In her New York Times oped “How Did Israel Become A Place of No Refuge?” Susan Silverman asks a rhetorical question. But it has a ready answer, one she steadfastly ignores in her piece though it’s staring her in the face.
Silverman, a rabbi and co-founder of Miklat Israel, or Sanctuary Israel, is rightly outraged over the recent decision of Israel’s government to deport thousands of African asylum seekers from Israel, which will clearly be a death sentence for many of them. She quotes a refugee from Eritrea who is confident that “The people of Anne Frank will protect me.” Here is a long quote from the piece that explains the puzzlement expressed by the title:
The first night of Passover, Jews around the world, including the Netanyahu family, will recite the same line during the Seder: “In every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as though we personally went out from Egypt.”
Our prime minister is on the wrong side of the Exodus story. But the people of Israel — a country built by those who fled Hitler’s ovens and the oppression of Arab countries where they were treated as second-class citizens — understand the injustice of the government’s policy in our bones. It is why 36 Holocaust survivors wrote a letter to the prime minister begging him to “learn the lesson” of our history. It is why Israelis from all parts of society — doctors, diplomats, rabbis, artists — have opposed this policy. It is why some El Al pilots have announced that they will refuse to fly planes bearing Africans being deported.
Jews, who have experienced expulsion and exile during most of their existence, she complains, should precisely be the people who welcome others who experienced the same fate.
But this is where my answer to her rhetorical question comes into play: we are the people who expelled over three quarters of a million people in our war of conquest in 1948, shooting thousands on sight as they merely attempted to return to their homes (see Benny Morris, Border Wars), and creating the longest continuous refugee crisis in the world today. Notice the word “Palestinian” appears nowhere in her oped.
A nation that is built on an ethnic definition of nationality and arose on the ashes of another people’s existence in the land is actually just the sort of country to deport refugees. When one’s primary concern is to preserve ethnic purity and sovereignty, any admission of “others” – especially non-European others – is bound to be seen as dangerous contamination and to be avoided at all costs. So that’s why I answer her rhetorical question with: “It’s the Nakba, Stupid!”