What do we mean when we refer to Israel as a Jewish state? Do we simply mean a state with a majority of Jews — or a state that somehow has a Jewish character, one that at least aims to embody Jewish values?
There is nothing abstract about this inquiry. On the contrary, this week it acquired moral urgency. On Sunday, the Israeli immigration authorities issued deportation notices to an estimated 20,000 asylum seekers from Africa. For now, women, children and fathers are exempt. The focus in this first round is on men without children, men who had fled mainly from Eritrea and Sudan while those countries were shaken by brutal political violence and war. The refugees have 60 days to leave Israel — or else be jailed indefinitely.
When this plan was first agreed by the Israeli cabinet back in November, officials said it was necessary to expel these “infiltrators” — the word favoured by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — in order “to protect the Jewish and democratic character of Israel.”
The intended meaning was, presumably, that the presence of 60,000 Africans in Israel threatened to alter the country’s demographic make-up: expanding the non-Jewish minority and thereby making the country numerically less Jewish. But, in fact, the threat is the exact other way around. It is not the refugees but these expulsions that threaten the Jewish character of Israel, for they violate every value Jews are meant to hold dear.
For what injunction burns through our most sacred texts? “Do not ill-treat a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”. I recall what the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, once told me in the context of Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians: “You cannot ignore a command that is repeated 36 times in the Mosaic books: ‘You were exiled in order to know what it feels like to be an exile.’” Sacks said he regarded that as “one of the core projects of a state that is true to Judaic principle.”
Yet Israel is now abandoning that core project and trampling all over that Judaic principle. A people who spent two millennia as intermittent refugees is turning a hard heart towards those who find themselves as strangers in a strange land. Indeed, Israeli officialdom refuses to recognise their plight at all.
In recent years, tens of thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese fled their ravaged homelands, making the perilous trek, often on foot, through Sinai: the very route taken by the Children of Israel as they fled slavery under Pharaoh.
Of those who made it to Israel, evading the brutal grasp of both Egyptian security forces and people traffickers, the total number to be granted refugee status is ten. You read that right. Ten.
This violates not only the teachings of Judaism, but of Jewish history. Our experience as a people over many centuries was one of expulsion, exile and the desperate search for shelter. Yet now Israel says it does not believe that these Africans were fleeing bloodshed, insisting that most are mere economic migrants. As if the same was not said of our forebears when they washed up on England’s shores more than a century ago. Netanyahu’s rejection of refugees even departs from recent Israeli history. His predecessor as a Likud prime minister, Menachem Begin, managed to find room for several hundred Vietnamese “boat people” four decades ago. But now, when Israel is so much richer and more capable of generosity, there is no room for those who look different.
And make no mistake, that’s what this is about. The desire to be rid of these African newcomers has been mired in plain racism from the start. Recall that, in 2012, Likud’s Miri Regev, now the culture minister, referred to them as a “cancer.” She eventually apologised for the comparison — to people living with cancer.
If you doubt the unvarnished bigotry at play here, listen to the testimony of Emanuel Yemani, an Eritrean refugee who, in now-fluent Hebrew, described an encounter with an Israeli immigration official. He was told that the documents he’d brought as requested were no longer needed, because, “soon we’ll deport all of you, and you’ll sit under a tree, open your mouth and wait for a banana to fall, like a monkey.”
“But I’m a human being, not a monkey,” Yemani answered.
“Don’t you see yourselves, that you look like monkeys?” the official replied.
The good news is that the opposition to this move has been fierce, from Israeli Holocaust survivors pleading for the refugees to be allowed to stay, to El Al pilots refusing to fly the planes that would deport them. In a significant shift, Jewish groups and religious leaders in the US and Canada have been petitioning Israeli embassies, urging a change of heart. Some have done that here, too, but more of us need to join that effort. There is nothing anti-Israel in denouncing this immoral policy. To fight it is not to oppose the Jewish state – it is to urge it to be worthy of that name.
Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist