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Israel faces ugly reckoning on refugees and racism

I am a black woman who carries the quintessential Jewish surname, Cohen. My father in-law was Jewish and my mother's ...

Posted: May 11, 2018 11:10 AM
Updated: May 11, 2018 11:10 AM

I am a black woman who carries the quintessential Jewish surname, Cohen. My father in-law was Jewish and my mother's paternal family are Jewish.

As such, I have insights into and experiences involving both communities. The complexity of my identification in many ways enabled me to write the play, "Anne & Emmett," an imaginary conversation between Anne Frank and Emmett Till, two teenage martyrs who lived in societies that couldn't protect them.

During a visit to the Shevah Mofet School in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 2008, I met and engaged in a round-table discussion with recent teenage Russian immigrants who had fled Russia's virulent anti-Semitism. They had been asked to read "Anne & Emmett" as a class assignment.

I had assumed that these gifted students knew the story of Anne Frank, as Anne's diary is said to be second in nonfiction sales only to the Holy Bible. But I was surprised at how they saw the depth and scope of the commonalities that existed between a young Jewish Holocaust victim and a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago who had been brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. His killers did this with impunity.

The students understood that the play was intended not only as a history lesson, but also as a call to action to stop the hate: Tikkun Olam ("repair the world"). Unfortunately, that call has yet to be answered.

Two events recently converged in the lives of Israelis to remind us that history is not about yesterday. It's about today, because it keeps repeating itself on an endless loop of racism and discrimination against those who are seen as being different, or as "The Other."

-- Example: Early this year, Israel ordered some 38,000 African migrants and asylum seekers to accept $3,500 and return to their homes, or a third country or be put in jail.

According to the Israeli government then, few, if any, of the Africans -- many of whom have lived in Israel for six years or longer and whose children have been educated in Israeli schools -- should be entitled to refugee status and protection. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel's hard-liners have called them "infiltrators" who constitute a burden on society and threaten the Jewish character of the nation.

Then, last month, Netanyahu announced that he had reached agreement with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to resettle about half of the African refugees in Israel to several Western countries and allow the other half to stay and be given temporary residency.

A day later, in the face of opposition from conservatives, Netanyahu announced on his Facebook page that he had canceled the agreement, thereby putting the fate of the refugees back in legal limbo.

Just as one hopes that in a democracy, justice will be tempered with mercy, so should immigration policies be leavened with humane considerations. Both mercy and humanity appear to have disappeared in the policies of America's closest ally in the Middle East.

-- Second example: An Israeli court recently convicted a 21-year-old Israeli, Dennis Barshivatz, for beating to death a Sudanese man, Babikir Ali-Adham-Abdo, in 2016. The court reduced the charge from murder to manslaughter, meaning that Barshivatz will serve 10 years or less. His teenage accomplice has yet to be sentenced. It doesn't tax one's imagination to consider the penalty that Mr. Adham-Abdo would have received had he murdered Mr. Bashivatz.

David Sheen, a journalist for Truthdig, reported that the "Emmett Till effect" had come to the Holy Land, noting that the face of Mr. Adham-Abdo, like that of Emmett Till, had been beaten beyond recognition. Adham-Abdo had also been falsely accused of inviting the attack by making comments to a group of Israeli women, as though that would justify such brutality.

According to Sheen, Jewish leaders have whipped up racist sentiments in recent years, inciting mobs across the country who have harassed and attacked African refugees. Sadly, Mississippi's shadow now stretches to the land of King David.

Equally interesting is the news that, in addition to Emmett Till's murder being invoked in connection to that of Adham-Abdo, hundreds of Israeli rabbis have cited another iconic figure, as they pledged in January to conceal Israel's African refugees in their homes: Anne Frank.

Frank, and other Jewish people, were hidden by Europeans during the Nazi era. In fact, the Israeli religious leaders have named their sanctuary movement after Frank.

We in America are in no position to point fingers of shame at Israel's political leaders for their racist and unequal treatment of Africans. President Donald Trump has called black people "thugs," Mexicans "rapists," and African countries the equivalent of "intestinal wastelands."

During his campaign for the presidency, Mr. Trump pledged to "very humanely" deport all undocumented aliens from the United States. Whether their lives and those of their families would be shattered or placed in danger appeared to be of little concern to him.

Anne Frank believed in the "essential goodness of people." While I may be less generous in spirit, I have always looked to Anne for inspiration and prayed that political leaders in every country would be mindful of what happened to her and six million others.

Spring is supposed to be a season for rebirth, renewal and hope. The recent celebrations of Purim, Passover and Easter all speak to our higher aspirations for peace, life and freedom.

Fifty years have passed since Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s closest confidants, marched arm-in-arm with him in a call for justice and equality Rabbi Heschel said that, "racism is man's gravest threat to man -- the maximum of hatred for the minimum of reason."

In my mind's eye, I see Dr. King sitting at a Seder table with Rabbi Heschel. I know they would have left their door open and have beckoned the prophet Elijah to enter and drink the cup of wine they had reserved for him.

"Sit, Elijah. The world's been waiting for you."

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