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When Oscar Olivier was in college in the 1980s and ’90s, he did what many college students do: He protested.

But he wasn’t in Berkeley or Boston; he was in what was then Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) living under military dictatorship, and he wanted to know why his Kinshasa university, Institut du Bâtiments et de Travaux Publics, wasn’t doling out the scholarship money it was supposed to deliver to students. A natural student organizer and representative of the student body, Olivier grew confident — too confident. One night, a group of plainclothes police officers attacked Olivier, stabbing him in the chest and waist and arresting him. By the time he was released, he knew he had to leave the country. 

Olivier made it to Egypt, where he learned that Congolese soldiers were there training for the Egyptian army. Fearing conscription, Olivier spent two months hiding out in Cairo, until a thought occurred to him: Israel has diplomatic relations with Zaire. He obtained a tourist visa, and with his last $50, he bought a bus ticket. A few days later he was in Tel Aviv.

That was 1994, over a decade before the influx of African migration to Israel. He integrated into a community of Ghanaian workers, through which he found odd jobs and picked up bits of Hebrew. He got a job at El Gaucho, the popular Argentinian steak restaurant, bought a language book, and taught himself Hebrew. Soon he found himself organizing the Ghanaians as he’d led his classmates. “I became the only African who could speak Hebrew,” he says. When the electric company sent his Ghanaian neighbors the wrong bills and subsequently turned off their lights, Olivier could straighten out the situation. By the time Sudanese and Eritrean refugees began pouring over the Israel-Egypt border in 2005, Olivier had the organizing and language skills to fulfill a needed role of mediator, helping the flood of migrants languishing in Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park navigate the Israeli system and understand their rights.

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Oscar by the Kotel in 1996, soon after his arrival in Israel. 

Olivier had reinvented himself as an Israeli the same way Jewish immigrants have for decades. He learned the language, met a woman — a foreign worker from South Africa — had a baby, worked, and carved out a little space for himself in his adopted country. But he couldn’t really be Israeli. He wasn’t Jewish — at least not yet. No one knew what to do with him, so he was classified as a migrant worker and given a renewable, temporary work permit. He would become, like so many who arrived after him seeking refuge from danger and despotic regimes, a non-Jew in a Jewish state, living between the pendulum swings of the law. After all, Israel was created as a safe haven for Jews. Israel’s founders couldn’t have imagined that the beleaguered little state would one day come to be a safe haven for tens of thousands of non-Jews.

 

short-statured man of 50 with a shadow of graying beard and a blue and white knit kippah, Olivier moved to Federal Way, Washington, in December 2016 hoping to receive refugee status here. When I met him over the summer he was spending his days at the nearby library while he waited for documentation allowing him to work. He wanted to get a driver’s license, pay back the lawyer he hired, and find people to speak Hebrew with. What’s with all these American Jews who don’t speak Hebrew, he wondered. 

At the library, we flipped through articles he’d torn from Israeli newspapers about his role as a leader among the migrant community in south Tel Aviv, every government paper regarding his case, and his certificate of conversion to Judaism. Intermittently his daughter, Esther, now 14, called from Tel Aviv, and his ringtone — the theme song from the sitcom Friends — ripped through the quiet air.

Olivier’s story starts some 500 years ago, with the Portuguese arrival in Africa. He says his mother, an Angolan, has Portuguese Jewish ancestry on her father’s side, and due to her mixed heritage and skin tone — too light to be African, too dark to be European — she struggled to fit in with either community in Angola. So his grandmother moved the family to Zaire, where she envisioned an easier life and where she raised Olivier after his mother died. Looking back, he attributes his impulse to community organizing to his grandmother, who filled an untraditional role of village mediator. “I developed this instinct, when I went to school, I was like a child who defends children who are bullied,” he says.

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Oscar studying in Zaire.

 

For the first 10 years Olivier lived in Israel, his predilection for activism lay dormant as he learned the language. Then, around 2005, migrants fleeing genocide in Sudan and a military dictatorship in Eritrea began pouring over the Sinai border. In the early days, Israeli soldiers at the Sinai border gave the migrants food, water, and a bus ticket to Tel Aviv or Beer Sheva. Yikealo Beyene, an Eritrean who arrived in Israel in 2008 and who moved to Tukwila two years ago, shares his memory in a 2015 episode of the Israel Story podcast. The first thing he asked the soldiers was if they knew the family of Anne Frank, and could they put him in touch with them? Beyene knew nothing about Israel or Judaism, but he had read the Diary of Anne Frank in an Ethiopian refugee camp and had translated it from English into Tingriya. The soldier smiled and told him to relax. After a few days in the military barracks, Beyene and the other migrants were sent to Beer Sheva. The bus driver dropped them off in the dead of night in the frigid desert and said he’d be back in five minutes. He never returned.

