Jewish Journal


June 22, 2012

Addressing the Plight of the African Refugees in Israel



Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

A few days ago, 120 refugees were sent back to South Sudan, where they will face existential danger in the shape of hunger and threat of war. Things have been getting worse in Israel, with militant violence. There is some hostile, intolerant language coming not just from crowds at protests, but also from politicians. Authorities are arresting refugees and deporting them. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society has termed this anti-foreigner wave “the largest one in scope and severity” in Israel’s history.

Israel is experiencing great difficulties with rising immigrant populations, as are other nations around the world. Significantly, Israel is the only democratic state with a land connection to Africa, so it is inevitable that a large portion of African refugees would seek to go there. These undocumented migrants cross into Israel either looking for work or fleeing from severe persecution. The social and economic burdens are immense and Israel is already struggling with very limited resources. Clearly, Israel cannot be a home for all refugees who wish to come. This is not a fair request of this tiny state already overwhelmed with social and economic issues. However, there is no justification for the racism and violence that some Israelis are showing toward this population.

This crisis has developed over decades. During the 1990s, Israel opened its borders to migrant workers, and about 180,000 came. Only about half were able to obtain the necessary work contract and visa, while the others tended to work at very low-paying, unofficial jobs. On the other hand, since 2006, about 60,000 refugees have come to Israel, mostly from Eritrea (34,000) or Sudan (15,700), and 2,000 more enter every month. The Israeli government has regarded these refugees under the law as “infiltrators,” and regards them as migrant workers, subject to deportation. Of the 4,603 new applications for asylum filed by other refugees, only one was approved in 2011.

Ironically, Israel, a nation of refugees, has not fully developed a legal process for non-Jewish refugees. Since Israel did not have diplomatic relations with Sudan, and since Eritrea has deteriorated into a lawless state, most of the refugees from these countries could not be immediately deported. Nevertheless, they have not been given the opportunity to apply for asylum (in contrast, 85 percent of Eritreans who reach the United States are granted asylum, and 70-90 percent of refugees from Sudan and Eritrea are granted asylum in Europe). While Israel has given some of these refugees temporary group protection, this has to be renewed annually, and most importantly, it does not confer the right to work within Israel. The result is that refugees have little access to work, health care, education, or other services.

Who are these refugees, and how are they treated? Stephen Slater recently wrote about his 2007 encounter with a Sudanese refugee, George Kulang, whose wife and children had been murdered by the Janjaweed (armed militia on horseback who have committed many atrocities in Darfur). He fled to Egypt, where he was tortured, so he continued his journey to Israel. When he saw an Israeli flag, he felt that “I must walk to that flag, because the Israelis are good, they have democracy, they will not turn us away.” However, as is typical for most refugees, he then spent several months in jail, and (usually when the detention centers are overflowing) was released to an urban center to fend for himself, often working below the minimum wage.

South Sudan won independence from Sudan in July 2011. Israel established relations with the new state, and this is enabling Israel to deport Sudanese refugees, even though the political situation there is far from stable, with much military activity. This spring, events took an alarming turn. Some Israeli government officials raised a more intolerant tone:

  • Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Israel had to prevent “illegal infiltrators flooding the country.”

  • MK Miri Regev called the refugees “a cancer in our midst.”

  • Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and the mayor of five other cities called for the imprisonment and expulsion of African refugees.

  • Minister of the Interior Eli Yishai said that infiltrators are “all criminals,” and that they spread disease. He set up a special task force to solve the “infiltrator problem,” with the expressed purpose “for Israel to be without infiltrators.”

  • MK Danny Danon claimed that Israel now has “an ‘infiltrator’ enemy state” within its borders, and has called for the detention and mass-deportation of all infiltrators.

  • MK Arye Eldad of the National Union Party suggested that the IDF shoot infiltrators trying to enter Israel.

In addition, unsubstantiated reports of a rising crime wave among African refugees in South Tel Aviv raised tensions, and then apartment houses (including a daycare center) in the Shapira neighborhood of south Tel Aviv were hit by four firebombs in April; fortunately, there were no injuries. On May 24, tensions reached a breaking point. Politicians incited the crowd with xenophobic rhetoric, and then the crowd smashed the windows and destroyed goods in stores owned by African refugees, and then attacked Africans on the streets. Fortunately, many courageous Israelis rose to denounce this act of hatred:

  • Yair Lapid, a member of the opposition, called the attack a “pogrom” (an extremely hateful term describing the tsarist attacks on Jewish communities in Russia), adding: “They don’t understand the meaning of Jewish morals or collective Jewish memory, nor do they understand the meaning of Jewish existence.”

  • President Shimon Peres said: “hatred of foreigners contradicts the foundations of Judaism.”

  • In an editorial, Haaretz condemned the rioting against African refugees and human rights activists: “The history of the Jewish people—rife with instances of incitement, persecution and pogroms—does not resonate with the inciters…. it is becoming a badge of shame on an entire society.”

