A delegation of Reform, Masorti and Orthodox rabbis conducted a solidarity visit on Wednesday to the remote Holot detention facility in for African asylum seekers ahead of the Shavuot holiday which begins Saturday night.
Some 45 rabbis along with another 30 visitors journeyed to Holot, which is in the central Negev desert close to the Egyptian border, and held a prayer ceremony as well as presenting the asylum seekers who participated with baskets of fruits and vegetables to recall the Biblical commandment at the time of Shavuot of bringing such items to the Temple.
The delegation of rabbis which visited Holot on Wednesday was organized by Rabbi Susan Silverman and Rabbi Nava Hefetz, the Director of Education at the Rabbis for Human Rights organization, while the New Israel Fund pluralism and civil rights advocacy group financed the visit and dealt with the logistics.
Once at Holot, a one hour journey from Be’er Sheva, the group joined together with approximately 70 of the detainees outside the facility and presented them with the gifts of fruit and vegetables. They also held a small prayer service and read a specially formulated prayer “asking for forgiveness for Israeli society for neglecting the stranger,” Silverman said.
Silverman, who is a member of the NIF’s international board, said that proper treatment of asylum seekers in Israel was an obligation for maintaining “a just and compassionate society,” and noted the Biblical exhortation to deal kindly with strangers.
“We must ask ourselves why we want a Jewish state in the first place? Because we want a moral, just and kind place, somewhere we would have appreciated when we ourselves were refugees,” she said.
Some 45,000 people from Africa claiming asylum and refugee status currently reside in Israel, but their presence has been strongly protested especially by residents of south Tel Aviv where large numbers from the community have taken up residence.
Of the total, 33,500 are from Eritrea, 8,600 are from Sudan, mostly from the Darfur region, and the remainder from various other African countries, but the large majority of claims for asylum have not been processed by the state.
At the beginning of 2014, the Ministry of the Interior began summoning African asylum seekers whose temporary visas had expired and which the state refused to renew. Holot currently holds approximately 2,000 such people, although it has capacity for 3,300.
The detainment of asylum seekers in Holot by the state, which was originally indefinite but has now been reduced to 20 months due to a ruling of the High Court of Justice, was widely criticised by human rights groups and refugee activists and led to the court’s intervention.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Holot detainee Mutasim Ali from the Darfur region of Sudan and a communal leader of the asylum seeker community, expressed thanks for the solidarity visit, saying that it made the detainees feel that “we are not alone and that the position of the state does not represent all people of the country.”
“We are people who have fled dictatorships and genocide, but have been imprisoned without trial for long periods of time, and the government has distanced us here in Holot in the middle of the desert far from normal life in Israel with nothing to do and nowhere to go,” said Ali.
He pointed out that most claims for refugee status have not be answered by the state, and said that the fact that the state does not deport them to Eritrea or Sudan proves that there is indeed a problematic human rights situation in those countries.
According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, In 2013, 83 percent of Eritrean asylum- seekers worldwide received refugee status in their country of refuge due to the widespread human rights abuses in Eritrea and the threat of persecution upon return, whereas just 0.4%, amounting to two people, have been granted refugee status in Israel.
In 2013, 67% of Sudanese asylum-seekers worldwide received refugee status. As of March 2014, the state had interviewed 505 Sudanese applicants and decided on 25, rejecting them all.
Opponents of granting refugee status to African asylum seekers claim that many are illegal migrant workers and that their absorption would be too costly, both economically and socially.
Ariel Avni, a spokesperson for the Israel Immigration Policy Center, said that a large majority are men of working age with lower levels of women, children and the elderly, arguing that this would indicate many are here for economic reasons, although human rights groups say that if the state processed their claims their status could definitively established.
Avni said his organization advocates for a 30 to 40% tax on the income of asylum seekers working in Israel, to provide them with health and employment rights, but also as a deposit returnable when they exit the country, which the center also encourages.
But Rabbi Doniel Hartman, head of the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem who supported the solidarity visit although did not attend, called for a national dialogue on the issue of asylum seekers.
“The notion that the acceptance of refugees would undermine the Jewishness of the state of Israel itself undermines the Jewishness of Israel as defined by Shavuot and the principles which we received in the giving of the Torah which we recall on this holiday,” he said.
“Of course there’s an upper limit to how many refugees we could take, we can’t take everyone because we are the nation state of the Jewish people but if we say we can’t absorb any refugees at all then we’ve forgotten our Torah and its principles.”