We Were Strangers in the Land of Egypt; Ameinu Stands with Refugees and Immigrants

Categories: Letters from the Leadership

Letter from Leadership, Passover 2014

For Ameinu, as Jews and as Zionists, a core principle of our organization and our movement has been to strive to fulfill the Jewish calling to welcome the stranger.  As it is written in the Torah, “thou shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt,” (Exodus 23:9).  This ethical and religious obligation is reinforced by the lessons of Jewish history — one of wandering the world in search of safe haven and opportunity in Israel, the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa and so many other new lands.  We feel this obligation with particularly intensity now, during the Passover season, as we retell the story of our people’s exodus from Egypt.

This Jewish commitment to stand with vulnerable migrants animates two current Ameinu education and advocacy campaigns that we are undertaking with Jewish communal partners.  As our tradition calls on us to invite the stranger to our Seder tables, we are seeking to remember the African asylum seekers in Israel during our Passover Seders, and to hold special events in Washington DC and Israel to publicize the injustices being done to migrants seeking refuge in Israel.  We also have been advocating for the House of Representatives to pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform and are calling on Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) to honor his family’s Jewish immigrant roots by moving legislation to fix the United States broken immigration system.

Asylum Seekers in Israel Seder Supplement Campaign

Today more than 50,000 African asylum seekers have come to Israel seeking protection and Israel is obligated under international law to protect them. Among the key international law provisions is a mandate not to return a refugee to his or her country of persecution. Sadly, Israel has the lowest approval rate for asylum seekers among Western countries and in almost all cases excludes key populations of migrants such as Eritreans and Sudanese from consideration for refugee status. Without a fair adjudication procedure, it is impossible for the Israeli government to know who warrants protection as a refugee and who is migrating solely for economic reasons.

Joining with T’ruah and other partners, Ameinu is distributing a Refugee Seder Supplement to incorporate the stories of asylum seekers in Israel into our Passover observance.  This material, available HERE, can be used at your own Seder to reinforce the holiday’s meaning and to engage your table with a contemporary exodus.  It also brings to life a dramatic challenge that Israeli society faces in fulfilling its goal of being an “exemplary society” and “contributing to the betterment of the world.”  By learning, questioning and acting we can help ensure that Israel does not leave tens of thousands of asylum seekers in legal limbo, deny them authorization to work and separate their families through indefinite detention.

In September 2013 the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that the Prevention of Infiltrators Act does not allow for the prolonged detention of asylum seekers. Prior to this ruling asylum seekers were frequently held for lengthy periods of time in Kitziot prison and other facilities. By November the Knesset had amended the law to allow for detention without trial for one year and indefinite detention without judicial review if it is an “open” center.  And yet, the new facility at Holot can hardly be considered “open,” since asylum seekers are held in a barbed wire enclosed facility far from major population centers, with requirements to check in three times a day and closure at night.

DC Interfaith Refugee Seder

Associated with the worldwide distribution of the Refugee Seder Supplement, Ameinu and its partners sponsored an Interfaith Refugee Seder outside of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, April 9 2014 from 5:30-7:30 pm.

In addition to a Seder full of music and song, refugees and organizational leaders including Zabib Sultan, Director of the Eritrean Women’s Community Center in Tel Aviv, and Sara Robinson, Refugee Campaigner at Amnesty International’s Tel Aviv office took on reading and speaking roles.

For more details on the event, please click HERE.

Along with the Interfaith Refugee Seder in DC, refugee protection events for Passover are being planned for Tel Aviv and the Holon Detention Facility.  For more information, please click HERE.

The realities of life for asylum seekers in Israel is powerfully captured by Ameinu Board Member Brad Rothschild in a footage from an upcoming film that can be found HERE 

Immigration Reform Petition Campaign

Domestically, as part of Ameinu’s larger Passover Education and Advocacy Campaign on Migration, Ameinu is actively promoting immigration reform legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Ameinu views immigration as a core component of U.S. national identity, the essential driver of economic success and cultural diversity, and the source of great benefits from the arrival and integration of new waves of immigrants. These benefits, however, have been undermined by the historic failure of the U.S. Federal Government to fix a broken immigration system that has resulted in approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants, backlogs in certain immigration categories, exploitation of undocumented workers, a severe mismatch between available employment and visas, hundreds of deaths on the border, undermining of rule of law and insufficient funding for English and other integration programs.

Ameinu has long advocated for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, as opposed to piecemeal immigration legislation that would address a path to citizenship for the undocumented, border and interior security, levels of future legal immigration and integration of newcomers into society.  Progress was made when reform legislation passed in the Senate in June of 2013, but since then momentum has stalled with the House leadership refusing to bring immigration to the floor for a vote.

To put pressure on House Republicans to act on immigration, Ameinu joined with Bend the Arc and other partners in a petition drive addressed to Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA).  The primary message of the campaign was to remind Cantor of his Jewish immigrant roots and to urge him to act to pass immigration reform.  With dedicated petition websites, the groups collected thousands of signatures that were presented on April 3rd to Representative Cantor by a group of concerned Jewish constituents and advocates.  More information about the petition can be seen HERE. Along the theme of family, roots and immigration reform, Ameinu joined many of its partners on an ad (see below) in Politico that declared, “Eric Cantor, What Would Your Bubbe Think?

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While Ameinu is pleased to be participating in these migration campaigns, we know that the struggle for refugee protection and a welcoming environment for immigrants in Israel, the United States and around the world will be a long one.  Ameinu looks forward to continuing its work with activists in the Jewish community, as well as other partners, to advance a vision of a just world were vulnerable migrants can continue to find safety and opportunity in new lands.

So this Passover let us recommit ourselves to advocacy and keeping the pressure on so that by next Passover asylum seekers in Israel and immigrants in the United States will have much happier stories to tell.

Chag Sameach,

Gideon Aronoff

Ameinu CEO

About Gideon Aronoff

Gideon Aronoff is the first Chief Executive Officer of Ameinu. Previously, Aronoff was President and CEO of HIAS, the American Jewish community’s international migration agency, where he oversaw service and advocacy partnerships with over 50 local Jewish communities and global programs in Israel, Africa, Latin America and Europe. Aronoff brings over 25 years of Jewish communal experience — including more than a dozen years in Washington DC — having focused on immigration, refugees, human rights, humanitarian assistance, community relations and government affairs. He also served on the Board of Directors of the National Immigration Forum, the country’s premier immigrant advocacy coalition, and was the chair from 2009 to 2012. He is a member of the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey and the NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking. Aronoff is a graduate of Brandeis University and Cornell Law School. He lives in South Orange, NJ, with his wife, Dr. Jaqueline Rogerio, and his young children Dalia and Solomon.
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