(By Nic Schlagman)
I take comfort from reading your kind and heartfelt words about your experiences patrolling the Egyptian border, and your feelings on the importance of offering dignified refuge to those who have suffered as we suffered.
Like you I am an oleh, although from the UK, l have been living in Israel for 6 years now. Many of my friends do the same reserve duty on the border, and show the same kindness and compassion to those they find stumbling out from the night, often injured, from the nightmare of their past life and their journey to Israel.
My involvement in this story begins when they arrive in Tel Aviv. For the past 3 years I have been involved in running shelters for pregnant women, single mothers, and children, first as Shelter Manager and then as Humanitarian Coordinator for the African Refugee Development Center. I do this partly in honor of the people who assisted my grandparents and great grandparents when they arrived in the UK, just before the Holocaust swallowed up those who stayed behind.
I know that the work that ARDC does, staffed full of volunteers from across the Jewish and non-Jewish world, does justice to the stories we grew up hearing. It is clearly the only right thing to do to survivors of modern day genocides and state sponsored oppression.
I do not feel, however, that we can say with the same clear heart that we are proud of the response of our nation, our country. The Israeli neighbors near our shelter are prone to shout abuses at the residents and the volunteers for bringing black people into their neighborhoods; local rabbis print posters demanding that real estate agents refuse to rent properties to Africans; schools and nurseries refuse African children from entering their classrooms; and hundreds of men sleep every night in the parks and abandoned buildings of South Tel Aviv whilst receiving no humanitarian support at all from the state or the municipality.
Between you receiving them on the border with hot drinks, blankets and lifesaving medical treatment and them arriving to our shelter, there are a number of worrying issues that cannot help but keep people like us awake at night.
After leaving you, they are taken to Saharonim detention facility in the Negev for processing. There are people who have been detained in Saharonim for years, with no access to claim asylum and no independent oversight of this closed military site. Women who arrived pregnant from the horrors in the Sinai are held there until their pregnancies become so advanced they could not have an abortion, adding to our list of challenges having to counsel and support women having to bring these children into the world. There is no gynecologist on staff at Saharonim despite our regular reports and advice.
A recent article in Haaretz partially described the process at the Saharonim prison: Attorney Omer Shatz of the human rights group Anu Plitim (We are Refugees), says the tribunal at Saharonim “cannot be considered a court, certainly not one that rules on the freedom of asylum-seekers. The best evidence of this is the fact that these tribunals are located inside a prison, far from the public eye.” “Its judges,” he says, are not subservient to the Judicial Ombudsman, “and as opposed to criminals, who are allowed a public defender, these victims come before the tribunal without representation." Until this article, the media had never been allowed inside this prison for refugees.
Once released from detention our refugees are released onto the streets of Tel Aviv with a visa that specifically prohibits their right to work. All Eritrean and Sudanese refugees (86% of the refugees in Israel) are refused the right to enter the Refugee Status Determination procedure despite the well documented slaughters in Darfur and South Sudan and brutal human rights abuses committed by the Eritrean government. This prevents them from getting access to the basic rights that refugees receive in the US or the UK. Our refugees are now forced to survive on the charity of others or take illegal black market work with no guarantee of payment. With no insurance for the all too regular injuries that occur to construction and agricultural workers who are not trained in the equipment they use, our refugees are dumped in hospitals and left to pay enormous hospital bills, all the while employees know they can just go the next day to find more willing and uninformed workers.As a law student you are only too aware of the behavior mandated on our government as signatories of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Indeed Israel was one of the very first countries to sign the document, which was written in the most part to provide a legal framework for the world to deal with over 1 million of our fellow Jews held in camps across Europe after the Holocaust. We continue to encourage the government to adopt the convention as national legislation, a role one day as a lawyer you will be able to assist us with. Without this the 45,000 refugees in Israel will remain without rights and without a future.Most worrying of all, is the legislation currently going through the Knesset. Our Parliament has discussed imprisoning anyone who enters the country illegally; including refugees of genocide; a penalty of up to 5 years imprisonment for Israeli citizens who assist refugees (that is you and me); building a closed detention camp for up to 10,000 refugees in the desert; and building a wall along the border that will prevent those asking for asylum to ever get through the door. To think that my own government would discuss a bill that would criminalize me for my work and send me to prison for assisting vulnerable victims of genocide and oppression. My family was in shock when they read the proposal. How do I explain to them that this is the response of the country of the Jews, the victims of countless expulsions and attempted genocides? We must be proud of the work of our soldiers on the border whose gut reaction is to offer the hand of support and aid to the tortured faces we meet, we must be proud of the families and teachers who have embraced the stranger in their land and welcomed them into their homes and classrooms. We must also face up to our Interior Minister who says “infiltrators” pose “an existential threat to Israel", and falsely claims they arrive carrying diseases. We must face up to politicians who score cheap points in poor neighborhoods by ratcheting up xenophobic sentiment, and to a government that does not invest in humanitarian or medical support to these poor souls.I am writing to you because the letter you wrote last week has travelled the globe, arriving in the inboxes of Jewish community leaders and congregants alike and I am sure you would like to paint as honest picture as you can.I kindly invite you to visit our center and shelters to learn more about the situation so you are able to develop your beautifully written words to continue telling this complicated story.Our story is a heavy burden to carry and more than a life''s work to do. We must face it honestly and know, in the words of Hillel, that we did not do to others that which we would not have done to ourselves.Nic Schlagman