“In every generation one is obligated to view oneself as though one personally came out of Egypt.” –Haggadah
Bechol dor va dor chayav adam lir’ot et atzmo ke’ilu hu yatza mi’mitzraim.
I sing that song every year during the Passover Seder. It has always had an effect on me, almost making me tear up each time, year after year. The melody is beautiful, slow, and emotional, and the words are simple but direct. Since four years ago, however, my mind has raced while singing this song. Tears have fallen down my cheeks, my throat has tightened, and my breath has stopped.
“The Egyptians treated us badly and they made us suffer, and they put hard work upon us…’
‘I was born and raised in Eritrea, where I was fortunate to be well educated…I taught high school math…On January 10, 2012, I fled my homeland to escape persecution… Smugglers offered to take me to a refugee camp, but instead they transported me to someplace in the Sudanese desert and held me and others as slaves. We worked in our captors’ houses and fields all day, without a break. I tried to escape, but they caught me; as punishment, they isolated me and held me, blindfolded, in solitary confinement for a month…We suffered greatly. We saw our friends die…I didn’t think I would survive…On July 7, 2012, my captors took me, and others, to the Israeli border. Israeli soldiers spotted us but refused us entry. We turned back, and eventually we found a different route to cross into Israel. Security forces immediately picked us up and transferred us to the Saharonim prison.’—Testimony published anonymously, 1/28/14” (Excerpt from Refugeee Seder Supplement)
Four years ago I celebrated Passover with hundreds of African asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea and hundreds of Israeli and Diaspora volunteers and activists in Levinsky Park in Tel Aviv. I sang Dayenu and ate matzah and haroset with survivors of genocide in Sudan, torture in Eritrea, and trafficking in Sinai. That Passover, I could really ask myself: What makes tonight different from all other nights?
“We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt…’
‘The reason people are leaving Eritrea is not hunger; it’s a dictatorship that imprisons and tortures citizens at will. If he could live in Eritrea with freedom and safety, W told me there was no place he would rather live; it was home. As we drove out of Holot [Detention Facility in the Negev], W said, ‘it looks exactly like the military camp in Eritrea' (where men do constant, mandatory service until they’re 55, making it impossible for them to have any other life). 'Exactly the same! The only difference is that in Eritrea, the fence is wood,’ he said, looking out at the high, thick metal topped with barbed wire.’–Testimony of W, a refugee from Eritrea, recorded by journalist Ayla Peggy Adler, 2/12/14” (Excerpt from Refugeee Seder Supplement)
I started working as a researcher on the lives of asylum seekers in Israel in September, 2010 and came back to Los Angeles in Deecember, 2011. Since the beginning of conducting the research I have felt sad, disturbed, angry, upset, humiliated, and embarrassed. How can I not feel this way knowing what I know about how Israel is treating asylum seekers and refugees? I grew up visiting Israel almost every year of my life, visiting my grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. I am a Jew and an Israeli citizen. And I am saying loud and clear that in in this case what Israel is doing is wrong and it is time for Jews in the Diaspora to step up and do something about it.
Israel is home to about 53,000 asylum seekers, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea. They do not have the right to work and many are being put into detention in the Negev desert at a facility called Holot. Holot is not truly an open facility as Israel claims it to be. Detainees have to report three times a day for head counts. They must sleep there at night behind locked gates. If they are away for more than 48 hours, they will be imprisoned at Saharonim prison for 3 months. And they are not allowed to work, let alone do much else than sit around and feel complete hopelessness.
This year I will celebrate Passover differently. I will be joining my friends in New York and bringing with me the Refugee Seder Supplement that Right Now: Advocates for African Asylum Seekers in Israel, the coalition I co-founded, created with other incredible and courageous organizations in the Jewish community.
You too can take part in our Seder by bringing it to your home and raising awareness about the plight of the African asylum seekers in Israel with your friends and family. You can ask each other another four questions:
"• Have any members of your family ever sought refuge?
• What do you know about their stories?
• Have you ever met a modern refugee?
• How does your family background shape your relationship to refugees?” (Excerpt from Refugeee Seder Supplement)
You can reinterpret Rabban Gamliel’s central symbols of the Seder:
‘Many among us were tortured…in Sinai. When we reached this democratic State of Israel, we didn’t expect such harsh punishment in prison...We lost all hope and became frustrated by this situation, so that we ask you to either provide us with a solution or send us to our country, no matter what will happen to us, even if we have to endure [the] death penalty by the Eritrean regime.’—Testimony of an anonymous refugee from Eritrea, from a July 2, 2013 public letter from an Eritrean detainee held in Ward 3 of Saharonim prison.” (Excerpt from Refugeee Seder Supplement)
You can show the asylum seekers that you care by sending cards to detainees at Holot or to the families of the Eritrean Women’s Community Center in Tel Aviv.
And you can sign our petition to Prime Minister Netanyahu, which says the following:
Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu, Interior Minister Gideon Saar, and Ambassador Ron Dermer,
I am writing to express my solidarity with the African asylum seekers in Israel. I am appalled by the decisions of the Israeli government to not comply with the Refugee Convention, to ignore the basic needs of a population of asylum seekers, and to detain people without due process, many of whom have been trafficked, tortured, or have escaped genocide. Israel has obligations as to how it treats these people both as a democracy and as a country founded on the Jewish values of human dignity, human rights, and respect for the other. I support the African asylum seekers’ demands that Israel provide them with a fair, transparent, and real Refugee Status Determination procedure in which each individual's claim is assessed and that Israel provide protections and support for refugees in line with the 1951 Refugee Convention of which Israel is a signatory. Asylum seekers deserve a fair chance at a good life, just the same as the Jewish people deserved a fair chance in the countries they ended up in worldwide as refugees and asylum seekers throughout our history.
This year I urge you to sing Bechol Dor Va'Dor differently. Sing it with passion, with strength, and with the courage to make a difference. Sing it for all refugees: those in Israel, those in the United States, and those all over the world.
How can you make a difference this Passover? Take 3 simple steps: