Ahead of Passover, Jews Rally for African Asylum Seekers

By Joshua Kurtz, Guest Contributor

On the evening of Tuesday, March 27, dozens of American Jews gathered outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. to show solidarity with African asylum seekers in Israel facing deportation.

The vigil, which was co-sponsored by a number of organizations including HIAS, Right Now, T’ruah, and the New Israel Fund, follows Israel’s decision earlier this year to deport tens of thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers who have fled violence and persecution.

Though deportations were scheduled to begin April 1, the Israeli High Court of Justice temporarily suspended the state’s plans, and the director of Israel’s Population Immigration and Borders Authority recently said that the government would consider offering permanent status to some asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan if others agreed to leave.

Additionally, a Jerusalem court ruled that desertion from the Eritrean military may serve as legitimate grounds for refugee status. In response, Israel’s Deputy Attorney General ordered the Population and Immigration Authority to review the applications of detained Eritreans who were denied asylum.

During the demonstration in Washington, attendees heard from Rotem Ilan, the Director of Immigration and Status at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, as well as from an Eritrean asylum seeker named Yakob Hagos, a representative of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, who addressed the socio-political conditions in Eritrea and the dire need for a humane and just asylum process in Israel.

Days ahead of the Passover holiday, Rabbi Sid Schwarz of Adat Shalom, a reconstructionist congregation in Bethesda, spoke briefly about the situation in Israel in the context of the Jewish liberation story.

“In the biblical story of the exodus,” he noted, “we are told that the Pharaoh hardened his heart, which is a way of saying that he didn’t care about the fate of his Hebrew slaves. We know what hard hearts look like.

“Let Israel be a model,” he continued, “for us to open our hearts, not harden our hearts.”

The group also sang Dayenu, read from HIAS’ Haggadah Supplement, and spoke about the symbolism of the Seder Plate as it relates to Israel’s plan to deport individuals fleeing violence.

“We taste the tears of those fleeing oppression in their countries of origin,” demonstrators recited as they passed around celery and bowls of salt water. “We taste the tears of the Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers who are suffering in detention in Israel.”

Participants at the vigil also stood in solidarity with all those in Israel who have spoken out for Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers.

On Saturday, March 24, over 25,000 people, including members of the HIAS staff in Israel, attended a rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to publicly oppose the planned imprisonment or deportation of tens of thousands of asylum seekers.

Search HIAS