Campaign for Religious Equality in Israel

“We are doing great things at Kehilat Mevaseret Zion with families, adults, social justice work, and building community, but we receive no funding from the Israeli government, as opposed to orthodox synagogues one of which is just down the street from us and is fully funded because it is orthodox.” So said Rabbi Alona Nir Keren of Kehilat Mevaseret Tzion, a Reform synagogue community in the Judean Hills just down the road from Jerusalem.

Rabbi Nir Keren joined with four other Israeli Reform Rabbis on a stage on Monday night at the 129th annual meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Long Beach, CA. She was part of a panel discussing the vitality and challenges of the Israeli Reform movement.

She was joined by Rabbi Chen Or Tsfoni of Kehilat Raanana, Rabbi Yoki Amir, Professor of Jewish History and Philosophy at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, Rabbi Nava Hefetz, the Director of Education for Rabbis for Human Rights-Israel, and Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the CEO and President of the Israel Movement for Progressive and Reform Judaism.

Rabbi Kariv spoke about the growing influence of Israel’s Reform movement in Israel as a whole. He noted that 800,000 Israelis have attended in recent years weddings, b’nai mitzvah celebrations, britot milah, baby namings, and funerals conducted by our 100 Israeli Reform Rabbis. Israelis are not only taking notice of the Israeli Reform movement, they are joining Reform synagogues. Taken together (according to a recent poll), the Reform and Conservative movements attract 11% of the Israeli population, equal to the 11% of the Israeli population that are ultra-Orthodox Haredim.

Rabbi David Stern, President of the CCAR, questioned these rabbis on a wide range of issues including human rights, religious pluralism in the state, the impact of Reform Judaism on Israeli culture, the spiritual and educational needs of Israelis young and old, liberal religious practice in Israel, and the reasons so many secular Israelis are attracted to the Reform movement.

Rabbi Hefetz told of her work in human rights with the Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers. Rabbi Or Tsafoni, the daughter of Iraqi immigrants, shared her experience growing up in Israel as a child of immigrants from a Muslim country. Rabbi Kariv reviewed the wide range of issues that the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center is actively confronting on a daily basis in the Knesset and in courts of law.

The evening was sponsored by the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), and as the Chair of the national Board, I had an opportunity to thank our Israeli colleagues for the important work they are doing and to present the “Campaign for Religious Equality” that ARZA and the Union for Reform Judaism began several months ago at the URJ Biennial Convention in Boston attended by 5000 delegates from Reform synagogues around the world.

We are asking every Reform synagogue in North America (now numbering more than 900 communities) to contribute $3600 each as we prepare to celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary in May. The money we raise will go directly to our Israeli Reform movement to support our Israeli synagogue communities (which receive no financial support from the Israeli government), our legal and lobbying efforts on behalf of religious pluralism, democracy, women’s rights, human rights, against racism and bigotry, and to conduct a massive public relations campaign to promote Reform Judaism in Israel with the intent to draw more Israelis to liberal progressive Judaism.

For North American congregations that would like to contribute $3600, please see ARZA’s website – .


Moses and God’s Tears – A Poetic Midrash for Vayikra

So often God called Moses. / Three times they met / at the flaming bush / on Sinai and before the Tent of Meeting / that Moses might intuit God’s mind / and soothe God’s heart / as a lover comforts his beloved.

Since creation / God yearned to bridge the chasm / when the Creator pulled away / and opened space / to share the universe.

Yet the Almighty remained alone / exiled within the Divine Self / when the vessels shattered / and matter was flung to the far reaches of the universe.

The upper spheres were divorced from the lower / male from female / the primal Father from the primal Mother / Tiferet from Malchut / Hakadosh Baruch Hu from Shechinah / Adonai from K’nesset Yisrael.

Before time and speech / God appointed the soul of the Shepherd-Prince Moses / to be prophet / and endowed him with hearing-sight / wide-ranging wisdom and intuitive knowledge.

No one but Moses / had ever been so chosen or / to come so near to God.

Moses saw with his ears / heard with his eyes / tasted with his mind / and remained whole in the Light.

The prophet descended the mountain aglow / the primordial Light shielding him behind a veil / bearing on his forehead divine ink-drops / illuminating the earth’s four corners.

Moses descended upon angel’s wings / weightless and cradling the lettered-stone / inside the eye of raging winds.

Though a Prince in Egypt / Moses’ destiny was as a lonely shepherd / gathering sheep / and drawing the children of Israel to God.

God needed much from Moses / to bring the plagues / and show that there is no God but God / and liberate the people / and bring them to Sinai / and inspire with the Word / and create God’s house / that light might abide within every heart / and restore wholeness in the world.

After all of God’s expectations and demands / we might expect Moses’ strength to be depleted / to be exhausted to the bone and ready to say / “Enough! O Redeemer – find a new prophet / I can no longer bear the burden / and be Your voice and create bridges / You are Almighty God / I am but flesh / My strength is gone / My time expired!”

“Nonsense!” proclaimed the Eternal / “I am not yet ready for your retirement! / My world remains shattered / My light obscured / my heart aching / I need you to teach My people / and all people / instill in their hearts / a love that heals My wound / for I cannot do this for Myself.”

Alas, the Creator-Redeemer’s needs were clear / to be close to Moses and the people / that the prophet and Israel together / might wipe away God’s tears / and restore God’s heart to wholeness / and heal God’s Name to Itself / and bring peace.

