In the Pesach season, as we contemplate our journeys to Jewish freedom, we must also think about the asylum seekers in Israel today. In the month leading up to Passover, Yeshivat Talpiot's series Talmud and Civil Society took up the issue of African refugees in Israel, in a course called Freedom Midrash: from Egypt to the Promised Land. In a renewed look at the Haggada and Talmudic Midrash through the eyes of modern Israel, we are creating religious language to help us face today's moral challenges. Here is a taste of what we learned in the last month's series. 

Over the past decade, approximately 57,000 Africans from Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia and more have made the trek across Egypt and the Sinai desert to Israel's border, seeking a safe democracy to take refuge in. Their stories echo many of our own national and familial narratives - the escape from political and religious persecution, the horror of a 20 year military draft, the desperation of economic devastation in the wake of violence and more. While Israel has given temporary blanket asylum to a few groups of refugees, this ad hoc treatment has prevented this population from earning a living, creating stable homes, and contributing to Israeli society. Instead of creatively and compassionately strategizing about long term plans for how a small country can help these people in need, we have crated a situation where asylum seekers wait indefinitely to hear their fate and live in untenable circumstances. Moreover, in the last few months the public rhetoric in Israel has taken a racist turn, which worries many liberal Israelis.

When we look at the story of the Exodus through the telling of Passover Hagada we can find many similarities to today's situation, only we were the minority, the foreigner in Egypt. In the course taught by Amit Gvaryahu, we were inspired to take responsibility for how we treat modern day asylum seekers. For example, the haggada quotes the following verse: “And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage.” (Dueteronomy 26:6) The usual understanding of the first phrase- they dealt ill with us- is an introduction to the rest of the verse, they treated the Jews badly and enslaved the Jews, making their lives bitter. However Amit suggested we understand the haggada's story thus: “the Egyptians made the Jews bad,” they used rhetoric and prejudice to single out the Jews. This may be the original meaning of the midrash quoted in the Hagada: "The Egyptians dealt ill with us," as it is said: Come, let us act cunningly with [the people] lest they multiply and, if there should be a war against us, they will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the land." Because the Egyptians perceived the Jews as different they convinced themselves and Egyptians that they were threatening. Then indeed became a fifth column who wreaked havoc on Egypt in the form of the plagues before leaving Egypt.

We too have a choice. If Israel continues to withhold basic right of asylum seekers to make a living so they can live in dignity in their place of refuge, then we might make an enemy out of this population. In contrast, if we could open our doors to these asylum seakers and embrace the similarities in our narratives instead of distancing ourselves, we could build productive relationships. This is an opportunity to welcome the foreigner and continue to craft our democracy as a compassionate Jewish country.

At the culminating evening, Yeshivat Talpiot met with activists working with Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) and Rabbis for Human Rights. Yohannes Bayu, a political refugee from Ethiopia, spoke strongly about the potential and the pitfalls of the current Israeli policy. He described how many of the asylum seekers he helps feel basically safe in Israel, but are living in terrible conditions. He described a project ARDC ran, where African refugees met with and helped clean the apartments of elderly Holocaust survivors. He urged us that African asylum seekers want to contribute to Israel society if only we would truly open our doors- not only our borders but our internal doors.

We concluded the evening with a call to action, to help teach English, Hebrew and offer babysitting services at the Jerusalem center for Refugees. Here is a list of organizations you might want to learn about and support as well.

African Refugee Development Center

Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society 



Leave a Reply.