Most of the migrants in those initial years were sent to Tel Aviv, where they faced their first challenge: getting out of labyrinthine Central Bus Station. With no language skills, no work permit, and no immediate connections, they made their way outside and ended up across the street at Levinsky Park — or, as many asylum seekers and Israelis call it, “the garden.”

“It was a very difficult time,” Olivier says. “People were sleeping outside in Levinsky Park. With children. In the rain. No bathrooms, no shelter.” At first, Olivier tried to ignore the problem. “Somehow I could explain it. You come in without a passport, without a visa. The country has to scan who you are. What happens if I defend a guy who’s going to go on a bus tomorrow and blow it up with my daughter on it? So I was 50/50.” He also understood the frustration of the residents of south Tel Aviv, most of whom are Mizrachi and have had their own set of struggles integrating in Israel. “South Tel Aviv has never been a brilliant place,” Olivier says. “In Israel, there were always people who were left aside. There was some sort of policy where [the Mizrachi Jews] were guided to go to south Tel Aviv.” Now, it seemed, the plan was to bus hordes of jobless and stateless Africans to their neighborhood. “It’s like, inside your own house your children are still hungry, and someone comes in and cooks food for their children,” Olivier offers by way of analogy. Not to mention that with the genuine refugees came a handful of hooligans who committed crimes, which didn’t help the situation. And with no right to work, inevitably some of the migrants resorted to theft. It was a bad situation made worse, Olivier admits.

In time, though, Olivier began to notice that a xenophobic attitude toward the African migrants, much of it coming from government hardliners, was spilling out into the open. He joined a group of concerned neighbors called “Marak Levinsky” — Levinsky Soup — who formed a sort of open-air potluck soup kitchen. “Step by step I came to realize that not the whole problem, but a very big part of it, is connected to the color of skin,” he says. “I said OK, I’ll do my part of the job. I may not solve the issue, but at least I would like to be in history that I said no. At least I can look someone in the face and say, ‘I said no.’ This was my struggle.”

 

Under the United Nations Refugee Convention set in 1951, “Israel is bound by law to provide refuge for individuals fleeing countries deemed unsafe,” and “Israel cannot send asylum-seekers back to any country where their lives would be endangered.” Israel has complied with this non-refoulement policy by granting the asylum seekers temporary group protection status — a condition that allows them to stay in Israel until they can return home, but forbids them to work and doesn’t provide welfare or medical coverage. Israeli policy ricochets between hardline legislation and the rulings of Israel’s high court of justice, which regularly overturns the legislation as unconstitutional. Public opinion is a battlefield. Advocates for Africans and Africans themselves view the situation through the language of asylum. But according to official state language and some media outlets, the Africans are “infiltrators” and economic migrants, criminals who have illegally entered the only stable democracy in the region to make a buck. The language of infiltration comes from a 1954 law designed to keep Palestinians and their sympathizers out of Israel — amended in 2012 to allow African migrants to be jailed for up to three years without a trial. (The high court overturned this condition, but the anti-infiltration law is still in effect, and as of 2015 any African male can be imprisoned for up to one year without a trial.) As a result, the Sudanese and Eritrean nationals in Israel are at once protected as asylum seekers by a 1951 convention and characterized as criminal aliens by a 1954 law.

Where does this leave the roughly 45,000 Africans eking out an existence in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Beer Sheva, and Eilat? In 2013, the state began to hear its first asylum requests, and since then some 5,000 Eritreans and Sudanese have filed for asylum. To date, one Sudanese and eight Eritreans have received refugee status — all after lengthy legal battles. (As a point of comparison, the United States planned to resettle 35,000 African nationals in fiscal year 2017, 9,000 of whom the State Department expected to come from Eritrea and Somalia, combined. According to HIAS, the Jewish immigration advocacy organization, 82 percent of Eritreans and 68 percent of Sudanese are granted asylum in other developed countries.) While asylum seekers are technically not permitted to work in Israel, the government looks the other way, and if employers decide to report their illegal employees, the worker is taxed and 20 percent of his or her wages — which are minimal — are directed to a fund available when he or she decides to leave Israel.

