up of people descended from recent immigrants. This diversity forges a great nation in both instances, one which rewards determination and a strong work ethic. Both societies benefit tremendously from the mix of cultures and ethnicities.
Like many countries, Israel thinks it has an immigrant problem. Government policy on non-Jewish immigration has become stricter and the consequences of illegal immigration to Israel more dire.
The plight of Israel’s foreign workers was highlighted in the 2007 award-winning Israeli film “Noodle” which tells the very human story of a Chinese woman who is suddenly deported for overstaying her work visa. Unable to speak the language, she can not tell Israeli authorities that she has a young son and he is left in Israel. An Israeli woman takes it upon herself to reunite the child (who she nicknames “Noodle”) with his mother, now back in Beijing, by locating her in China and then smuggling the boy on an El Al flight.
The bond connecting the boy and the two women, all of whom have overcome many hardships in their lives, is surprisingly strong and captivating.
The same bond can be seen in today’s headlines when Israeli authorities make decisions based on groups of immigrants, not by reviewing individual cases.
With Sudan’s independence this summer, the Israeli authorities have decided that all Sudanese refugees will be repatriated by the end of March. Israel had granted immigrants from Sudan refugee status because it considered Sudan an enemy state. Now Israel is willing to give each immigrant a small grant to return home, even if Sudan is not necessarily a safe place. There seems to be no room in this policy decision for individual cases. As portrayed in the story of “Noodle” there is a story and a person to be considered in every case, but the “authorities” are deaf and blind.
Roman Pugi, 19, is in twelfth grade at the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium and he wants to finish high school and complete his matriculation exams. He has been in Israel for 10 years. What difference would another few months make to Israel if Roman would stay?
Hearing Roman’s story, Jews should be able to empathize and identify with him. As a child, he was sent to low-level schools because he was a Christian in a Muslim country. They forced him to learn a religion that was not his own. His house was set on fire several times and he hardly saw his father because he was arrested so often. When the family did flee, their first stop was Egypt. They were persecuted there for four years before coming to Israel. Now he wants to graduate high school and then, when it is safe, return to Sudan to help rebuild the country, but Israel has told him he has until the end of the month to get out.
Roman’s principal Zeev Dagani said, “It is our responsibility to prevent this horrific and un-Jewish act. The interior minister who boasts about his Judaism in fact is doing the un-Jewish thing.” Roman’s classmates have begun an information campaign in his school and a protest which has reached the Israeli media. The students have written to Prime Minister Netanyahu and his wife. They are not standing idly by.
There is a similar situation playing out with refugees from the Ivory Coast. Israel is deporting them because the civil war there has ended.
Recently, an appeal delayed some of these deportations. Some of those appealing have Israeli families, some have health problems or for some there are humanitarian reasons for them to stay in Israel.
These are just two cases that have been in the Israeli headlines recently, but many people in Israel know foreign workers. Often these foreign nationals have a visa for one specific job and they either seek additional employment or overstay their visa, both of which are illegal.
Just as Roman’s fellow students have gathered together to support him because it is the “Jewish” thing to do, I know of other cases when Israelis have acted together to do the right thing. In one example, a friend of mine took up a collection for a plane ticket so that a woman could visit with her family after her son had been killed. I am sure that each of us have immigrant ancestors whose lives were changed by a single act of human kindness. Sometimes those acts trickle down for generations and affect our whole society.
I believe that Israel has an obligation to be hospitable to foreigners remembering the biblical command, “You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.” Exodus 22:21.