Poem composed by Rabbi John L. Rosove

Notes about this poetic Midrash:

The first word that appears in this week’s Torah portion Vayikra (vav – yud – kuf – resh – aleph – “And God called Moses…”) ends with an unusually small aleph. This anomaly in what is called the k’tiv (written text) gave rise to much rabbinic interpretation over the centuries.

Rashi explained that the small aleph teaches the humility of Moses. Others said that the aleph is an introduction to the Levitical laws of sacrifice, which requires humility. A Midrash suggests that when Moses descended from Mount Sinai carrying the tablets of the law, he emitted a keren or (“a ray of light”) compelling Moses to shield his face with a veil because the people could not look upon him in such a state. The source of that ray of light was divine ink left over when Moses wrote a small aleph instead of one of normal size. The Midrash explains that Moses had sought to lessen his own stature by using a small aleph, but God restored the extra drops of divine ink by placing them upon Moses’ forehead.

The Midrashic literature comments at length about Moses’ experience meeting panim el panim (lit. “face to face” – metaphorically “soul to soul”) with God. Moses was first among God’s prophets. Though each prophet spoke God’s words, there never was another prophet like Moses nor, as the Torah explains, was there ever again a more humble human being on earth than Moses.

It is my fascination with prophecy that inspired me to write this poetic Midrash.

For those of you wishing more insight into Biblical prophecy, I recommend Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “The Prophets” – publ. Jewish Publication Society, New York, 1962.

Shabbat shalom. 












“The Tail Wagging the Dog”

Given the daily chaos, firings and mania in the Trump White House, the loss of solid Republican seats in special elections around the country, the investigation focusing more and more on Trump and his business dealings, and the disturbed nature of the man who sits in the Oval Office, the words of one of our nation’s founding generation are apt for us now – and a warning:

“If tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.”

-James Madison, fourth US president (16 Mar 1751-1836)

Jaspar Johns’ Flags and American Aspirations

My wife, friends and I visited the Los Angeles Broad Museum’s exhibit of Jaspar John’s work last evening and over dinner we considered what the flag means to us in this era of Trump. I’ll offer my own view in a moment, but I want to put Johns’ work in context.

He produced these variations of American flags in the early-mid 1950s in the midst of the Cold War, and a number of galleriers in those years were hesitant to show them out of fear of reprisal from hard-right cold war warriors who might accuse Johns and the galleries of anti-Americanism.

As my wife and friends are all baby-boomers, we grew up in our teens associating the American flag with the Vietnam War. We were never flag burners, but the flag held very negative associations in those years with the Law and Order crowd of Richard Nixon and Vietnam Hawks.

Today, Donald Trump’s tyrannical and chaotic regime and the damage he is doing to the “American brand” could also tarnish the image of the American flag as a symbol of the United States in this country and around the world.

Today, I regard the American flag as an aspirational symbol of American democracy, the US Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the freedoms it promises. I regard it as the embodiment of the long march towards equality and justice for those who have been excluded from America’s mainstream since the Revolutionary War politically, racially, religiously, and socio-economically. This includes all minorities, peoples of color, Muslims, women, LGBTQ, and yes – us Jews too.

Those who know me forgive my eternal optimism even though I am not blind to the damage Trump and company are doing to America, the environment, and the good image of our country around the world.

My hope is that in the 2018 mid-term elections, that the masses come out to vote and that the democrats take control of both houses of Congress, and then impeach, convict and remove this President from office. Though we would be then stuck with our current Vice-President whose extremist vision of America is dangerous too, a Democratic Congress can stop the descent of these United States into the darkness of pre-enlightenment years while getting ready for a new President in 2020 who can reverse much of the actions of Trump by executive order.

As I stood looking at all Jaspar Johns’ works, not only was I stimulated, provoked, and inspired by his artistry and vision, but thoughts about who we are as a people and nation came flooding through me.

I recommend visiting the exhibit. Before going, be sure to download the Broad podcast so you can follow the commentary as you move through the galleries. You will need tickets and reservations in advance.

Elevating Speech – D’var Torah Ki Tisa

This week I spent an hour with 225 ninth and tenth grade students at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts talking specifically about why words matter. We discussed the ethics of speech, the dangers in social media, and how what we say privately and publicly have in the last several years coarsened to the detriment of civility our society.

I showed them a passage from the California Civil Code section 44 that defines “Defamation” as

“an act of communication that causes someone to be shamed, ridiculed, held in contempt, lowered in the estimation of the community, or to lose employment status or earnings or otherwise suffer a damaged reputation.”

We discussed the difference between someone who incessantly lies as opposed to calling out such a person publicly as “liar.” One young lady rightly explained that the first describes a bad behavior and the second attacks a person and fits the definition of “defamation.”

I began my talk with this elite group of young people (thousands applied to this school for 600 spots) by sharing with them language from a blog that followed an op-ed by David Brooks of the NY Times.

In his piece that he called “Respect First, Then Gun Control” (NY Times February 19) Brooks talked about the importance of civility as opposed to rudeness. In response, a blogger named Drew Magary went ballistic. I happened to agree with Magary’s position (which is not the purpose of me raising this matter here), but I found his piece offensive and defamatory (see “The Importance of Rudeness | GQ

Here is some of what Magary wrote:

“So let’s talk about rudeness for a moment, because we live in rude times. The president is a pig. His underlings are nothing but a bunch of opportunists and enablers. And the rest of GOP is staffed by a wide range of scum, from camera-friendly establishment monsters like Paul Ryan to outright crackpots like this guy. When the president’s own little pukeson decides to endorse a conspiracy theorist truthering the motives of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas teenagers, I feel like that’s a much greater sign of the end of civilization than someone rightfully telling a lady at the Times that she should take the L.

