An interreligious, multiethnic group sprawled on blankets on a grassy lawn near the Israeli Embassy in Washington on April 10 to draw attention to the plight of African refugees seeking asylum in Israel and to protest their treatment by the Israeli government.
Called a “refugee seder,” the event echoed the traditional retelling of the ancient Israelites’ flight from Egypt at Passover seders.
Participants read testimonies from African migrants escaping from areas of genocide and oppression in sub-Saharan Africa — most from Eritrea and Sudan.
“The reason that we’re doing it is that we very much believe that our own Jewish identity, our Jewish history, prompts us to take care of the people who are coming into Israel now as refugees,” Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and one of the event’s organizers, said by phone from New York.
Organizers also included Right Now: Advocates for African Asylum Seekers in Israel.
According to the protesters, Israel now houses a stable population of around 53,000 refugees who escaped persecution and mandatory military conscription by the regime of Isaias Afwerki in Eritrea and revenge attacks from the Arab-dominated government of North Sudan against the residents of Darfur and areas bordering the newly created South Sudan.
Under international law, a nation is required to check the asylum qualifications of refugees seeking asylum status in the first nation they land in, but according to Jacobs and other seder organizers, Israel has decided to hold refugees in various closed and open detention facilities and encourage the refugees to self-deport by making living in Israel very difficult.
Jacobs said that whereas other nations like the U.S. and Canada have working systems for checking refugee claims, certifying between 35 and 55 percent of claims, out of 4,500 asylum claims from African refugees last year, Israel’s acceptance numbers were in the single digits.
The protest group included rabbis — local and national — from various denominations, social activists and others who were born in Eritrea or Sudan and now live in the United States. They read from multi-lingual Haggadot.
“I’m here in solidarity with them [African refugees], to just ask Israeli officials to give them temporary protection, they can stay there in peace,” said Komi Elaiaiser, a Virginia resident who came from the Nuba Mountain region of Sudan 14 years ago. “After the situation settles down and there is peace in Sudan, they can go to Sudan.”
Alexander Foto, an Eritrean now living in Virginia, said he hopes the Israeli government reconsiders its newly enacted infiltration policy, which he believes paints the refugees as opportunity seekers, rather than those running for their lives.
“Eritreans, my brothers and sisters, are leaving the country for fear of persecution to be in the military under the pretext of national service,” said Foto.
“They are being conscripted indefinitely in the military — in the army — so they couldn’t help their families, they couldn’t help themselves; so the only choice they have is to flee the country and not come back.”
The annual event, which began in 2007, was also held in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square and outside the Holot detention center in the Negev desert, which was created to house asylum seekers. Both Israeli events drew hundreds of supporters, according to Israeli media reports.
“A lot of times, people will say ‘Well, why Israel? Why does Israel have to take the burden?’ ” said Jacobs. “It’s really important to understand that the focus is on Israel because Israel is the only Western country that’s not taking responsibility. So it’s not that people are picking on Israel, it’s that Israel is the only country that’s not doing what every other country is doing — checking claims.”