These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Week 15: Exoduses

Posted on December 20, 2011 by Derek Kwait

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On Sunday the 11th, the Social Justice Track went on a tiyyul to South Tel-Aviv to explore the situation of refugees and migrant workers in Israel.

Refugees in Israel are mostly asylum seekers fleeing persecution in their native Sudan, Darfur, and Eritrea. While walking through South Tel-Aviv, it is easy to forget you are still in Israel, especially after you’ve spent so much time in Jerusalem; Eritrean and Sudanese flags are everywhere; the music, food, window signs and of course people are African. We saw a lot on our tour, but two experiences stand out: the Tel-Aviv Central Bus Station and the refugees’ stories. If the South Tel-Aviv street is more like Africa than Israel, the Central Bus Station is like everywhere else in the world that isn’t Israel than Israel. Since every day so many east Asian and central African migrant workers and refugees flock through it daily, it was teeming with flags and calling-card rates for Thailand, the Philippines, and China, bags of shrimp snacks and other foods, and an enormous lighted, musical Christmas gift display., the only reminder that this was indeed still Israel aside from the olive-skinned people staffing the Christmas display were the Hebrew signs over the glatt-trayf food stands. I really wish I had brought my camera, for this is the Zionist dream: other peoples being able come here to make a living while still being who they are in what remains a distinctly, uniquely Jewish country.

The other highlight, and by far the most powerful part of the day, was listening to Ismail and Ali’s stories. Both men are Africans who risked their and their families’ lives to come to a country they knew nothing about in the hopes of the possibility being able to live there in peace. The journey they and the 1,000’s of other refugees make is dangerous beyond belief: They travel almost entirely on foot from central Africa. Along the way, most fall into the hands of the Bedouin in the Sinai who often traffic and abuse them. Most women will get repeatedly raped along the way and sold as sex slaves; Bedouin killing and selling the organs of people who they don’t expect to receive much money for is not unheard of.

Those who survive the Bedouins and reach the Negev are usually soon greeted by the IDF. Ismail said once the IDF approached him, in their military gear and tank, and established that he was an asylum seeker, the first thing they did was offer his young son a glass of water. They then took them in and helped them get to Tel-Aviv. Ismail currently runs a small shop and, with his own money, started a free center to teach fellow-refugees Hebrew and computer skills (Ismail has an advanced degree in computer science but hasn’t been able to do much with it since the persecution started in Darfur). Ali had a similar story, although his family is still in a refugee camp in Chad. I don’t remember how long it has been exactly, but I think he said it had been something like 24 years since he last saw his wife and children.

Hardships aside, both men are “enjoying” life in Israel as much as they could be expected to, given their situations. Both men are making a decent living and have been here over 20 years. Both speak Hebrew fluently, and Ismail said it is his children’s first language. Both said they have experienced almost no racism since arriving here and will be eternally grateful for how good Israel has been to them. As Muslims being persecuted by other Muslims, they thank God for Israel at least as much (if not more) than many Jews do or, thankfully, could right now. As Israeli as he and his family are, they are not Jewish, and therefore, can never become citizens. But that does not mean they are in a bad situation: they have a legal status in this country and are entitled to certain rights. Israel has no official policy on refugees yet besides the rights specified in the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 to which it, in the shadow of the Holocaust, was an enthusiastic signatory. Israel of course does not have open borders nor was anyone advocating for them—our tour guide, a Pardes alumnus who currently works for the Jewish Joint-Distribution Committee, had many stories to tell of deporting people who, while in a desperately poor and all but hopeless situation in their home countries, are not in physical danger there and thus not in need of asylum. Most of these people end up staying in Israel anyway illegally, but the point remains.

Walking the South Tel-Aviv streets and hearing the refugees’ testimonies, seeing first-hand what a beacon Israel can be to non-Jews, was the most uplifting experience I’ve yet had on a Social Justice tiyyul. We are a people whose holiest book commands us, more than anything else, to have compassion on the stranger, for we were strangers in Egypt (and Europe, and Arabia, and Ethiopia, ad nauseum). It can sometimes be too easy to be jaded when our Jewish state is not everything we think it ought to be, which made it especially refreshing to see a positive story—these people had no idea what a Jew was until they got here, they only knew that this was a free country where they might be able to make a living. And after making unimaginable sacrifices to get here, they discovered not only financial opportunity, but a welcoming, largely sympathetic people. The sight of non-Jewish asylum seekers speaking Hebrew and blessing themselves by Israel was a source of great pride and nachas for myself and most of the class. Ismail said as a refugee he identifies with the Jewish story and he and Ali seemed genuinely touched that we cared not only to hear but then to ask thoughtful questions about their stories. As I mentioned earlier, this, too, I believe, is a proud fulfillment the Zionist dream.