None of these people deserve civility. In fact, civility only serves to enable them. The fact that Trump can go party at his f_ _ _ing country club on the same weekend 17 teenagers were slaughtered inside a school, and have NO ONE surrounding him say an unkind word to him, is damnable.”

Again – I happen to agree with Magary’s moral positions, but he went on using the vilest of language reflecting the vulgarization of this era in American life. His are angry words, and I understand that because I’m angry too, but uncontrolled rage can get us the opposite of what we really want besides an opportunity to vent.

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, highlights Moses’ anger at his people at the scene of the golden calf.

We learn that Moses had brought down the tablets from Mount Sinai after spending forty days and nights communing with God. As he was returning to the Israelite camp he heard the celebratory voices around a golden calf and then saw the revelry. Enraged by the idolatry, he smashed the tablets, burned the golden calf, ground it to powder, and force fed it to the guilty Israelites before he killed ten thousand Israelites who participated in this calumny. (Exodus 32:15-20).

In the next chapter we learn that Moses pitched his tent outside the camp (Exodus 33:7) “…because he was tired of the people’s constant complaining and criticism.” (Yerushalmi B’chorim 3:3)

God then approached Moses and said: “I want you to change your mind, go back to the camp, and deal with the people face to face.” (Midrash Rabbah (45:2) based on Exodus 33:11)

In other words, God was saying: ‘Moses – get it together and control your rage.’

Of course Moses was angry just as so many Americans are angry at Congress’ and this President’s inaction to curb gun violence in America.

I don’t at all blame Moses for his weariness and impatience with the people. He had dealt with their obstinacy since leaving Egypt. He’d had enough. God reminded him, however, that leading a community while angry is no way to lead.

I’ve learned that once leaders lose their temper they lose not just the argument they are advocating but the faith of the people in their leadership.

The worst thing a leader can do is to respond to others with whom we disagree intemperately, impatiently, angrily, and judgmentally. Inner calm is a virtue, and demeaning an opponent personally who we may dislike intensely is nevertheless from an ethical perspective the greatest sin.

I made this point loud and clear to these 225 students. ‘Use your words,’ I said, ‘but say what you say with calm and focused dignity, thoughtfully, and without demeaning the “other.”

Judaism ascribes Moses’ loss of the right to enter the Promised Land as a result of his hitting the rock from anger instead of speaking words to it as God had commanded him.

The Talmud says: “If a person loses his temper – If she is originally wise, she loses her wisdom, and if he is a prophet, he loses his prophecy.” (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 66b).

The coarsening of our society is a sign of our society’s demise, and I believe each of us should do everything we can to avoid being engulfed in that spirit. It’s bad for us and it’s bad for everyone.

Shabbat shalom.



Where is the Israeli Government’s Compassion for Refugees?

The following was written by Mattityahu Sperber, a leader in Israel’s Reform movement, and a resident at Kibbutz Yahel. He writes with passion and urgency.

A mitzvah repeated more times in the Torah than any other is “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” [Exodus 22:20]

Today there are 38,000 refugee seekers from Eritrea and Sudan and another 7,000 of their children still in Israel. In what can only described as a Purimesque absurdity, the government has decided that even though the flow of refugee seekers into Israel has been reduced to zero, these foreigners must be expelled out of fear that the “Jewish State” will be destroyed if we were to accept an additional half a percent of non-Jewish blacks to our population. (Once they have been deported, we will bring in foreign workers from other countries to take their place in the workforce.)  So, in a secret agreement with two African countries, Israel has begun to expel these refugee seekers.

Stage one of the process is to issue deportation notices to all men who have no children and who do not have an unanswered request to be recognized as refugees made before 31/12/17. Out of the 15,000 requests for refugee status that have been made to date, only 12 were granted. The government seems determined to ignore who these people are and what they have been through. The government position is that these people, who escaped from brutal dictatorships, and many from an unending army service that can only be described as a form of slavery, are only people seeking employment and a higher standard of living. The government says they are to leave “voluntarily” or to be imprisoned until they agree to volunteer. The fact that virtually none of the thousands who have so far “volunteered” to go to these “safe” African countries have found there a home that was open to absorb them and to provide them with the minimum of a legal opportunity to work and to support themselves and their families does not affect the government’s position. So what if virtually all continued on to country number two or three and from there tried to make it somehow to Europe, where refugees are still being accepted? Israel will continue to pay the secret countries to temporarily accept these deportees and to pretend that it has found a humane solution for their very real and personal problem.

Today, I met Yamane on the line to his deportation interview. He came to Israel from Eritrea, through Sudan and Egypt, in 2009. Yamane had received assistance from the Hotline for Refugees and Emigrants in preparing a document which presented his case for receiving an exemption from his slated deportation. As a representative of HIAS, I was allowed to accompany him in his deportation interview. Unfortunately, all of his arguments were rejected as not reaching the accepted criteria for such an exemption.