Policies like this one are unapologetically designed to encourage asylum seekers to move on from Israel. Former interior minister Eli Yishai, in 2012, told Israel’s Channel 2 that he would “make the lives of infiltrators bitter until they leave.” (The ministry of the interior handles the refugee status determination and asylum process.) In 2015, the government announced a “voluntary deportation” program to a third-party country — Rwanda or Uganda — in exchange for US $3,500 in cash. Those who take the offer have usually run out of hope. “For all the people who want to leave, it’s good there is a way out,” says Sigal Rozen, the public policy department manager for Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an NGO that provides crisis intervention, legal action, policy advocacy, and education. “At least they have this option, but it’s very clear that they’re going to look for refuge elsewhere. Israel acts as if Rwanda and Uganda provide refuge. But it’s clear to everyone it’s only a game. The vast majority are using the $3,500 for smugglers to smuggle them to Europe.” An investigation into what happens once “self-
deporters” get to Rwanda conducted by Foreign Policy magazine in June 2017 found that people are not granted asylum there as promised. Rather, their handlers confiscate their documents and give them an ultimatum: Agree (and pay) to be smuggled to the next country (Uganda), or be held hostage without documentation in a barricaded house in Kigali. Former asylum seekers in Israel have turned up on the shores of Europe; many have drowned en route. (Eritrean refugees make up the highest number of Mediterranean drowning deaths.) In at least one case, three men who took the offer were later kidnapped and decapitated by ISIS on a Libyan beach.

 

In 2007, when children of migrant workers were ordered to deport, Olivier feared for his 3-year-old daughter’s future. Esther was born in Israel, attended preschool, spoke Hebrew, and lived an ordinary Israeli life. He knew he couldn’t go with her to what was now the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the government was likely to punish him for his past activism.

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Oscar holding his daughter, Esther, in 2003. 

Ironically, it was at this time that Olivier drew closer to Judaism. “My daughter was born in Israel, but she was asked to leave,” he says. “This was when my desire to connect was born. This is not rational. The intelligent instinct is to leave. It was this moment that I felt that I must jump in. I went to Google to find a rabbi.” Olivier sought the help of the Daniel Centers, a Reform Jewish organization that provides state-recognized (but not rabbinically recognized) non-Orthodox conversions. Because of his alleged Jewish ancestry, Olivier considers himself a hozer le’teshuva (someone who returns to Judaism) rather than as a convert. “The moment that I went through a hardship with the Orthodox majority [i.e., with Eli Yishai] is the moment when I felt that someone is closing the door to my house,” he says. “And I said, ‘I have the key. The key is my desire to go in.’”

Studying Torah empowered Olivier to further his fight for the rights of migrants and asylum seekers. To him, the Torah is unequivocal when it says, “you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” “Since the positions I was defending were in line with the Torah, I felt very strong in what I was doing,” he says about the 13 years he spent as an activist in Tel Aviv. “As a Jew studying, I came to one thing: When I see something wrong taking place, I don’t have the right to say, ‘I didn’t see, I didn’t hear, I’m not saying anything.’”

Indeed, a sense of justice drives Olivier’s Judaism. In 2006, when missiles from Hezbollah in Lebanon rained down on the northern half of Israel, he traveled to Haifa to distribute food to the families that couldn’t leave the city. “My Judaism is not connected to the fact that people accept me or not accept me,” he says. Likewise, his work between 2008 and 2013 at Hotline and then the African Refugee Development Center focused on community building in south Tel Aviv. “I was trying to make people understand they are facing the same problems, and addressing it together is easier than addressing it one side against the other,” he says.

