Moral, economic and legal responsibilities of the Jewish state?

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 demands.

African Refugees 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
African Refugees 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
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 Israel.
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 judicial review.
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.
But 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 foster innovation.”
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 economy.
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 argument.
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 country.
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 Jewish state.
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.
According 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 refugee status.
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 demands.
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.