  1. Yamane had made his refugee status request on 5/2/2018 after months of being unable to get into the office in southern Tel Aviv where hundreds of people waited on line daily. Too late – not before 31/12/2017.
  2. Yamane married in Israel five years ago and his wife was with him today. They have no children and his wife is today unable to work and to support herself after having been hospitalized and operated on. No children – no exemption. Having to support an ill and recovering wife – not relevant.
  3. Yamane himself has been ill with tuberculosis and is required to see the doctor for care at least every 6 months. Israeli medical care vs. African – not relevant.
  4. Yamane has made a request for refugee status in Canada. His wife has family there and they are waiting for a response from them. No official Canadian document acknowledging that they are being processed for possible Refugee status there – not relevant.

Two weeks ago, Judge Elad Azar, sitting as the head of an immigration panel court, ruled against blanket denials of refugee status for Eritreans whose asylum requests were based on army desertion and their fears that the Eritrean authorities would persecute them if they returned. Yamane served in the Eritrean army for 7 years, until he was tortured and imprisoned after requesting the opportunity to visit his family. After 6 months in prison he managed to escape. Over a course of months, he managed to make his way to Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt on his trek to Israel. It is difficult for me to imagine how his case might not be seen as that of a legitimate refugee.

When asked whether he accepted the government’s demand that he volunteer to be deported to a friendly African nation, Yamane said no. He explained that all of the information that he has received from friends and acquaintances who had gone to this country made clear to him that this would not be safe for him or for his ill wife. He would rather go to jail permanently in Israel.

Today’s interview ended with my making a plea to see that the above arguments, even if each individually does not answer the government’s defined criteria, when taken together, form a strong case for making an exception. I requested that Yamane’s deportation be delayed, at least until he has received a response to his refugee asylum request. The interviewer asked to consult with his supervisor. When he returned, he presented himself as generously deciding to make no decision today. The decision will only be made on the 8/4/2018, when Yamane returns to renew his temporary visa. Perhaps by then Yamane will have a refugee asylum request interview or even receive an answer to his request. Perhaps by then, he will have an answer from Canada which can demonstrate that he is officially in their refugee asylum process. Or perhaps, as I heard from Laura that her “client” had received the exact same non-answer, they will use that opportunity to arrest him and send him to prison or to forcibly deport him.

I am known by friends and family as the eternal optimist. I think that tonight I will have to drink much wine to maintain that optimism and to believe there will be a solution for Yamane that is worthy of the Jewish State that I hope I live in.”



I signed onto an Amicus Brief on behalf of Faith Leaders for DACA Rights

I have agreed to sign onto the Amicus Brief in support of nationally-recognized immigrant rights leader Ravi Ragbir’s lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, challenging the unlawful targeting of immigrant rights activists nationwide in violation of the First Amendment.

In the lawsuit Ragbir et al. v. Homan et al., nationally recognized immigrant rights leader Ravi Ragbir, along with the New Sanctuary Coalition, CASA de Maryland, Detention Watch Network, National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, and the New York Immigration Coalition, are challenging the unlawful targeting of immigrant rights activists nationwide in violation of the First Amendment. Represented by attorneys at Arnold & Porter and the NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic, Plaintiffs have filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, which seeks an order (1) staying Mr. Ragbir’s removal pending adjudication of the case, and (2) restraining federal immigration officials from taking any adverse immigration enforcement action against any noncitizen on the basis of protected speech or expressive conduct, or, in the alternative, preliminarily enjoining federal immigration officials from opening an investigation into, surveilling, accelerating proceedings against, detaining, or altering the provisions of any order against any noncitizen on the basis of protected speech or expressive conduct.

The law firm of Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, LLP, is drafting an amicus brief on behalf of faith leaders in support of the plaintiffs. The brief is tentatively due March 1, 2018. The brief will describe the sanctuary movement and argue that the targeting of immigrants, faith leaders, and places of worship affiliated with the sanctuary movement – through retaliation and surveillance – raises serious First Amendment concerns.

Amicus briefs from faith leaders are often filed in major litigation across the country, including in Gloucester Country School Board v. GG to oppose discrimination against transgender individuals, and in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission to oppose discrimination against same-sex couples.



Bibi and Trump – Two Peas in a Narcissistic Pod

The parallels are obvious. Though both US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deserve due process, their narcissism has resulted in similar behavior and potential criminal charges being waged against them.

This week we have learned that there is solid evidence that Bibi has engaged in bribery, fraud, and breach of the public trust. His response has been to attack the police and his political enemies as conducting a witch-hunt.

Trump has throughout his presidency attacked the FBI and intelligence services, the courts, the free and independent press, the independent investigator, and any opponent or critic as conducting a witch-hunt against him.

After a painstaking year and a half investigation by the Israeli police, the police issued a non-binding recommendation that there is credible evidence that the Prime Minister has engaged in bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two separate cases.

Case 1000 involves Netanyahu receiving $286,000 in cigars and champagne as gifts primarily from Israeli mogul Arnon Milchin in exchange for Netanyahu pushing to extend the so-called “Milchin law” that cuts taxes for Israelis who make their money outside of Israel for another 10 years. Bibi had appealed to former Secretary of State John Kerry to institute this provision.

Case 2000 involves Bibi trying to make a deal with the owner of Israel’s second-largest newspaper, Yidiot Achronot, that he would get favorable coverage if he would persuade Israel Hayom’s owner Sheldon Adelson, who owns the largest free newspaper in the country, to not publish on weekends. Though the deal was never made, the conspiracy to manipulate the press is considered by many in Israel to be a criminal offense.