Does a Jewish state have an obligation to help its non-Jewish residents? By law, yes. The question, though, is sometimes muddled with when and to what degree Jews have a religious obligation to help non-Jews, and how much Jewish law actually informs the secular rule of law. When does helping the stranger endanger self-preservation? Does “never again” apply to the whole world, or only to Jews? Whom do we choose to help, and why, and how many? Israel has in times past stepped in when humanitarian situations have called for it: Between 1977 and 1979, Prime Minister Menachem Begin brought in 360 Vietnamese boat people and granted them full citizenship and subsidized housing. In 1999, then- and current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu airlifted 112 refugees out of Kosovo with money raised by the Jewish Agency. Not to mention that when Israel opened its doors to over 1 million Jews from the Soviet Union, some 300,000 of them did not identify as Jewish. “Here in Israel they go to churches and mosques,” explains Hotline’s Rozen. “They don’t pretend to be Jews. And they are citizens. As much as the religious people are upset about it, all economists agree that these people brought nothing but blessing to Israel.” An unfortunate outcome of the African crisis is what many consider to be a missed opportunity. In photographs of Olivier in Israel, he conceals his kippah under a kind of floppy fisherman’s hat. For many of the Africans he worked with in Tel Aviv, he says, “Judaism and hate are the same thing.”

Olivier pulls up a video on his phone. It’s a man at the Kotel ripping up a siddur in protest of the Women of the Wall. “Inside that book there is yud-hay-vav-hay,” he says, referring to the holy name of God. “This is to tell you what is happening to me is happening to others. You cannot understand what is happening to the Africans if you do not understand what is happening to the Jews.” In other words, the struggle between Jews in Israel — women and men, Haredi and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardi — has a way to go before it can start to deal with other issues, like the acceptance of a large subgroup of non-Jewish African refugees or migrant laborers. “African or not African, know that before a period of time, a child born in Israel in a family of foreigners was denied the right to go to school. Children didn’t go to school,” he says. “Before we can talk about legal status, let’s go back. Before we talk about legal status, they don’t even have the right to go to school.”

 

From  2007 to 2009 I lived in Jerusalem, and I had to go to the ministry of the interior in Jerusalem to renew my tourist visa. The last time I tried to renew it, I ran into an almost Kafka-esque series of problems. First, I was asked to prove that I was Jewish. So I brought a letter from my childhood rabbi. But he’s Reform, the clerk, a secular woman named Chani, informed me. So I came back with a letter from my grandfather’s Orthodox synagogue, which dug up some records and attested that my great-grandfather was the gabbai. But this wasn’t good enough, because it was my mother’s paternal line. Could I bring my certificate of conversion?

I am a white, American, halachically Jewish person. If I got caught in questions of legitimacy, how much more so for an African refugee with no papers, little money, and in many cases limited Hebrew and English skills? “You know that feeling when you are rejected, when you are humiliated?” Beyene, the former asylum seeker who lives in Tukwila, asks me when we finally meet. “People are reduced to nothing. People are being humiliated. And most people don’t differentiate between the system and the people. The state is missing an opportunity to make friends.”

 

"In Israel, whenever there is a problem, they say, ‘It’s much better to be smart than to be right,’” Olivier says. After 22 years in Israel, he bought a one-way ticket to Seattle, where he had an acquaintance. He no longer wears his kippah full time — because he’s tired of everyone in Federal Way assuming he’s  Muslim. That time a man on a bus told him a long-winded story in Somali, well, it was awkward. But he has jumped into South King County’s Reform congregation, Bet Chaverim. “He joined the board, he’s organized events, he’s at every service and every learning opportunity,” says Rabbi Emily Meyer. After less than a year here, Olivier has a driver’s license, a car, a job at FedEx, and has had an interview to determine his fitness for refugee status. If he can get that, then he plans to apply for a scholarship to learn how to be an airport translator. And then he’ll bring Esther over, as well as a son he adopted who lives in South Africa. And then, perhaps, he’ll go back to Israel, which he still considers his home. “If I go back to Israel as an American citizen, I can live with respect and dignity,” he says. “Sometimes it’s better to be smart than right.”

Olivier is quick to differentiate between hardline politicians, whom he believes have warped Jewish teachings to justify xenophobic policies, and the populace. “It’s not Israel we have to criticize. I don’t have a point to criticize Israel,” he says. “There is a problem with human beings.” He makes an analogy to Sukkot, when four different species of plants are tied together in the lulav, and everyone is invited into the sukkah. “I spent 13 years fully engaged helping people who were defenseless,” Olivier says. “I am satisfied. I didn’t solve the problem. I don’t know if I changed anything. As far as I’m concerned, I fulfilled my duty as a Jew.”

 

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