Culture, Israel, Justice, Politics

African asylum seekers and the American Jewish community

If one needs further proof about the “Beinartization” of the global Jewish community, then African asylum seekers are the issue to watch. The right-ward drift of the Jewish citizenry of Israel, which is deeply unsympathetic to 61,000 non-Jewish asylum seekers in their country, is presently in sharp relief to American Jewry’s sensibilities on the issue.
That said, it took the anti-refugee riots in Tel Aviv to spark statements by the major establishment mouthpieces, like the ADL, JCPA, Jewish federations. That progressive voices were the first out of the gate shouldn’t surprise us, like the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center, Americans for Peace Now and New Israel Fund.
But the issue seems to have an enduring hold on the passions of some North Americans — notably young Jewish activists and culture creators. Some new faces, some familiar. At the time of my initial inquiries, each were unaware of the work each other was doing. But common between them is an entrepreneurial spirit, a depth of first-hand social awareness of Israeli shortcomings, and a frustration against what each of them see as Israeli politicians’ desecration of Jewish values.
Click through to meet Dan Sieradski, Maya Paley and Miriam Libicki.

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Daniel Sieradski of New York is a veteran of Israel-Palestine activism and made headlines last year when his grassroots Yom Kippur service at Occupy Wall Street became a twelve-city phenomenon. Last week, he launched a passionately-worded petition — now with over 425 signers, including 32 rabbis — in protest to the Jewish community’s silence on the incitement of Israeli politicians. It is the first initiative of his new, an online platform for such campaigns. He told Jewschool a week ago:
Why “Progressive Jews”?

I’m trying to put more pressure on American Jewish organizations to stand up for the values in which progressive Jews believe. For years, right-wing Jewish groups — the JCC Watches of the world, if you will — have screamed the loudest and caused the most trouble for centrist and liberal Jewish organizations, dragging them rightwards in their policy proscriptions and pronouncements. My hope is to build a sizable coalition of Jews from the center-left to far-left (irrespective of Zionism) to come together on policy issues with which we all agree, both in the U.S. and Israel, so that we can get the big name, big money orgs to actually be responsive and accountable to us rather than right-wing pressure groups and their wealthiest conservative donors.

Why take on this issue of African asylum seekers first?

Because I am freaking burning inside with outrage at my community for its failure to act to address this issue with moral conviction and certitude and I know that thousands of others are as well. This is one of those times in history for which you will be asked: Where were you and what did you do? Did you stand up or did you stand aside? I couldn’t bear the silence anymore. I couldn’t bear to not have a single Jewish leader stand up and say publicly what all of us were saying on each others’ Facebook walls. So, I stood up to say it. And I hope that everyone else who agrees with what I’ve said will join me.

What other issues will address?

Well, many people who have signed the petition have signed up to volunteer with as well. My hope is to get those who expressed an interest to participate in an online community where they can all play a role in helping shape the future of and its campaigns. As for now, I’m starting here and seeing where it goes.

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Maya Paley of Los Angeles has also found herself at the center of an emerging coalition, Right Now: Jewish Americans Advocating for African Asylum Seekers in Israel, composed of other young activists (including Sieradski and yours truly) and organizations. She recently returned from working for Israeli refugee rights group ASSAF, where she published two reports on Sudanese and Eritrean populations in Israel, as a New Israel Fund Social Justice Fellow. Immediately after the riots, she penned an op-ed in the LA Jewish Journal that snowballed into a mini-documentary and a campaign:

We pride ourselves on being advocates against another Holocaust taking place, and we have been instrumental in the fight to end the genocide in Darfur, but when it has come to Israel’s treatment of African asylum seekers, we look the other way.

Last week, her coalition launched a rabbi’s letter and an open petition (for non-rabbis) to Ambassador Michael Oren. She told Jewschool last week:
What organizing are you doing now?

[Fellow NIF alumni] Jesse Rothman and I recently started building a coalition of people who are going to strategically raise awareness and lobby regarding this issue. We had a phone call with Rabbis and allies across the US [a couple weeks ago] and we’re moving forward. We will be drafting a letter for Rabbis to sign on to ask the Israeli government three things mainly: to provide the South Sudanese with ample time before they are deported to prepare themselves; to create a real and just Refugees Status Determination procedure in Israel [more on that here]; to stop the building of the detention facility in the Negev.

Who are your coalition members?

Other individuals in San Francisco, Massachusetts, New York, Minnesota and LA, and African refugees in Israel. We had two African refugees who are community leaders in Israel on our conference call and it’s very important to me that their voice is a large part of this. I’m in touch with refugees every day about the situation. (Sadly, one of the refugees who was on the call called me frantically yesterday to let me know that he had been attacked while walking down the street by Israeli men on motorcycles.) Also, organizations like ASSAF, the Refugee Voice newspaper and Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society are partners in the coalition. And even some more politically conservative Jewish friends of mine have come forward to say, “What can I do? I want to help.”