In response to the accusations by the police this week, Netanyahu defended himself as a loyal servant of the Jewish people and State of Israel, as a former commando in the IDF, as a former UN Ambassador, and as Prime Minister who always put the interests of Israel first. He accused everyone involved in these two cases and the opposition of trying to get rid of him for political purposes. His main Likud whip accused current opposition leader Yair Lapid, when he was Finance Minister in Bibi’s government, of being a “malshin” (a “rat” which according to Halacha carries a death sentence and was the justification that Yigal Amir used when he assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin).

Lapid met at the request of the police for one hour in this year and a half investigation to answer the question about whether Bibi pressured him to act on behalf of Milchin when he was finance minister. Lapid answered honestly.

It remains to be seen what will happen in these two cases, and the Israeli Attorney General, Amichai Mandelblit (from the Likud party and an honest man and public servant) may take months to go over the evidence provided by the police.

Many are saying that if an indictment is brought against the Prime Minister, he should resign immediately. There is precedent in Israel for this so it isn’t out of the realm of possibility. PM Rabin resigned the first time he was Prime Minister in the 1970s when an illegal checking account was discovered in the name of his wife Leah during the time that Rabin served in Washington, D.C. as Israel’s Ambassador to the United States. More recently, former PM Ehud Olmert resigned when he was indicted and later convicted of bribery. He served time in prison for his crime.

Bibi and Trump really are two peas in a pod of narcissistic self-aggrandizement. Each equates himself  with the “state” and seems to think that each is above the law and basic ethics.

Like Trump, Bibi is using the cynicism that appeals to his voters who don’t believe in the governmental system as a base upon which to attack the very system that distinguishes Israel as a democracy, the only democracy in the Middle East.

We will have to wait for the independent counsel in the US and the Attorney General in Israel to finish their work and make their determinations. If it is decided that Trump and Netanyahu are culpable and guilty, both should resign their office. Anyone in their respective parties who sides with the guilty party once a determination is made ought to be defeated handily in the next election.

As Trump would say – “Sad!”

In Response to the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office Concerning Eritrean and Sudanese Refugees – Hot Line for Refugees

Note: I have been a supporter of the Hotline for the past number of years. I post their letter in its entirety to correct the record and to give context to the impending Eritrean and Sudanese Refugee expulsion from Israel. The Hotline’s responses are in bold. Please read and express your views directly to the Israeli Consuls General in your community.

Dear All:

In recent days, following the wave of public protest, there have been many complaints from senior public officials and politicians who are trying to legalize the expulsion of asylum seekers. In response to the half-facts presented to the public, the following are some answers to a message issued from the Prime Minister’s Office to reporters from abroad.

For further details: Dror Sadot | Spokesperson, Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, +972-543177851 –

Safe Relocation of Migrants that Entered Israel Illegally – General Information

  • In recent years, the State of Israel, like many other developed countries, has experienced an influx of migrants entering its territory illegally.

Up until 2012, according to the MoI 64,000 Africans entered Israel. Since the building of the fence in Egypt border in 2012, up until 2016, only 300 people entered. During 2017 not even one person entered.  

  • Since 2006, roughly 64,000 migrants entered Israel illegally through the Israeli-Egyptian border.

The term “illegally” is, of course, true but misleading – According to International laws, entry through a border crossing illegally does not prevent a person from being a refugee. On the contrary, it matches refugees’ migration patterns.

  • The sheer number and the range of issues raised by the entry of these migrants present significant socioeconomic challenge for Israel, whose population is about 8.5 million.

Right now there are only 34,000 Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel. It’s below 0.5 percent of the population. While the rest of the world deals with 65 millions of refugees and internally displaced people, Israel can take its part and absorb even the whole 34,000. In addition, Israel imports about 80,000 migrant workers every year and there are almost 100,000 undocumented migrants in Israel. The asylum seekers who face deportation or indefinite detention, on the other hand, are standing in line for days evert month to two months in only two offices around the country in order to preserve their legal status.

  • The Jewish people’s history makes Israel highly sensitive to humanitarian issues.  This sensitivity, in addition to Israel’s obligations under international law and the Israeli government’s commitment to human rights, lead to considerable efforts by all government agencies to protect the rights of these migrants, while addressing the challenges they pose.

We agree that the Jewish people’s history should make Israel highly sensitive to humanitarian issues. And therefore it must absorb as many people as possible asking for protection under international standards

  • Israel was among the first countries to adopt and ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention. Israel strictly applies the convention, including the basic idea that no person is to be returned to a country where he/she faces serious threats to life or freedom. Since 1970, despite its small size, Israel has saved non-Jewish people in distress and those seeking refuge from countries such as Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, Vietnam, Bosnia, Kosovo, Eritrea and Sudan.

Israel has granted refugee status to only 11 people from Eritrea and Sudan throughout the last decade (And something like 200 from other countries) That’s less than a 0.5 percent. And it obviously does not meet international standards. Israel incites against Eritreans and Sudanese who come here, refer to them as “work infiltrators” and a minister in the government called them publicly “cancer in our body”

  • Based upon regular consultations with the UNHCR and the understanding of the current events in Eastern Africa, Israel granted temporary protection to approximately 50,000 migrants from Sudan and Eritrea without requiring prima facie proof that they qualify for refugee status under international law or that they have an individual claim to stay in Israel.

Inside Israel, the authorities do not refer the status they grant Eritrean and Sudanese “Temporary protection” and insist on “refraining from removal”. That is exactly what it is: Life without any rights – no work permit, no social rights, no health insurance and no certainty, for more than a decade! In addition, the government is deducting 20% of the net salary of all Eritrean and Sudanese to a special deposit that they can receive only when leaving the country. That in addition to 16% that their employer must deposit and to 20% pole tax. All this makes their employment extremely expensive and force them to work around the clock in order to make a living.

