Israel should do better by its asylum seekers - opinion

As a nation built by people who once sought asylum, Israel must consider how the nation treats those currently seeking the same protection.

 INTERIOR MINISTER Ayelet Shaked. ‘I think we can agree that this is not the best look to which Israel can aspire,’ says the writer, referring to the denial of asylum to a woman fleeing female genital mutilation.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
INTERIOR MINISTER Ayelet Shaked. ‘I think we can agree that this is not the best look to which Israel can aspire,’ says the writer, referring to the denial of asylum to a woman fleeing female genital mutilation.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Since its inception, Israel has been torn between a vision of itself as a leading force for global good – a “light unto the nations” – and an instinct to shut itself off in a ghetto of its own devising, skeptical of outsiders and interested in little but its own survival.

It’s clear which side has emerged on top in last month’s election, and Israel can now expect the world to sneer back at it in return. Which is why, paradoxically perhaps, now may be the time to shine a light unto the nations even brighter than before. Which brings me to the complicated topic of stateless people.

No doubt Israel has bigger problems – even less dramatic countries do. But sometimes it is through seemingly peripheral issues that the essence can be glimpsed. How a country treats the less fortunate, even if they are outsiders, will reveal much about what kind of society it really is. A little like with individuals.

And this issue is not so peripheral: stateless people are estimated by the UN to number 12 million individuals with no valid passport, no real ability to return to their homeland and few rights to travel freely.

An asylum seeker's tale

African asylum seekers gather in the shade of trees during a protest in southern Israel's Negev desert (credit: FINBARR O'REILLY / REUTERS)African asylum seekers gather in the shade of trees during a protest in southern Israel's Negev desert (credit: FINBARR O'REILLY / REUTERS)

I recently had the honor of meeting one of them, 28-year-old Arthur Kilongo, whose story is revealing both about the good Israel can do, and the heartless way that it can turn on a dime.

Kilongo’s family fled Congo in 2002, because his father was threatened by army and government officials, after discovering and exposing cases of corruption during his work as a locally elected official, auditing government finances. Kilongo remembers literally running away from his home on his father’s shoulders, terrified for his life.

The parents and their seven children arrived legally in Israel on September 14, 2002, at the height of the second Intifada, and were granted asylum status with the help of the UNHCR (and after that, formal refugee status).

There are many thousands of people in similar situations, in various states of legality across the country, especially concentrated in south Tel Aviv.

It is a complex matter. On one hand, some arrived illegally, and countries can choose who to let in. One the other, Israel, with a per capita GDP of more than $40,000, is part of the rich and free world, which, some believe has a duty to help those fleeing tyranny.

Israel, indeed, has a positive history in this regard, ever since it accepted Vietnamese “boat people” in the 1970s.

Nonetheless, of late the issue has been exploited by politicians who have used it to whip up nativist sentiment. Its Interior Ministry has often been in the hands of nationalists like Ayelet Shaked, the current Interior Minister who, in recent days denied asylum to a woman fleeing female genital mutilation. I think we can agree that this is not the best look to which Israel can aspire.

It is especially galling when the country ignores those who have truly become part of its social fabric – analogous, perhaps, to the Dreamers issue in the United States.

A long, harrowing journey

KILONGO ATTENDED school in various places around the Tel Aviv area and speaks fluent Hebrew – from Bnei Brak, where he got to know religious Jews, to Bat Yam, where his father, now a Christian minister, finally made a home.  He even attended an international school and played sports with Arabs and Palestinians. His dream, until recently, had been to work for the Foreign Ministry and present to the world a pluralistic face of Israel.

Over the years, the family has had to reapply to the Interior Ministry for temporary A5 visas every five years. To travel abroad, each family member needed both permission from the ministry and to apply for a reentry visa, because they are not permanent residents, Israeli citizens, or Israeli passport holders. In the past, Kilongo has left and returned to Israel a number of times, something which, he says, “was always quite a process.”

Complications began when Kilongo was admitted to Bard College in New York state in 2017, to study economics. Since then, he spent vacations either studying or interning in New York. After graduating, he remained in New York for one more year as a fellow at the school.

When planning his return to Israel to rejoin his family, he found out that his visa had been canceled – even though he had informed the authorities several times that he was abroad for study only and intended to return.

Back in Israel, the family has applied for citizenship, but there has been no progress. Without citizenship, they face absurd consequences: Kilongo’s niece Elinoy, born a year ago, has no access to social insurance and health services. 

Kilongo, who now interns for the United Bank for Africa, remains philosophical about his odd limbo.

Children at a kindergarten for asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv. (credit: UNITAF)Children at a kindergarten for asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv. (credit: UNITAF)

“I consider myself to be a good friend of Israel, who is thankful that the country has already given my family very much, and for more than 20 years when some would have wanted us instantly sent back to Congo,” he says. ”Israel most likely owes my family nothing.”

“However, if Israel is a very humane state, then they may allow for my family and others, who are in a similar situation, to have just a little bit more freedom of movement and a feeling of belonging.”

Is this a person Israel really wants to reject? How many others like him are there? Is this not clearly a case in which the country can both do the right thing and the smart thing? As a lifelong PR professional who has often worked with Israeli clients, I can state that it is a no-brainer.

None of us is perfect, and we cannot expect it from others. But human beings can tell when something is unjust, or even foolish. Governments should be able to as well.

The writer, founder and president of the Thunder11 public relations agency, is the author of the bestselling Primitive: Tapping the Primal Drive That Powers the World’s Most Successful People.