Why this issue, of all issues happening in Israel right now?

In my personal opinion, all the issues are interrelated. The reasons this is becoming so inhumane is because of the Palestinian refugee issue and the occupation. We can’t be a modern, western, democratic country if we don’t deal with the occupation. But we don’t want to deal with the Palestinian refugee claims so we’re struggling to create a real, human-rights based immigration policy.
The other big issues happening in Israel right now, like women’s rights and religious pluralism, are also related to the conflict [with the Palestinians]. Israel is known for saying that they can’t deal with internal problems because of the conflict. The African asylum seekers, gender equality, poverty among Mizrahi and Ethiopian communities, religious pluralism–all of these issues can no longer be excused due to the conflict. I think that working with the asylum seekers was a big wake up call for me to realize that the root of many of these issues is the occupation. We use it as an excuse for so many things, but we should really be challenging ourselves and recognizing that all of these issues are interrelated. We definitely need to solve the problem at its root, but I also believe that the urgency of the status of African asylum seekers can be a wake up call to many Jewish Americans like it was for myself. We all can related to their stories and we’re reminded that we’re all human beings who are just trying to survive, take care of ourselves and our families, and have a future.

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Miriam Libicki of Vancouver, British Columbia, is a graphic novelist and comic artist most known for her autobiographical Jobnik! about her time as an Israeli soldier. She also produced several “drawn essays” of a confessional nature about Israeli military actions. The anti-African riots sparked a new confessional drawn essay, to be released today at the San Diego Comic Con.
How does this piece fit with your other works about Israel?

It’s kind of in a series, very loosely, with my previous watercolour essays, “ceasefire” and “fierce ease.” The former is about my impressions of Israel when I visited during the Second Lebanon War, summer of 2006, and the latter is about going back to Israel two summers later and asking Israeli friends what had changed, what effects the war might have had. So this piece, like those, is sort of a hybrid of me trying to do journalism, and an idiosyncratic examination of my ongoing relationship to Israel the longer I live away. In this one, I’m so far away that I’m not even reporting from Israel, but trying, not always successfully, to maintain a connection through online interactions with friends there and news sources.

Why this issue?

This issue really shocked and upset me, when it exploded all over my twitter feed in late may. It made me really angry, on behalf of what i (and so many people, including Israelis) think Israel is and was meant to be. The parallels with Jewish experiences of being refugees and trying to find safe havens around the world, are just too disgustingly obvious. Another connection to this story is that I’ve been slowly and tortuously writing this drawn essay about global, historical intersections of Jewishness & blackness, culminating in the experiences of Ethiopian-Israelis in Israel. The asylum seekers issue is beyond the scope of my essay, but it still is really salient in regards to the research I’ve been doing about racism in Israel, stereotypes of Africa, etc.

Why now?

Now because it’s happening now…this will be the most immediately topical comic I’ve ever brought to a show, being about events of a month ago (I drew it in eight days), I’m interested to see how it will be received. I’m usually “the Israel girl” at conventions I exhibit at, and I often get asked my opinion on the latest news story out of Israel. this time, you can buy my opinion, illustrated.

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These three are just examples of a passion that are defying just passing upset — and represent a new model of Israel activist that is deeply familiar with Israel’s flaws, unapologetic about addressing them openly, and skilled in organizing that passion into new movement. And thank God. Stay tuned for updates from each of their work.

Click here to sign and get involved:

Stand up for Israel’s African refugees: Tell Israeli PM Netanyahu to fire the inciters & implement just policies
Petition on

Right Now: American Jews for African Asylum Seekers in Israel
Rabbis and rabbinical students + open petition for everyone

Strangers by Miriam Libicki:
Hard copies for purchase at + Free download forthcoming

P.S. Yes, I know there are two parallel petitions — sign both!

4 thoughts on “African asylum seekers and the American Jewish community

  1. To connect to an activist in Israel, one should see the many Facebook postings of Moran Mekamel. Our family met her by chance in Uganda about 5 years ago. In the past few years, she has become quite involved in the African community in Be’er Sheva and no doubt in other cities. I’m sure she’d be heartened to read about what’s happening here — when she takes a break from bake sales, public meetings, talks to the press, etc.

  2. Like many who suffered from the lash and senseless hatred we too are prone to see the ways of our oppressor as a means of survival and we adapt the behavior for ourselves. Why look across the world for misery when there is suffering where you stand?

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