  • There are currently around 37,000 migrants from Sudan and Eritrea in Israel who entered the country illegally. (34,000 according the last MoI report).
  • 20,000 Sudanese and Eritrean migrants that entered Israel illegally have left the country voluntarily, including 4,000 in 2017.
  • According to Israel’s Population and Immigration, after going through the Refugee Status Determination process, the overwhelming majority of applicants have been found to be ineligible for asylum. Over the years, 1000 asylum seekers from Darfur have been afforded temporary residence status.

And why didn’t they get refugee status? Why did only one Sudanese get refugee status in Israel? And why thousands of Darfuris are still waiting for an answer to their asylum request, already more than 4 years? And how does it make sense that only in Israel Eritreans and Sudanese are not refugees? As in 2016 and UNHCR data, the percentage of recognition of Israel stands at 0.056% However, in the Western world the percentage of recognition in 2016 in Eritreans or the provision of permanent complementary protection stands on 90% The world recognition rate of Sudanese or the provision of permanent complementary protection is 57.4%. How can one explain the gap?

  • Migrants that enter Israel illegally must apply for asylum within one year. This rule was waived for all migrants from Sudan and Eritrea, who were notified that they were allowed to apply for asylum regardless of when they entered the country up until the end of 2017.

No official message was given to the communities. The authorities just assumed that they will find out somehow or that the aid organizations will inform them. According to our knowledge as well as the State Comptroller report, up until 2013 Eritreans and Sudanese had no access to the asylum system. As of 2015, application were rejected out of hand precisely because of the regulation demanding that applications for asylum will be made within the first year of arrival. Since 2016, about 20,000 Ukrainians and Georgians were bought by manpower agencies and blocked the RSD system.

  • The terms “refugee” and “asylum seeker” are being employed in a misleading way. According to the United Nations, approximately 50% of the world’s refugee population are women and children. The demographic makeup of Sudanese and Eritrean migrants in Israel suggests that the overwhelming majority are not refugees, but rather, economic migrants who have come to Israel in search of work. Data from Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority show that as of 2017, over two thirds of the migrants from Sudan and Eritrean are males between the ages of 18-40.

Anyone who understands something about immigration knows that this is incorrect. “Demographics of refugees” varies according to the region in the world and according to the circumstances from which they flee. African refugees out of refugee camps are mostly men. The main reason is the high risk of sexual violence and trafficking of women and children in refugee journeys in many parts of Africa. Most women don’t dare leaving the refugee camps in Sudan, Chad and Ethiopia despite the hard life conditions. From the small percentage who dare taking the journey to Israel or Europe, many women don’t survive the journey. That is why there are only 20% refugee women in Israel.

  • Israel reserves the right to relocate migrants that enter illegally, including those who applied for asylum and were found ineligible. In 2017, alone, for example, 4,000 migrants that entered illegally from Georgia and Ukraine were returned to their home countries.
  • Israel does not deport Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers back to their countries of origin, even if they were found in Israel’s asylum policy as “non-refugees.” This is because Israel knows that Eritrea and Sudan are places where their lives might be in danger. Unlike Georgia and Ukraine, which are defined as “safe countries”.
  • Every country in the world has the right and the obligation to protect its borders and to determine its migration policy. Israel will continue to seek the proper balance between protecting the basic human rights of migrants that enter illegally and the government’s primary obligation to protect the welfare of Israeli citizens.

Israel’s Refugee Determination Process

  • In accordance with the 1951 Refugee Convention, Israel, like all other signatories has its own national asylum system to determine which asylum-seekers qualify for international protection.
  • The domestic framework for the processing of asylum requests in Israel was first established in 2002, as a coordinated effort of the UNHCR and Israel’s Ministries of the Interior and Justice.
  • An Advisory Committee to the Minister of the Interior examines requests for asylum and makes recommendations regarding refugee status. This Committee is headed by an independent jurist and includes representatives from the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
  • The Refugee Status Determination (RSD) unit interviews migrants applying for asylum to determine whether the migrant fulfills the criteria set by the 1951 Refugee Convention. A migrant whose request to be recognized as refugee is denied may appeal to the court; or, in the case of alleged changed circumstances, may resubmit his or her case to the RSD unit for the purpose of reassessment.
  • Migrants granted refugee status receive renewable temporary residency permits. The government reserves the right to re-examine the situation in a refugee’s country of origin and to determine that the refugee no longer faces danger if the situation in his/her country of origin changes.
  • The Government of Israel recently directed more funds and allocated additional staff positions at the Population and Immigration Authority in order to streamline and expedite the process of examining asylum requests. Currently, priority is being given to asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan.

In 2009, after a few years of increase in the number of asylum-seekers entering the country, the Ministry of Interior took responsibility for examining asylum applications.

The asylum requests are submitted to the RSD Unit, staffed by clerks with questionable training for identifying refugees, based on the quality of their interviews. Those whose claims are rejected, if they are not from Sudan, Eritrea or Congo, are immediately detained and deported, thus making it almost impossible for them to appeal the decision in the court system. The MoI refrain from deporting Sudanese, Eritreans and Congolese. Sudanese cannot be forcibly deported since Israel has no relation with Sudan. Eritreans are not deported due to the severe human rights violations in their homelands and Congolese are not being deported due to the war in their country.  