After listening to Ismail and Ali, we met with a woman from the Hotline for Migrant Workers, for whom the situation is not so positive. Like in America, there are jobs Israelis don’t want to do. Since using Arab workers is no longer an option for many reasons, Israel turns to the Far East, mostly Thailand and the Philippines, to get its menial laborers. Like the African refugees, the journey to Israel for these people is difficult—they pay agencies upwards of $10,000, that they usually borrow, just to leave their families to come here. They then must spend their first several years here just working off their debt for the journey before they can begin sending money home. While they do have some standing under Israeli law, there has never been legislation passed concerning them. They frequently work long hours for less than Israeli minimum wage, but this is still oftentimes better than what they could make at home. It’s a complicated situation that I don’t pretend to know much about, but at least in this problem, Israel is far from unique.

It was a rough day with the many highs and lows I’ve come to expect from Social Justice tiyyulim. Also like other Social Justice tiyyulim, it left me too grateful for words for my situation in life, and committed to—as a Jew every bit as much as as a human being—never stop using my fortunate situation and education as leverage for stepping up for those less fortunate.


Tuesday night was the first of hopefully many soirees for my Modern Jewish Thought class. Most of my class plus a few guests met at two classmates’ apartment to tackle humanity’s biggest issues the way great minds have been doing it for centuries—while drinking wine; eating cheese, fruit, and junk food; and reclining on comfortable couches. Our topic for discussion was surrender to God vs. creativity: Does surrendering to God’s Will leave any room for creativity? What would/should a balance look like? Is surrendering to God’s Will totally desirable to begin with? Does surrender in Judaism mean anything besides obeying the Law? Can Judaism without Law even possible? Can surrender exist without God?, and much, much more. One of the things I love most about Pardes is even though our teacher was too busy to join us, it turns out, we really didn’t need him (much as we missed him)—we led and moderated the discussion and stayed on topic (at least in so far as possible in a room full of Jews). Another thing I love about Pardes is that time and again we prove that respectful dialogue with people you disagree with is not only possible, but beneficial to every side. Personally, when people said things I disagreed with (which was often), I found myself not only seeing a lot of myself in their religious struggles even though they have taken different turns than and reached different conclusions than I have, but also respecting them more for their honestly sharing their thoughts, and being open to critique. I like to think I would have been able to accept honest critique too had anyone who disagreed with me actually been able to form a coherent argument. All in all, it was a wonderful, energizing night that left me reflecting on my own beliefs and energized about spending the rest of the year learning wrestling with our Tradition alongside these people.

Friday morning, my level bet Chumash class along with level aleph held a siyum to celebrate our finishing studying Parashat Sh’mot, the first 5 chapters of the Book of Exodus. A siyum is a feast usually thrown to celebrate the completion of a tractate of Talmud or some other long, complex, intricate text. So why have one for celebrating finishing the first 5 chapters of Exodus? Because for us, Parashat Sh’mot is a long, difficult, intricate text—we’ve been learning it 3 mornings a week since coming back from Yom Kippur. If the better part of three months seem like a lot of time to get through 5 chapters of text, you should just know that we aren’t just learning what the text is about—how the Israelites multiply and become enslaved in Egypt, Moses is born, Moses grows up and gets into trouble for caring too much, Moses argues with God at the burning bush, Moses gets laughed at by Pharaoh—we’re learning what it says, literally doing a word-by-word, sometimes letter-by-letter reading of the original Hebrew text, getting inside its grammar, structure, parallelism, symbolism and allusions, and the varying interpretations and explanations different classical commentators and Midrashim have of all these things and more. It’s a lot of work, which is what made the siyum so sweet. Besides eating way too much sugar, we celebrated our accomplishment by singing nigguns, hearing classmates’ reflections on the parsha, hearing a d’var Torah from our teacher, Rav Meir, and playing review games. Another thing I love about Pardes is that grown adults actually get competitive playing Bible review games. But one thing I don’t love about Pardes is how it’s Bible review games are rigged: Our teachers actually expect us to believe both games ended in a 5-way tie, but I’m not stupid. When everyone gets a prize at the end of a competition and nobody is made to feel superior to his peers, nobody really wins. But this is what I get for going to a more liberal yeshiva.

Quote of the Week: “’I want to start a new tradition.’ Well, you can’t start a new tradition, to say that means you understand no part of that sentence!” -DLK

Hebrew Word of the Week: פליט (“paleet”) – refugee