This article first appeared on the New Jersey Jewish News website on September 22, 2015.
While the world reels at the massive wave of desperate people flooding Europe’s borders, Israel — like its neighbors in the Middle East — has been struggling with the problem for a decade already.
The tens of thousands of Africans who have migrated to Israel in that time are the subject of New-Jersey born filmmaker Brad Rothschild’s documentary African Exodus.
Rothschild, who began the film in 2007, told an audience in Westfield that he hopes it sheds light on what is happening in Europe. But his primary goal is to alert Jews to a crisis in Israel.
“I hope it shows in synagogues and community centers and cinemas everywhere,” he said, speaking at a Sept. 17 screening at the Carmike Cinemas Rialto Theater.
But with its blunt examination of Israel’s often controversial response to the migrants, Rothschild suggested that powers-that-be have blocked screenings “because they’re afraid it shows Israel in a bad light. I don’t believe it does.”
The screening had an immediate impact: A local rabbi in the audience told Rothschild to contact him. “I will. Thank you,” the filmmaker said.
His documentary, a DigiNEXT Films production, depicts the challenges facing 40,000 mostly Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel — non-Jews variously referred to as refugees, undocumented immigrants, and asylum seekers. It includes profiles of and interviews with a number of the men, and with Israeli activists advocating for more humane and “Jewish” policies for absorbing them. On the other side are politicians who view the Africans as economic migrants looking for work and not, with rare exceptions, as refugees. Yelling protestors are seen calling for the expulsion of the “infiltrators.”
Proceeds from the Rialto screening went to Ameinu, the former Labor Zionist Alliance. Rothschild is the organization’s chair of policy and advocacy. He was introduced at the screening by Ameinu CEO Gideon Aronoff, who commented that Israel’s crisis is “an example of a global challenge that we are seeing also in Turkey, Hungary, Germany, South Africa, and so many places around the world.”
Rothschild, who grew up in Westfield and Plainfield, lives with his family in New York City. He also made the DigiNext documentary KINDERBLOCK 66: Return to Buchenwald, about four child survivors of Buchenwald who return to the concentration camp on the 65th anniversary of their 1945 liberation.
In both cases, he started from a powerful personal connection: His father was one of the four boys featured in KINDERBLOCK. African Exodus features his wife’s cousin, who has worked on both sides of the issue, with refugee assistance and city administration.
“Your approach is totally fair,” audience member Pete Kessel commented. Kessel, who recently returned from an 18-month stay in Israel, pointed to the film’s acknowledgment that there is no easy solution. The newcomers present a huge economic and social challenge to the Jewish state, which also worries that providing work and accommodation would attract more non-Jews not only fleeing oppression and hunger but seeking a better life.
But denying those basics — and placing migrants in barbed-wire enclosed camps, or keeping them in legal limbo with no way to contribute to the society — strikes many as “un-Jewish.”
What Israel has been doing is flying hundreds back to Africa, where, according to some reports, many have encountered rejection and violence. “We’ve learned that a number of them have been killed,” Rothschild said.
In the audience was Phyllis Bernstein, a Westfield resident who will serve as a delegate to the World Zionist Congress in October, where she will present a resolution calling for more humane treatment of the migrants. Like her, Rothschild is calling for better — and more timely — processing of the African migrants, to ascertain who can safely return home and who merits support in a state that knows well the plight of the world’s dispersed.