At this instance, all asylum-seekers from Sudan, Eritrean and Congo who entered Israel before the Anti-Infiltration Law came into force in June 2012, were given the “Conditional Release Papers” and barred until 2013 from having their case examined by the RSD unit.

The way the RSD Unit interviews asylum-seekers shows that Israel categorically refuses to recognize people as refugees, in a gross violation of the Refugee Convention, which Israel is a signatory of. Instead, Israel’s efforts are focused on deporting people, without differentiating between those deserving a refugee status and those that do not.

Asylum-seekers and lawyers who accompanied them testify that the questioning clerks present themselves as “interrogators” and perform the interview as a police interrogation. The “interrogators” have often been heard telling the asylum-seekers, even before the interview, that they are liars. Some demand the asylum-seekers to “confess” their “lies”, and the interviewees are often obligated to respond with only “yes” or “no”. The “interrogators” yell and speak rudely to the asylum-seekers during the “interrogation”. Minute details are examined to find contradictions in the asylum-seekers’ stories. This behavior is a blatant violation of the guidelines issued by the UNHCR on how to question asylum-seekers. The UNHCR guidelines call on interviewers to take into consideration the mental state of the asylum-seekers, who are often victims of persecution, arrest and torture, and also mention the inherent challenges of the human memory, especially in such difficult circumstances.

Instead of dealing with asylum-seekers in fair and logical manner by having fair experts examine asylum requests in a reasonable timeframe to determine who is a refugee and who can be deported, Israel adopted the policy of not examining most asylum requests are rejecting 99.85% of cases it does examine to deter new refugees from arriving and to get rid of those already in Israel.

Further reading:
Until Our Hearts Are Completely Hardened: Asylum Procedures in Israel (March 2012 report by the Hotline)

No Safe Haven: Israeli Asylum Policy as Applied to Eritrean and Sudanese Citizens(December 2014 report by the Hotline)

Status of Migrants and Asylum Seekers in Israel

  • In August 2017, the Israeli High Court of Justice unanimously rejected a petition by human rights groups requesting to stop the relocation of migrants that entered Israel illegally to third countries. After conducting an in-depth investigation, the Court found the third country Rwanda, to which the legal proceedings refered, and that with which Israel has reached an agreement, to be safe, and that all procedural conditions for relocation arrangements met international standards.

Israel argues that there are agreements for forced deportation to third countries. At the moment both Rwanda and Uganda deny. The Rwandese government has announced several times in recent weeks that it will accept only those who come of its own free will and “feel comfortable” in reaching Rwanda. These denials stand in stark contrast to the “Third Country Exclusion Procedure” that was published in January.

Voluntary Deportation Agreement – It is known that there are voluntary transfer agreements with Rwanda that were presented to the Supreme Court (no such agreement has ever been examined with Uganda or any other country).

Non-implementation of agreements that exist – Israel claims that anyone who moves to Rwanda receives a legal status, a work permit, protection. There is no follow-up by Israel after the people – the state cannot tell a thing about those who passed, how many remained, what their situation is (The deputy foreign minister said this explicitly a few days ago in recordings that were revealed in the Israeli media). And when human rights organizations bring evidence that the agreements are not being met in hundreds of cases, they claim that these are tendentious evidence. Israel should not be able to claim that the deportation process provides a “safe horizon of stay” and protection for refugees in Rwanda without any proof of it. (The report with the testimonies of those leaving to Rwanda and Uganda – “It is better to be imprisoned in Israel than to die on the way”).

In November 2017, the government approved a bill to close the Holot open facility. The operations budget for this facility is now being used to facilitate the voluntary departure of migrants who had entered Israel illegally.

  • These Supreme Court rulings and government decisions are yet another example of the Israeli justice system’s commitment to universally uphold and defend human rights.

Israel claims that the High Court approved the expulsion –

The Supreme Court has never examined the final agreement with Rwanda, only the old “voluntary expulsion” agreement

The High Court of Justice did not review agreements with countries other than Rwanda.

The High Court of Justice argued that incarceration is coercion and that it is forbidden to apply pressure on a person to agree to be “voluntarily deported.”

The High Court of Justice claimed that if there is an agreement with a third country that will allow forced deportation, it will be possible to deport non-refugees – the clear denials of Rwanda and Uganda during the past few weeks suggest that there might not be such an agreement.

High Court approves transfer of non-refugees to a safe country only

The HCJ expressed its inconvenience from the fact that part of the agreement with Rwanda is an oral agreement that might be difficult to uphold in the future, as a result of that.

  • Women, children, families and those whose asylum applications are pending are not a part of the relocation plan and will continue to receive a special temporary permit. The government has allowed migrants with these permits to work.
  • Children, women and parents – the procedure expressly states that women, children and parents of minors are protected only “at this stage” (section 3.2 of the procedure). At the next stage these population groups might also be candidates for deportation.
  • Young people aged 18+ will be torn from their families and deported – they came to Israel as children, grew up and were educated here, and they have parents and younger siblings who are not currently candidates for deportation. A first such older brother, who is also supporting his sick parents, was recently summonsed to sign an agreement to leave to Rwanda.
  • Young people aged 18+ who arrived in Israel as unaccompanied minors – some who lost their parents on the way or were abducted to the torture camps in Sinai – these youngsters were integrated into boarding schools throughout the country, received an Israeli education and integrated in an amazing manner. These young people are destined for deportation!
  • Victims of torture camps in Sinai are candidates for deportation – there are about 4000 asylum seekers in Israel who are victims of torture from camps in Sinai, including rape and brutal violence. On the one hand, the state recently recognized that this is a particularly vulnerable group and declared its intention to open a special project led by the Ministry of Justice to map and study the needs of this group. On the other hand, the state does not spare the victims of torture and intends to issue them with deportation orders in the coming months. How can the state with one hand recognize the vulnerability of this group and with the other hand expel it?
  • Deportation of people with disabilities and chronic patients – not excluded from the expulsion procedure. How do they intend to ensure proper care and protection in a third country?
  • All migrants and asylum seekers receive access to healthcare services and their children all receive access to the education system.

