A few days ago, 120 people who sought refuge in Israel were sent back to South Sudan, where they face existential danger in the shape of hunger and threat of war. Things have been getting worse in Israel, with militant violence. Hostile, intolerant language comes from politicians as well as protestors.
As is the case in other nations around the world, Israel is experiencing great difficulties with rising immigrant populations. Because Israel is the only democratic state with a land connection to Africa, it is inevitable that many African refugees would seek to go there. These undocumented aliens – I prefer to call them migrants – cross into Israel either looking for work, or fleeing from severe persecution. Israel is a tiny state, already overwhelmed with social and economic issues; its resources are very limited. Clearly, it cannot be a home for all refugees who wish to come. There is no justification, however, for the racism and violence that some Israelis are showing toward this population.
This crisis has developed over decades, beginning in the 1990s, when Israel opened its borders to migrant workers. 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 regards them under the law as “infiltrators,” subject to deportation. Of the 4,603 new applications for asylum filed by other refugees, only one was approved in 2011.
This spring, events took an alarming turn. Some Israeli government officials raised a more intolerant tone:
â€¢ Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Israel had to prevent “illegal infiltrators flooding the country.”
â€¢ Member of Knesset Miri Regev called the refugees “a cancer in our midst.”
â€¢ Tel Aviv’s Mayor Ron Huldai and the mayors of five other cities called for the imprisonment and expulsion of African refugees.
â€¢ 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.”
â€¢ MK Danny Danon, a deputy Knesset speaker, claimed that Israel now has “an ‘infiltrator’ enemy state” within its borders, and has called for the detention and deportation of all infiltrators.
â€¢ MK Arye Eldad of the National Union Party suggested that the army shoot infiltrators.
In addition, unsubstantiated reports of a rising crime wave among African refugees in South Tel Aviv raised tensions, and then apartment houses in south Tel Aviv, one housing a daycare center, were hit by four firebombs in April; fortunately, there were no injuries. On May 24, tensions reached a breaking point. Politicians incited a crowd with xenophobic rhetoric; the crowd smashed 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. Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, said that “hatred of foreigners contradicts the foundations of Judaism.”
In response, some Israelis have gone out of their way to show kindness to the strangers, doing things like 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. The crime rate in the general population 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.
In June, an Israeli court approved the deportation of 1,500 Africans. The government then arrested 240 refugees; 300 others chose to leave rather than face arrest.
On June 3, a law went into effect allowing the detention of “infiltrators” for up to three years, yet another attempt to deter refugees. On June 10, the Knesset increased penalties for those who aided infiltrators, and for those employers who hired workers illegally.
By last week, deportees were being sent back to South Sudan on weekly flights.
The government’s pledge to enforce a ban on work for refugees will have consequences. Israel rapidly is 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 to 15,000 inmates. Israel also is building a barrier that will cover most of its border with Egypt to discourage refugees. There also is a plan to set up 20,000 to 25,000 tents in the Negev, which probably will not have a sewage system and will severely overtax the region’s supply of water and electricity.
Many nations have refugee problems, and few have resolved the issue with humanity. There are no perfect solutions to the immense challenges it poses. Nevertheless, as the refugees themselves often have said, Israel is a place where we 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.
Because Israel is a Jewish state committed to the continuity of values, 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.
To be sure, Israel, a co-signer of the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, must defend its borders and its national identity. At the same time, though, it also must ensure that what goes on within its borders represents the highest standards of Jewish moral principle.
As Jews, we are commanded to love and protect the strangers in our midst. This imperative is highest when we have sovereignty, as we do in Israel. The imperative is a result not only of our history but also of our eternal identity as the children of Abraham, the paradigmatic stranger.
Israel cannot become just another nation struggling with the refugee problem, like other nations; rather, there must be a distinctly Jewish compassionate response that raises the global standard. Israel must ensure the safety of the African refugees. It must halt the building of the detention facility in the Negev. It must develop a thoughtful, ethical, and comprehensive immigration policy in accordance with international law. And it must become a global leader in the fight against the genocides occurring in the world today.
Israel is a light in so many ways. This is another opportunity that cannot be missed to demonstrate how Jews care for the vulnerable.