African migrants painted in white hold signs during a protest against the Israeli government's plan to deport part of their community, in front of the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya, Israel February 7, 2018.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
The chief rabbi of Ofra in Samaria, Rabbi Avi Gisser, has spoken out against the government’s plans to deport asylum-seekers from Sudan and Eritrea, saying their safety and basic welfare must be guaranteed.
15,000 protest the deportation of African migrants in south Tel Aviv, February 24, 2018 (Rebecca Montag)
Opposition to the plan, which the High Court of Justice temporarily suspended last week, and support for the asylum-seekers has come largely from liberal and left-wing sources. Gisser is perhaps the first prominent right-wing rabbi to speak publicly in opposition to the government’s policy.
In a video Gisser made for the Facebook group Lo Tasgir, meaning Do Not Hand Over, he said the presence of the approximately 35,000 asylum-seekers in Israel constitutes “an ethical, constitutional and humanitarian challenge” for the Jewish and democratic state, and one which must be solved “in humane, ethical and appropriate ways for Israeli citizens and Jews.”
Gisser said that the impact of the large influx of migrants in south Tel Aviv should not be ignored and that people who do not have the right to be in the country might need to be deported.
“But those thousands of people who came on long and dangerous paths, who experienced suffering and hardship on the way and sought a fitting place to live – firstly their refugee status must be checked, which is an international legal question,” said Gisser.
“In Israel, the numbers who have received this status are surprisingly small,” he noted.
Israel has given refugee status to just 10 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers out of the 60,000 who arrived in Israel in the mid to later 2000s, whereas the European Union in 2015 accepted 89% of asylum applications from Eritreans and 56% of those from Sudanese.
The country has also largely failed to process asylum applications, and has given blanket rejections to those that it has processed, mainly of Eritreans, on the grounds that Israel does not view escape from military service as cause for asylum.
Eritrea has mandatory conscription for its citizens, but the period of service is not limited and can extend for over a decade, and has been compared to a form of slavery by human rights groups, since many conscripts are forced to work in the nonmilitary sector for insufficient pay on construction and agriculture projects, and sometimes for the personal benefit of commanders.
Gisser called for all applications for refugee status to be properly evaluated, and to then address the question of “how to behave toward poor and needy people seeking shelter.”
Concluded the rabbi, “Let us not forcibly send people to a place where we cannot guarantee their safety or the minimally humane, appropriate way in which people should live in security and with basic welfare.”Rabbi Avidan Freedman, an educator and activist in the Religious Zionist community, and a member of Lo Tasgir, founded by Rabbi Micha Odenheimer
, said he hoped Gisser’s video and that of several other high-profile religious-Zionist public figures will kick-start a serious conversation in the community over the issue.
Freedman said that he believed the caustic dialogue that has sprung up around the issue of African migrants has “duped” large parts of the religious-Zionist community into believing they constitute a demographic threat to the Jewish character of the state and that one cannot support their rights without neglecting those of Israeli residents of south Tel Aviv.
He also asserted that there are imperatives of Jewish law that apply to at least some of the asylum-seekers, pointing to the biblical injunction of: “Do not turn over a slave who seeks refuge with you to his master.”
Avidan said that the situation of Eritrean conscripts is “absolutely comparable” with the Torah’s idea of slavery, “or even worse.”
He also highlighted the frequent exhortation of the Torah to treat foreigners well because of the enslavement and bitter experience of the Israelites in Egypt.
“There is no question in my mind that the Torah was telling us to build a society which has compassion for these kind[s] of people,” said Avidan.