Only migrant children are covered by health insurance and only if their parents register them and pay for the insurance. Grownups are supposed to be insured in private health insurances by their employers if they work in a regular work. Yet, the private insurance is very expensive and many employers are refrained from paying it. The Ministry of Health has failed to formulate a comprehensive policy to regulate their access to health services. Partial and sporadic services offered by the Ministry of Health are in adequate, and leave many without proper medical care. Many are forced to wait until their situation deteriorated to such a degree to make them eligible to receive treatment under the Patient Right Act (emergency only). See PHR report here.

Safe Relocation of Migrants that Entered Israel Illegally

  • Israel has concluded arrangements with two countries with regard to the safe relocation of migrants from Sudan and Eritrea that entered Israel illegally.

Israel is not the only democracy in the world that sends unwanted migrants to a third country. Yet, Israel is the only country in the world that sends refugees under secret agreements to another unknown country. Why do not they reveal the agreements? Why do Rwanda and Uganda continue to deny? Why not expose the agreements to public and judicial review?

  • Migrants who entered Israel illegally and choose to leave the country voluntarily by the end of March 2018 will receive a monetary grant of $3,500.
  • In addition to the grant that Israel is providing migrants upon departure, the third countries have committed to providing economic migrants residence permits that allow them to work and to open businesses.

As we wrote above – even if these conditions are specified in the agreements, they are not met in reality, based on hundreds of testimonies . Israel claims that anyone who moves to Rwanda receives “status”, work permit, protection. There is no follow-up by Israel after the people – the state cannot tell a thing about those who passed, how many remained, what their situation is (The deputy foreign minister said this explicitly a few days ago in recordings that were revealed in the Israeli media). When human rights organizations bring affidavits claiming that the agreement with Rwanda is not being met, they claim that these are tendentious evidence. Israel should not be able to claim that the deportation process provides a safe horizon of stay and protection for refugees in Rwanda without any proof of it. (The report with the testimonies of those leaving to Rwanda and Uganda – “It is better to be imprisoned in Israel than to die on the way”).

  • The State of Israel will continue to invest resources to ensure that all migrants that entered illegally are safe upon relocation.
  •  The Israeli Attorney General conditioned his approval of the safe relocation policy on the following criteria:
  • There are no wars or general disturbances taking place in the destination countries;
  • No UNHCR recommendations exist against relocation to the destination countries;

UNHCR issued a rare announcement expressing deep concern of the plan. “Official statements that the plans may eventually target families and those with pending asylum claims, or that asylum seekers might be taken to the airport in handcuffs, are particularly alarming.” 

  • The life and freedom of the individual are not at risk in the third countries based on race, religion, nationality or membership in a particular social or political group;

Life is not at risk in Rwanda or Uganda, but the people’s freedom is definitely at risk since they remain there without legal status, exposed to repeating arrests and demands for ransoms for release. 

  • Relocated individuals in the destination countries will have access to the asylum procedure or enjoy temporary protection, or, at a minimum, these countries are obligated to abide by the non-refoulement principle;

From the 144 testimonies already collected by NGOs and academics, both Rwanda and Uganda refuse to grant refugee status to Eritreans and Sudanese who arrived from Israel. Only those who managed to lie well about the years they spent in Israel, received status. 

  • Torture or cruel and degrading treatment are prohibited in the destination countries;

The U.S. State Department’s latest human rights report indicates that human rights violations are widespread in Uganda, including extra-judiciary killings, torture of suspects and detainees, limitations on civil liberties such as the right to protest, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly, as well as violence against minorities. The report also lists harsh conditions of detention, arbitrary arrest for political reasons, extended administrative detention, and imprisonment in isolation.

According to the latest U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Report, Rwanda is a country in which there were “arbitrary or unlawful killings […] disappearances, torture, harsh conditions in prisons and detention centers, arbitrary arrest, prolonged pretrial detention” and “restricted freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association.”

  • The third countries are obligated to allow the relocated individuals the means to live in a dignified manner (or at least the possibility to stay and to work for a living).
  • Israel supervises and ensures that the process of relocation is conducted according to the arrangements and the law. Israel verifies that the migrants are accorded all relevant rights, including receiving the appropriate permits and documentation in the countries they are relocated to.
  • Between 2010 and 2015, 12,300 migrants that entered Israel illegally exited Israel to safe countries or to their country of origin voluntarily.  Based on the information available to us, there have been no known cases of injury or harm to any of the relocated migrants in the destination countries, and they receive all the rights laid out in the arrangements.

Reports consistently show otherwise:

The report with the testimonies of those leaving to Rwanda and Uganda – “It is better to be imprisoned in Israel than to die on the way”. (January 2018)

Deported to the Unknown (December 2015)

Where there is no free will (April 2015)