On Passover, Netanyahu does a Trump

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and President Trump give a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Feb. 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

It seemed like such a fine Passover story.

After all, this is the week we Jews remember that we were enslaved in Egypt, strangers in a strange land, and that out of that experience are supposed to embrace the biblical injunction to welcome the stranger. Indeed, at our seders we invite the hungry and needy to share the festival with us.

So here are these 4o,000 East Africans seeking asylum in Israel, whom the Israeli government plans to deport to central African countries like Rwanda and Uganda under pressure from the same kind of anti-immigrant nativism we see all over the world these days. The plan is met with widespread protests as a violation of Jewish values, including a petition signed by 948 rabbis and cantors from around the world.

Then lo, on Passover, Prime Minister Netanyahu announces a deal with the United Nations under which Israel would settle 24,000 of them within its borders and 16,000 would be taken in by Western nations.

As I said, a fine Passover story.

But then comes the hue and cry from the right. No, these are not bona fide refugees, they are “infiltrators” merely seeking economic opportunity. And in what might be called a Tel Aviv minute, Netanyahu reneges on the deal.

I know, it sounds like the Trump Two-Step, whereby our 45th president takes a step to the left by agreeing to a deal on DACA or guns with a Democratic leader, and then quickly steps back to the right as soon as someone on Fox News raises an eyebrow. Just as Netanyahu has embraced Trump’s cry of “fake news,” is this another case of follow-the-American-leader?

Not hardly. Bibi is notorious in Israel for making such U-turns, on issues ranging from talks with the Palestinians to non-Orthodox women praying with Torahs at the Western Wall. If anything, Trump’s taken a page out of his book.

Be that as it may, the fate of the Africans remains up in the air. Rwanda now says it won’t accept them. Can Uganda be far behind?

What’s next? In their petition, the rabbis and cantors write:

The Torah teaches, “The ger [stranger] who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were gerim in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34). Our own experience of slavery and liberation, and our own experience as refugees, compel us to act with mercy and justice toward those seeking refuge among us.

Is it too much to hope that the flip-flopping prime minister of the Jewish State will flip back again to the Jewish value baked into the core narrative of Jewish people? Let it be our Passover prayer that he does.