Putting it in Perspective: The Promise of Passover

Posted by Jeremy Hiken on Mon, Jun 04, 2012 at 16:08 pm

Every year at our Passover Seders, we are supposed to “see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt.” Admittedly, it can be difficult for Jews today to connect with an event that took place millennia ago. Nonetheless, that does not mean that the Passover message is not relevant today. Take, for example, the plight of African refugees in Israel, many of whom were forced to flee their home countries as a result of religious and ethnic persecution. Retracing the steps of the ancient Israelites, they traversed across the Sinai, crawling under barbed wire fences while avoiding human traffickers and Egyptian soldiers, who have orders to shoot to kill. When they got to Israel, according to Henok Brohane, a recently arrived migrant, soldiers “gave us food and shoes, and took us to [the] hospital where they checked everything.”

To relate the two accounts, a group of Israelis prepared a Seder for 600 Muslim and Christian Africans in Tel Aviv on April 4. In order to make the Passover story more pertinent to the Africans, Israelis modified the Haggadah with quotations such as the following: “Today tens of thousands of our brothers and sisters are fleeing countries run by modern-day Pharaohs ...Fleeing brutal dictators and organized murder, running for their lives. Many of you made the same journey across the same desert. You have arrived here in Israel hoping to find freedom and rebuild your lives.” To see Jews, victims of persecution throughout their history, reach out to victims of discrimination and violence was truly a beautiful sight.

Israelis have also connected the Passover story with hametz, food which Jews are not allowed to eat during the holiday. The “Buir Hametz” project called on people to donate their hametz to struggling African migrants, instead of traditionally burning or disposing of it. By donating the leftover food to the unfortunate, project organizers said that they were able to fulfill the obligation in the Haggadah: “all who are hungry, let them come and eat.”

Thankfully, Israeli assistance to African migrants is not exclusively linked with Passover. Avigail Maayani, an Israeli doctor who travelled to Africa to provide medical care, was so deeply affected by her experience that she now is an active participant in the Israeli Medical Association’s refugee clinic in Tel Aviv. As Maayani said in an article from Ynet, “Helping people is giving love without conditions, without wanting anything in return. It makes you whole and enriches you as a person."

Unfortunately, some Israelis are not as welcoming, as seen in the recent debate over migrants from South Sudan. The 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, to which Israel is a signatory, states that nations need not give its refugees permanent residency or citizenship and that they have the right to repatriate refugees once conditions in the home country significantly improve. The last part of that sentence – “once conditions in the home country improve” – is currently the main point of contention in the debate over the South Sudanese in Israel. On July 9, 2011, South Sudan formally declared independence, which was swiftly recognized by the Israeli government. Some Israelis argue that (1) independence constitutes sufficient improvement to warrant deportation and (2) the South Sudanese can no longer be considered refugees.

According to a Knesset (Israeli Parliament) report, there is an ongoing crisis in 46 of South Sudan’s 79 districts and half of South Sudan’s 10.6 million citizens will need food aid in 2012. In addition, despite Sudan’s formal recognition of the independence of its southern neighbor, the two sides continue to fight over territory (just recently, the Sudanese parliament formally declared South Sudan an “enemy”). In a country with over 60 ethnic groups, the South Sudanese government must foster internal peacemaking efforts to stop the internal violence which has plagued the country since its establishment. For example, a January massacre in Jonglei State killed over 3,000 villagers. As a new military force, the South Sudanese army is having tremendous difficulty fighting its northern neighbor while maintaining internal peace. Fortunately, the Israeli government granted the South Sudanese a reprieve from deportation until the fall. Originally, the government had planned on deporting many of these migrants.
Israel arose from the Holocaust as a nation for Jewish refugees and has continued to be a safe haven for Jews throughout the world. Drawing on Jewish history, it is only right that Israel serve as a temporary sanctuary for its non-Jewish residents, too.

Since Passover, the situation for asylum seekers and other migrants in Israel has deteriorated significantly. For more information, read the HIAS Press Statement or Mark Hetfield’s Huffington Post blog on the recent violence in Tel Aviv. For a weekly compilation on this and other refugee issues in the Middle East, sign up for the HIAS Mid-East Refugee Digest.

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