Helping strangers

Progressive Jewish groups are disproportionately involved in the issue of African asylum seekers.

An African migrant holds an Israeli flag after being released from the Holot detention center in the Negev (photo credit: REUTERS)
An African migrant holds an Israeli flag after being released from the Holot detention center in the Negev
(photo credit: REUTERS)
IT’S BEEN 40 years since prime minister Menachem Begin welcomed with open arms the relatively small group of “boat people” fleeing Vietnam. It would be incomprehensible, Begin argued, if the state that was founded on the ashes of the Holocaust was not prepared to take in refugees fleeing political persecution and oppression. But since then, Israel has granted legal status to only a handful of non-Jewish refugees. Begin’s attitude seems sweetly quaint today.
The publicity surrounding the unprecedented number of asylum-seekers streaming into Europe in the past few months has eclipsed the issue of migrants in Israel.
Although Israel was one of the first signatories to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (“the Refugee Convention”), the government has yet to come to grips with its policies regarding an estimated 45,000-60,000 migrants from Africa who are in Israel, and claiming asylum and refugee status.
While the state has refused to grant the migrants refugee status, imprisoned many and left most in a state of legal limbo, there are many Israeli groups who have been helping the migrants in a variety of ways.
For these organizations and groups, their help represents a commitment to the Jewish value of tikkun olam, a concept that suggests the shared responsibility to heal, repair and transform the world.
“At a certain point a few years ago, when we saw a troubling government policy, we decided to open our advocacy arm,” says Yair Lootsteen, the social-action coordinator of Kol Haneshama, the Reform/ Progressive congregation in Jerusalem, which is involved in a range of social justice activities. The congregation is the only established synagogue in Israel committed to humanitarian help specifically for African asylum seekers. “This is the way we see our Jewishness. We must take responsibility for the world around us, and we felt we could make a tangible contribution to the plight of these refugees,” declares Lootsteen to The Jerusalem Report.
The first wave of the African refugees arrived in early 2006, crossing illegally into Israel on foot across the Egyptian border.
Mainly Orthodox Christians from Eritrea escaping a brutal dictatorship and Muslims from the war-ravaged Darfur region of Sudan, they had been conveyed by Beduin smugglers, who often extorted high fees, tortured their charges, sexually abused the women, then left them to fend for themselves in the desert.
By 2011, some 15,000-20,000 migrants were illegally crossing from the Sinai into Israel annually. But once Israel completed a five-meter high fence along the Egyptian border in 2012, the numbers dropped to a mere dozen making it across the border from Sinai each year.
Over the decades, Israel has approved asylum claims of fewer than 200 refugees, and since 2009, of no Africans. The African migrants are referred to as “infiltrators,” a term from the 1950s used to describe Arab intruders who entered Israel and committed acts of terror and sabotage. As “infiltrators,” the migrants are thus illegal, and, by definition, a security threat.
THE MIGRANTS and their advocates say they fled their homelands because of political persecution and human-rights violations, and insist that if they are returned to their countries of origin, they would face torture and prison. Israeli officials insist that most are simply migrant workers and, therefore, not eligible for UN-recognized refugee status. The UN Refugee Convention treaty, which Israel signed almost 60 years ago, defines who is a refugee and sets out the rights of individuals who are granted asylum and the provision of a refugee’s right to be protected against forcible return.
Unlike other OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, Israel has refused to grant refugee status to the migrants. It has, however, granted most Sudanese and Eritrean foreign nationals “group protection,” meaning Israel won’t deport them to their home countries.
However, because their asylum claims aren’t processed, they’re left in a state of legal limbo without the means to support themselves legally.
Without proper resources or work permits, many of the migrants have taken up residence in south Tel Aviv and poor neighborhoods of other large cities, often sleeping in public parks. Not surprisingly, their presence has been strongly resented and protested by people who feel their neighborhoods, already neglected slums, have been overrun.
