Indecision On African Migrants Is Damaging Their Lives


Why is it so difficult for us to do the right thing? Why can’t we make a decision and help those in need? These are the questions that has been plaguing my mind since spending time with a group of African asylum seekers who are living in limbo in South Tel Aviv while they await a decision about their fate and their future.

As an Ethiopian immigrant living in Kiryat Gat, I am proud of Israel for its efforts to help fellow Jews in difficult situations and for the assistance it provides to those in need. By doing so, the modern State of Israel expresses its core Jewish and democratic values.

At the same time, the slow, indecisive and disjointed decisions of the Israeli government, especially concerning asylum seekers, has led to situations where these same Jewish and democratic values have not been fully realized, and as a result of this, the rights – and lives – of many have been lost.

In terms of the Ethiopian community, we hoped and dreamed of returning to Jerusalem for 3,000 years. However, our very Jewish status was held in limbo by the Israeli government for many years, with our Jewish identity only being confirmed in 1975. It was only after that decision that we could seek to use the Law of Return and make Israel our home.

However, for many Ethiopian Jews, this decision was far too late, since it was during this period that the leadership of Haile Selassie – a great friend of Israel – was replaced by a brutal Communist dictatorship. This was why many Ethiopian Jews like myself were forced to make the arduous journey from Ethiopia to Sudan, during which thousands of Jews perished.

When it comes to the African refugees, one need not have been a refugee himself to know that Jewish values demand more from all of us.

Of course, the stories of the Ethiopian Jewish community and of the African asylum seekers currently in Israel differ greatly. However, in terms of governmental leadership, and the clarity and pace of decision-making, there are many parallels.

Just as governmental delays and indecision cost many Ethiopian lives, so too we are seeing how indecision is damaging the lives of many Africans who sought refuge in Israel. The manner in which Israeli authorities have reacted to this crisis betrays the Jewish and democratic values that should be at the forefront of every decision taken on behalf of the Jewish state.

When it comes to the African refugees, one need not have been a refugee himself to know that Jewish values demand more from all of us.

Whatever the outcome, the tens of thousands of African asylum seekers cannot continue to live in limbo. They deserve an answer, either “yes” or “no”, “stay” or “leave,” just as we – as citizens of Israel – also deserve leaders who can speak and act with national and moral courage.

There are times when difficult decisions must be made, and in some instances, the democratic process may lead to conclusions with which we, individually, may disagree. Still, our experience as people, and especially the Ethiopian Jewish experience, reminds us that keeping people in a state of limbo is itself an act of mistreatment and that, as we are taught by our Rabbis, ein simcha kehatarat hasfeikot — there is no greater joy than the resolution of doubts.

Given all this, as we continue to celebrate our own 70-year miracle of establishing a Jewish State, it is incumbent upon our leaders to make a firm decision regarding the tens of thousands of African asylum seekers currently living in Israel and, ideally, to act according to the dictates of our heritage. The Torah instructs, repeatedly, to treat the foreigner with love and kindness because we were once strangers in a strange land.

Rabbi Sharon Shalom immigrated as a child to Israel from Ethiopia in 1982. He has rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Har Etzion, a Ph.D. in Jewish philosophy from Bar-Ilan University and is a senior lecturer at Ono Academic College. He is the rabbi of Congregation Kedoshei Yisrael in Kiryat Gat and the author of “From Sinai to Ethiopia: A Halachic and Conceptual World of Ethiopian Jewry.” (Gefen, 2016)