It’s time to change Israel’s refugee policies

Israel’s treatment of asylum seekers has become a downright desecration of the name of God.

AFRICAN MIGRANTS sit on pipes outside Holot, a detention centre in Israel’s southern Negev desert. (photo credit: REUTERS)
AFRICAN MIGRANTS sit on pipes outside Holot, a detention centre in Israel’s southern Negev desert.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A number of shocking items have appeared in Israeli news reports this past week. A key official at the Interior Ministry’s “Office for Voluntary Return” was indicted on charges of bribery and passport forgery. A major Israeli newspaper published a first-person account by an Eritrean asylum seeker of the harassment (of a personal and sexual nature) that she suffered at the hands of said ministry while trying to renew her visa and keep her family together. And last but not least, Human Rights Watch released “Making Their Lives Miserable,” a scathing report on Israel’s treatment of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers, a release that has been covered by Israeli and international media, including The New York Times.
For those less familiar with the unfolding situation of asylum seekers in Israel these revelations may come as quite a shock. For those of us actively involved, and for those of us who have Sudanese and Eritrean friends here in Israel, these revelations are sadly unsurprising – appalling, but not surprising. Still, however one encounters the events of the past week, the message they send is clear: the time has come for Israel to change its policy toward African asylum seekers – for the sake of the asylum seekers, for the sake of Israel, the Jewish people, human rights, and for the sake of heaven.
Israel’s treatment of asylum seekers has become a downright Hilul Hashem, desecration of the name of God, or in other words a dark blot on Israel’s reputation and a shame for the Jewish people, especially when committed ostensibly in the name of Judaism and Jewish values.
Normally I would be very hesitant to use the phrase “Hilul Hashem,” and generally I wouldn’t bat more than eyelash at criticism of Israel in the foreign media – criticism which can often be contested or qualified with moral or political justifications, or at the very least the claim that “it’s complicated” or that “there’s no simple solution.”
Unfortunately in this case, I can find no way to sanctify Israel’s policies.
I can no more justify the Interior Ministry’s “special reception hours” and harassment of Africans and their placement in desert “residency centers” than I can justify the segregation and degradation of women on public buses (which American Jews have been so quick to deplore, and rightly so). The approximately 48,000 African asylum seekers currently residing in Israel – whom Israel allowed to enter, granted legal visas to, and sent on public buses to major cities – hardly present a threat to Israel’s security or way of life. The vast majority work, pay taxes, respect Israel’s laws and culture, and contribute to the State of Israel.
What about the Jewish residents of south Tel Aviv, who have suffered from a significant deterioration in their quality of life since the influx of thousands of migrants to their neighborhoods? As a person who lives and works in south Tel Aviv, I agree that the challenges of south Tel Aviv must be dealt with, but forcing a couple thousand asylum seekers into detention centers in the Negev, and coercing a few thousand more to return to Africa is no solution, as has been made clear by multiple African and Israeli community organizations, and most recently by Israel’s State Comptroller and HRW. This policy is merely a defective bandage on a festering wound that serves only the political interests of certain politicians who benefit from scapegoating and incitement against asylum seekers, while keeping south Tel Aviv in a state of neglect and fear.
The real solution is a simple one.
Israel must end its policies of arbitrary arrest and detention of asylum seekers. Israel must check the individual asylum claims of each asylum seeker through a fair and transparent process based on international standards and grant temporary refugee status to those who are so entitled – or alternatively, grant temporary group protection to all Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers with all the basic rights of refugees including access to work, health, education and social welfare services.
The result will be a natural migration out of south Tel Aviv (which can be hastened by incentivization and job placement in areas that need workers) and a positive temporary integration into Israeli society.
The hundreds of millions of shekels currently spent on arrests and detentions can be spent on improving the infrastructure of south Tel Aviv and temporary resettlement of refugees. This solution has been presented by HRW, Israel’s State Comptroller and the aforementioned organizations. Now it merely remains upon the government of Israel to implement it.
But Israel is a Jewish state. Aren’t the African asylum seekers a threat to the Jewish character of the state? To me, the abuse of African asylum seekers – people who have come to this country to save their own lives – in the name of Judaism and the Jewish state is the greatest Hilul Hashem of all. As Jews we are taught we must love the stranger because we were once strangers in the Land of Egypt. We must not mistreat a runaway slave for we were once runaway slaves. Yes, I understand that Israel may not have the capacity to absorb every refugee from Africa who wishes to enter, but Israel now has a fence and virtually none are arriving. And Israel, a country of over seven million Jews, has the ability and the moral and Jewish obligation to grant temporary asylum to the 48,000 strangers that are already living in our midst, or at the very least to process their claims. That is what it means to be a Jewish state.
We are now in the Hebrew month of Elul, the month of repentance. It is time for Israel to make amends and repair its policy toward refugees. To do so would be an act of repentance and a true sanctification of God’s name and glorification of the name of Israel.
The author is a teacher at the BINA Secular Yeshiva in Tel Aviv and a volunteer at Right Now: Advocates for Asylum-Seekers in Israel.