Under the Prevention of Infiltration Law, many African migrants are being held in the southern Negev desert close to the Egyptian border. Some are being held in the Saharonim high-security prison, others in the Holot “open” detention center.
The Holot facility, in one of the most remote and desolate corners of Israel, is referred to by the government as “open” since the detainees are not required to remain on the premises during the day. But it is far from any population centers, and checking in each night prevents detainees from holding a job or traveling elsewhere in the country.
The facility is surrounded by barbed wire and detainees face harsh, prison-like conditions inside.
In August, the High Court struck down the clause in the Infiltration Law that allowed asylum seekers to be held in Holot for 20 months. The justices ordered the Knesset to set a shorter maximum period of detention within six months, and until then set the maximum holding period in Holot at one year. (The court, however, rejected the petition by human-rights organizations against the law itself, deciding that Holot is here to stay.) As a result of the ruling, some 1,200 asylum seekers – of the 1,700 detained there – were released from the facility. They have been replaced since then by nearly 1,000 Africans, as the Interior Ministry has stepped up its pace of detentions. Almost every migrant who tries to renew a visa to remain in Israel (aside from women and children) are being sent to Holot.
Some migrants are offered “voluntary deportation” rather than imprisonment.
Given a stipend of $3,500, they are sent to Uganda and Rwanda where human-rights organizations say they have no status or basic rights.
The government may either ignore or incarcerate the migrants, but dozens of Israeli NGOs (non-profit organizations) have been providing them with help, mainly in the form of legal aid. They include the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Physicians for Human Rights, the Assaf Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, and Right Now: Advocates for African Asylum Seekers in Israel.
“How can we speak of our concern for refugees [fleeing to Europe] when in Israel thousands of refugees are left without legal protection from expulsion without a place to live or basic services and are under constant threat of imprisonment,” goes a joint statement issued by the African refugee advocacy group Right Now, The New Israel Fund and Rabbis for Human Rights.
The scene early last summer was somewhat surreal. In the stark wilderness in the southern Negev desert, close to the Egyptian frontier, some 50 rabbis and lay religious leaders stood in a circle together with several dozen African men praying and singing. The delegation of Reform, Masorti (Conservative) and several Orthodox rabbis was on a solidarity visit to the Holot detention facility. This isn’t a stop you’ll find on most tours of Israel.
During the ceremony, some of the detainees were clearly bewildered; others said they were quite moved. “We’re happy to have this support,” said Teshome Nega from Eritrea, who has been in the country for seven years. “It helps our morale that they come here, even though they can’t really do anything for us, legally” he said.
“THE WHOLE point of Holot is to break these people’s spirit, to make them feel forgotten and abandoned, so they will voluntarily leave the country,” believes Elliot Glassenberg, director of International Communication and a teacher at Bina Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture in Tel Aviv. “So that anytime people come and talk to them and provide an ear to hear their stories, it’s an act of pikuah nefesh [saving a soul]. When you bring people from abroad, rabbis who will speak about this from their pulpits, this might change public opinion and policy,” concludes Glassenberg.
There is a wide spectrum in Israel of what are termed progressive Jewish synagogues and communities. In addition to the more than 40 Reform/Progressive congregations and close to 70 Masorti/ Conservative congregations, there are some 50 nondenominational groups, secular yeshivas and organizations formed in the spirit of the Jewish Renewal or Cultural Renaissance movement.
Almost all of these communities have social action programs of one sort or another rooted in the concept of tikkun olam, such as helping indigent elderly, new immigrants, children and youth at risk or community development, coexistence projects, even volunteering in poor rural villages abroad.
Congregation Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem is the vanguard in the sphere of social action and the congregation is the only established synagogue in Israel committed to humanitarian help specifically for African asylum seekers.
“I believe in being God’s partners for making a better world,” Rabbi Susan Silverman, one of the organizers of the event at Holot, and a member of Kol Haneshama, tells The Report. “As Jews, we have suffered so much and so we have a great responsibility to treat the strangers. The refugees here need our protection, kindness and humanity. This is our religious and moral responsibility,” she adds.
