About The Author
Matthew Sperber is Chairman of the Board of the Jewish National Fund Land Trust
Tonight we celebrate in Israel the holiday of Purim. Once again we will read the story of the Book of Esther and remember how our people were saved by the actions of a pretty and clever young Jewish woman. Her success is so incredible that some say that the commandment to drink until we cannot tell the difference between Mordecai and Haman is meant to bring us to a mental state where we will be able to accept that this theater of the absurd story is in fact a true one, and that not always by might is justice found.
Today, my wife Laura and I set off on what might be described as a similar mission impossible. We had the good fortune of being able to fulfill a mitzvah that is repeated more times in the Torah than any other: “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt” (Exodus 22:20). We volunteered through HIAS (founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), a nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian aid and assistance to refugees around the world and in Israel. We were to accompany Refugee Seekers from Eritrea and Sudan to their final hearing before their deportation or imprisonment in Israel.
Today there are 38,000 refugee seekers from Eritrea and Sudan and another 7,000 of their children living in Israel. In what can only described as a Purimesque absurdity, the government has decided that even though the flow of asylum seekers into Israel has been reduced to zero, these foreigners must be expelled out of fear that the “Jewish State” will be destroyed if we were to accept an additional half a percent of black, non-Jewish people to our population. (Once they have been deported, we will bring in foreign workers from other countries to take their place in the workforce.) So, in a secret agreement with two African countries, Israel has begun to expel these asylum seekers. Stage one of the process is to issue deportation notices to all men who have no children and who do not have an unanswered request to be recognized as refugees made before 12/31/17. Out of the 15,000 requests for refugee status that have been made to date, only 12 were granted. The government seems determined to ignore who these people are and what they have been through. The government position is that these people, who escaped from brutal dictatorships, and many from an unending army service that can only be described as a form of slavery, are only people seeking employment and a higher standard of living. The government says they are to leave “voluntarily” or to be imprisoned until they agree to volunteer. The fact that virtually none of the thousands who have so far “volunteered” to go to these “safe” African countries have found there a home that was open to absorb them or a legal opportunity to work and to support themselves and their families does not affect the government’s position. So what if virtually all continued on to country number two or three and from there tried to make it somehow to Europe, where refugees are still being accepted? Israel will continue to pay the secret countries to temporarily accept these deportees and to pretend that it has found a humane solution for their very real and personal problem.
Today, I met Yamane on the line to his deportation interview. He came to Israel from Eritrea, through Sudan and Egypt, in 2009. Yamane had received assistance from the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants in preparing a document which presented his case for receiving an exemption from his slated deportation. As a representative of HIAS, I was allowed to accompany him in his deportation interview. Unfortunately, all of his arguments were rejected as not reaching the accepted criteria for such an exemption.
- Yamane had made his refugee status request on 2/5/2018, after months of being unable to get into the office in southern Tel Aviv, where hundreds of people waited on line daily. Too late – not before 12/31/2017.
- Yamane married in Israel five years ago and his wife was with him today. They have no children and his wife is today unable to work and to support herself after having been hospitalized and operated on. No children – no exemption. Having to support an ill and recovering wife – not relevant.
- Yamane himself has been ill with tuberculosis and is required to see the doctor for care at least every 6 months. Israeli medical care vs. African care – not relevant.
- Yamane has made a request for refugee status in Canada. His wife has family there and they are waiting for a response from them. No official Canadian document acknowledging that they are being processed for possible Refugee status there – not relevant.
Two weeks ago, Judge Elad Azar, sitting as the head of an immigration panel court, ruled against blanket denials of refugee status for Eritreans whose asylum requests were based on army desertion and their fears that the Eritrean authorities would persecute them if they returned. Yamane served in the Eritrean army for 7 years, until he was tortured and imprisoned after requesting the opportunity to visit his family. After 6 months in prison he managed to escape. Over a course of months, he managed to make his way to Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt on his trek to Israel. It is difficult for me to imagine how his case might not be seen as that of a legitimate refugee.
When asked whether he accepted the government’s demand that he volunteer to be deported to a friendly African nation, Yamane said no. He explained that all of the information that he has received from friends and acquaintances who had gone to this country made clear to him that this would not be safe for him or for his ill wife. He would rather go to jail permanently in Israel.
Today’s interview ended with my making a plea to see that the above arguments, even if each individually does not answer the government’s defined criteria, when taken together, form a strong case for making an exception. I requested that Yamane’s deportation be delayed, at least until he has received a response to his refugee asylum request. The interviewer asked to consult with his supervisor. When he returned, he presented himself as generously deciding to make no decision today. The decision will only be made on the 4/8/2018, when Yamane returns to renew his temporary visa. Perhaps by then Yamane will have a refugee asylum request interview or even receive an answer to his request. Perhaps by then, he will have an answer from Canada which can demonstrate that he is officially in their refugee asylum process. Or perhaps, as I heard from Laura that her “client” had received the exact same non-answer, they will use that opportunity to arrest him and send him to prison or to forcibly deport him.
I am known by friends and family as the eternal optimist. I think that tonight I will have to drink much wine to maintain that optimism and to believe there will be a solution for Yamane that is worthy of the Jewish State that I hope I live in.