The statements of the beleaguered refugees supply an added poignancy. One Eritrean who experienced the violence said: “…when we try to explain that we fled murder and torture no one is interested. We did not believe that things like this could happen in a democracy like Israel.” A Sudanese resident of Tel Aviv spoke in a manner disturbingly familiar to many: “You don’t know when you will be taken by the police, arrested and deported. You don’t know how long it will be. We’re living in an uncertain future. We are living in fear.” Others wonder if their neighbors will attack them, and know that the police will not help them if an attack occurs.

In response, some Israelis have gone out of their way to show kindness to the stranger, such as walking African children home from school. Others have pointed out that, according to official police data given to the Knesset in March 2012, the crime rate among foreigners was 2.24 percent, while for the general population the crime rate was 4.99 percent, significantly higher, refuting the myth that Africans are disproportionately involved in crime. Lifting the prohibition on work would probably help lower the foreign crime rate even further.

June brought many new developments. An Israeli court approved the deportation of 1,500 Africans currently living in Israel. The government then arrested 240, and 300 others chose to leave rather than face arrest. There was also a spate of bills passed based more on political expediency than a coherent policy. On June 3, a law went into effect allowing the detention of “infiltrators” for up to 3 years, yet another attempt to deter refugees.

On June 10, another bill increased penalties for those who aided infiltrators and for those employers who hired workers illegally. By the middle of June, deportees were being sent back to South Sudan on weekly flights. Since South Sudan looks forward to Israeli investment to build its economy, it is cooperating with the deportations.

The government’s pledge to enforce a ban on work for refugees will have consequences. Israel is rapidly working to finish its southern detention center, Ir Amim (City of Nations), which will be the world’s largest prison for immigrants when it reaches its capacity of 10,000-15,000 inmates. In addition, Israel is building a barrier covering most of the border with Egypt to discourage refugees. However, even this will not succeed in taking all the refugees out of Israel’s cities. As a result, there is a plan to set up 20,000-25,000 tents in the Negev, which will probably not have a sewage system and will severely overtax the water and electricity supply of the region. As Ramat Negev Regional Council head Shmuel Rifman said: “I’m told it’s temporary, but in Israel the transient becomes permanent.” (Haaretz, June 12, 2012).

It must be pointed out that the instability in much of Africa cannot, of course, be solved by Israel alone, and that international efforts must be coordinated to reduce the level of poverty and human rights abuses that leads to mass migration of refugees. There must be more international support and collaboration to support the State of Israel and other democracies facing these challenges. It could also be noted that, on many occasions when Jews were persecuted, there were few voices raised to defend the Jews, whereas here there is a significant revulsion against the rioters. Many nations have refugee problems, and few have resolved the issue with humanity. There are no perfect solutions to these immense challenges. Nevertheless, as the refugees themselves have often said, Israel is a place where you should expect something better. Defining refugees from places where murder, torture, and rape are common as “infiltrators” and “criminals” shows a poor example to the world.  Up to 50,000 asylum seekers should not be ignored or routinely detained by the Prison Service.

Israeli rabbi and scholar Rabbi Donniel Hartman teaches the importance of embracing our Jewish responsibilities toward refugees that come along with our political sovereignty.

As a Jewish state committed to the continuity of values and as a co-signee of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the value of Jewish continuity cannot be allowed to cause us either to shirk our responsibility or to be deaf to the needs of others. As a strong and successful country with a clear and sustainable Jewish majority, we have the ability to assimilate thousands of individuals a year without weakening our national identity. Given the size of Israel and the value of Jewish national continuity, however, this number is not unlimited. We need to determine a realistic policy which recognizes both our responsibility as Jews and our responsibility to the Jewish people.

Rav Donniel continues showing how our Jewish response to crises like this determine the future of our nation.

With Zionism the Jewish people have entered into the arena of political sovereignty with all of its gifts, challenges, and opportunities. We need to defend our borders and defend our national identity. We must also make sure, however, that we do not create a state whose border policies are Jewish but where life within those borders is not conducted with the highest standards of Jewish moral principle. As Jews we have matured sufficiently in our treatment of our border policy but we have yet to do so when it comes to our internal policy. We have created our Jewish state precisely for such an opportunity. It is time for us to embrace it.

Call upon Israeli government officials to ensure the safety of the African refugees so that they not live in fear. The building of the detention facility in the Negev to indefinitely detain refugees should be halted. A thoughtful, ethical and comprehensive immigration policy needs to be developed for how the State of Israel receives African refugees. Creating a true policy for dealing with refugees in accordance with international law should be a priority. We not only need the Israeli government to stop wrongs done to innocent vulnerable refugees but to fully swing the pendulum to being the global leader to fight the genocides occurring in the world today and to support refugees in all ways possible. Due to our unique Jewish history, we are best positioned to be at the forefront. Israel cannot become just another nation struggling with the refugee problem like other nations; rather there needs to be a distinctly Jewish compassionate response that raises the global standard. Israel, our beloved homeland, is a light in so many ways and this is another opportunity that cannot be missed to demonstrate how we care for the vulnerable.

As Jews, we are a nation of immigrants commanded to love and protect the stranger in our midst. This imperative is highest when we have sovereignty. It is not only our historical condition but also our eternal identity as the children of Abraham, the paradigmatic stranger.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder & CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available on Amazon. In April 2012, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the most influential rabbis in America.

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