Among its projects for the asylum seekers, Kol Haneshama has set up a kindergarten for children of refugees at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, provides Hebrew and English lessons, organizes professional medical and legal help, and holds fundraisers.
They also provide humanitarian aid such as food and computers to incarcerated refugees in Holot, whom they visit monthly.
They’ve maintained contact with many of the refugees who were recently released.
Muawi (“Jack”) Adamisam from Darfur, now 31, is one of the refugees “adopted” by Kol Haneshama. He managed to escape his home in 2003 when the war in Darfur broke out, with the government’s murderous campaign of ethnic cleansing against Darfur’s non-Arabs. Jack walked to Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, but left in 2008 when the regime began arresting Darfurian youth. He managed to get to Egypt, then paid smugglers to take him to Israel.
Now back in Jerusalem, after being released from Holot after an 18-month incarceration, Adamisam tells The Report, “We came back and had no money or anywhere to stay at night. Members of Kol Haneshama took us into their homes. Renting is almost impossible because people hate the refugees even more now,” he says.
“We see this as a Jewish issue,” explains Tamara Schagas, Kol Haneshama’s coordinator of social justice programs. “The NGOs are dealing with legal issues and human rights. We decided to deal with what’s happening in Jerusalem. No one else was doing that,” she states, explaining that, as opposed to the situation in the Tel Aviv area where they are mostly single men, most of the refugees in Jerusalem are families.
“We wanted to increase the consciousness of our own community about this issue,” explains Steve Israel, the congregation’s coordinator of activities for the asylum seekers. For those refugees who have lost their own families, he says, Kol Haneshama has become a family. Many of the Africans that the congregation was helping in Jerusalem were summoned to Holot, which is how the monthly visits began.
There is a large proportion of Englishspeaking immigrants, mainly former North Americans, who are involved in social-action projects in Israel, and this is particularly true regarding the issue of the African asylum seekers, which is not a major concern of mainstream Israelis.
“Because of the nature of their culture and values, North American Jews tend to strongly identify and empathize with the issue of asylum seekers in Israel,” posits Bina’s Glassenberg.
“I know from encountering so many Americans involved with these causes that there is a disproportionate presence of American Jews in liberal and progressive movements in Israel,” agrees Don Futterman, program director in Israel of the Moriah Fund, a private American foundation that supports the Hotline for Refugees and Migrant Workers and Assaf.
Anglos also appear to dominate the progressive religious streams of Judaism in Israel, a perception, however, that is “totally misguided,” according to Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi who is president of the Hidush Movement for Religious Freedom and Equality. “For years, there were complaints that Reform and Conservative movements were an American implant, that they weren’t Israeli, but this isn’t true,” insists Regev.
“The Reform Movement is certainly not an Anglo movement, but is very heterogeneous with mostly veteran, native-born members,” he notes, adding that Kol Haneshama is an exception. “It’s located in a geographic area heavily populated by Anglos and founded by Anglos. It’s an exceptional community with exceptional leadership,” says Regev.
The granddaddy of the Jewish organizations assisting refugees is HIAS, founded in the US in the late 19th century. In Israel, it was first involved in settling new immigrants.
This focus changed dramatically in the last few years. “We discovered that the state is facing a different kind of challenge; it could deal with aliya, but it had no asylum policy in place to deal with non-Jews coming to the country,” explains HIAS’s Israel director Sivan Carmel. HIAS set up the first refugee course for law students and then a refugee clinic at Tel Aviv University.
“No country stands with open arms for refugees,” says Carmel. “Judicial reviews are the key.” To this end, HIAS provides legal aid and trains Israeli attorneys and law students to represent the asylum seekers.
“This still connects us philosophically to Jewish ethics, this is what keeps us going and what guides us,” says Carmel. “What we like to say is that we used to assist refugees because they’re Jewish; now we assist refugees because we’re Jewish. This is part of Jewish values and our history. We know what it’s like, we’ve been there.”