Before I begin, let me clarify who I am. I define myself as an orthodox Jew with
capitalist economic beliefs, and as a passionate albeit sometimes critical
Zionist. I spent most of my college years advocating for and defending the State
of Israel on South African campuses and I remain actively involved in both the
international Jewish community and religious Jewish life here in
However, this Wednesday my convictions will be challenged when
the Knesset votes on the new amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law, a
piece of legislation I believe undermines many of the values upon which my
Zionist convictions are based.
This amendment will dramatically affect
the lives of over 3,300 asylum seekers who have already been through immense
trauma escaping from Eritrea or Sudan. It calls for their transfer to an “open”
center in the Negev where they will be detained indefinitely and without
The new amendment is a response to the fact that the
initial amendments to the Infiltration Law were overturned by the High Court as
they were considered “a grave and disproportionate abuse of the right to
personal freedom.” However, asylum seekers in the new “open” center will be
banned from working, will be subject to roll call three times a day and will be
prevented from traveling outside the immediate area or at night; not necessarily
the most welcoming environment for a group of people who have suffered some of
the most heart-rending stories escaping their war-torn countries.
lets put ideology aside for now and talk about the economic implications;
after-all it’s my tax money that’s paying for this facility. The construction
and maintenance of this facility is expected to cost around NIS 440 million over
the next year, this will come from the cutting of about 560 public sector jobs.
This sum also does not include funding for education, health, or social welfare
for the migrants, which in theory would be guaranteed by the Israeli government
according to the bill.
Furthermore, since the safe return of most of the
people detained in this facility to their home countries is unlikely in the near
future, according to this legislation they could be imprisoned for life. Never
mind the human implications, the economic burden would be immense. Surely this
money could better be spent elsewhere, such as on the 31 percent of Israelis who
currently live in poverty.
Then there is the opportunity cost of these
people not working over the period or becoming contributing members of society.
In fact as Robert Guest, the Global Business editor at The Economist, points out
in his recent book, migrants of all types often “create wealth, spread ideas and
This is something that should be evident to a country
that prides itself on integrating Jewish refugees from all over the world and
the important contribution they have made to our vibrant
However, many have argued that the influx of these non-Jewish
refugees threatens the Jewish character of the state. President Binyamin
Netanyahu himself has made this claim on various occasions, most recently last
week when he described the amendment as an important step “to preserve the
state’s Jewish and democratic character.”
This type of statement may help
explain why no one in the Knesset coalition opposed this problematic legislation
during its first reading.
I understand the basic premise of this
I made aliya to live in a Jewish state, so if the Jewish
character of the nation is truly threatened this is something that concerns me.
However when we look at the numbers, this fear is less compelling. According to
the Interior Ministry, there are currently 53,636 asylum seekers in Israel. At
the same time Israel brings in 70,584 foreign workers – surely instead some of
these jobs could be given to asylum seekers already in the
Furthermore this number is significantly lower that the 92,000
tourists currently in the country on overstayed visas, yet no one seems to be
worrying too much that these “infiltrators” are threatening the character of the
I believe that not only is the Jewish state strong enough
to withstand the absorption of these refugees, but that in fact it is our moral
imperative to do so because we are a Jewish state.
Israel was one of the
initiators of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention because we understood what it was
like to be refugees and to feel unwanted by the nations of the world. We also
come from a religion which emphasizes the importance of how we treat the
strangers among us and the weaker elements of society.
Surely a better
way to protect and strengthen our Jewish identity is by embracing it and the
humanistic qualities it embodies.
Finally, from a Zionist perspective, if
we look back at Herzl’s vision that the Jewish state becomes a “normal nation”
like all other nations of the world, presumably he would have expected this
nation to uphold basic tenets of international law. However this legislation
disregards various international legal commitments in that asylum seekers
detained under this bill do not have access to fair and transparent asylum
proceedings and their detention is automatic and without trial.
to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and subsequent treaties detention should only
be used as a last resort. Israel is required to individually assess claims for
international protection in a fair and transparent manner and provide asylum for
those deserving of such status. Currently Israel has no systematic procedure for
this, leaving these people in indefinite limbo.
Therefore while my
religious convictions tend to make me want to hold Israel up to a higher
standard than the rest of the world, my modern, Zionist tendencies require
simply that Israel acts and is treated as an equal among the nations of the
world (ironically the same argument that my Israel-activist friends make for
Israel’s treatment at the UN).
It must also be noted that this “open”
center, which will be administrated by the Israel Prison Service and allow for
indefinite detention, is situated in the Negev, far from potential work
opportunities. This is a stark contrast to the open centers in most developed
countries, which are situated within urban areas and are temporary places of
refuge, providing welfare services to asylum seekers while they apply for
So is there a solution to the “refugee problem”? I
believe the answer lies in putting this issue into perspective. The situation is
far less dramatic than some of our politicians make out. In fact, with the fence
that has been built on the border with Egypt, there were less than 45 people
crossing this border to Israel this year. The argument that we need harsh
legislation to prevent being inundated by refugees is therefore no longer valid.
We can’t accept every person from Africa that wants a better life but we can
ensure proper procedures for determining those that are genuine refugees, who
would be subject to persecution if they were returned.
We can give these
people work visas (not citizenship) and allow them to earn a decent living,
educate their children and contribute to the Israeli economy. Most have no
intention of staying in Israel indefinitely and say that they would return if
the could. While we can’t fix the situation in their home countries, we can
focus our energies on treating those already in Israel with the dignity that
they deserve and that international law and our own Jewish tradition
So this Wednesday as we are lighting the eighth candle for
Hanukka and commemorating the Maccabees who stood for what they believed in,
against the odds, I hope that I as a citizen of the modern State of Israel will
be able to feel proud that my political leadership stood for the values that we
the Jewish People believe in and opposed this bill.
The author was the
former chairperson of the South African Union of Jewish Students, holds an MSc
from the London School of Economics and currently works at harnessing Israeli
innovation for solving challenges in the developing world.