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Jewish Journal

Eritrean solidarity rally underscores community divisiveness over Israel

by Ryan Torok

January 22, 2014 | 5:53 pm

Demonstrators at Wednesday's event. Photo by Ryan Torok

On Wednesday, a protest that expressed solidarity with Eritreans refugee-status seekers in Israel drew approximately 30 Jewish-Americans and Eritreans from Los Angeles and nearby. Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change (EYSC) organized the Los Angeles protest, which took place outside the headquarters of the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles.

Attracting groups with disparate agendas, the event underscored the divisiveness in the Jewish community over Israel.

“This should be seen only as a human rights issue,” EYSC chairman Daniel Mikael told the Journal at the end of today’s rally.

The gathering was one of many demonstrations of its kind that took place today as part of an international, coordinated effort.

It came on the heels of ongoing demonstrations in Israel.

 

At Wilshire boulevard and Barrington avenue, the site of the consulate, protestors sung out, “Asylum, yes! Detention, no! No ghettos in Israel!” among other chants, a reference to the living conditions of Eritrean immigrants in Israel. The Israeli government has placed the Eritreans in detention centers.

The migration of Eritreans to Israel has increased over the years. In its wake, Israel has witnessed a debate over whether the government should grant the immigrants refugee status, or whether the immigrants should be deemed economic migrants.

For Mikael, the answer is clear. Thousands of Eritreans currently living in Israel fled a country that is run by a “dictatorship,” he said.

In 2009, Parade magazine listed the country’s president, Isayas Afewerki, as the eighth worst dictator in the world.

Mikhail cited limited freedom of religion and the lack of a private press as among the country's problems.

Eritrea is located in the horn of Africa.

Speakers today included Maya Paley, co-founder of Right Now: Advocates for African Asylum Seekers in Israel; Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, a social justice activist and associate professor of rabbinic literature at American Jewish University; and Estee Chandler, an organizer for Jewish Voice for Peace.

They addressed a crowd of that had gathered on the sidewalk, as morning traffic crawled by.

Right Now: Advocates for African Asylum Seekers in Israel was a major participant of the gathering.

The signs held by protestors illustrated the mixed messages of the rally. Some read: “Freedom,” “No Indefinite Detention Refugees in Israel" and “What Would Mandela Say?"

Meanwhile, other signs read: “Another Form of Ethnic Cleansing in Israel.” Jewish Voice for Peace had designed these signs (they also designed the “No Indefinite Detention…” signs).

The co-opting of the demonstration was just one of several factors that made the event troublesome in the viewpoint of Roberta Seid. The education-research director at pro-Israel organization Stand With Us was on hand this morning, distributing handouts at the organization that labeled the demonstration “misguided," among other words.

During an interview, Seid's mixed feelings about the Eritrean cause were apparent.

“I think the unfortunate thing about this is it can be used to defame Israel, single Israel out, for having problems that’s lots of other liberal democracies have, and lots of African countries have, like South Africa, which has also been excoriated for how its treat refugees,” she said.

Mikhail attempted to clarify. A native of Eritrea who has been residing in the United States for more than 20 years due to this country's granting of refugee status to him, Mikhail said that Israel's involvement is incidental, a consequence of the Jewish State's geographical proximity to Eritrea and that the focus should be less about Israel's management of the problem and more about the dire realities inside of Eritrea that has prompted so many of its inhabitants to flee.

“My concern when we do this kind of events is that we are sending the message that Israel is a oppressive government,” he said. “We’re escaping oppressive governments.”

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