On February 8 the Israeli Knesset passed a new law that will allow asylum seekers to be detained for 12 months in the Negev Desert’s remote Holot detention center. The law has been condemned by seven Israeli human rights organizations:

“For the fourth time, the Knesset approved a failed policy that helps no one, and wastes the taxpayers’ money. Taking away a year of an asylum-seekers’ life, sending them to Holot Detention Center and forcing them to start their life from scratch when they are released, continues to violate their rights and also continues to deepen the misery in South Tel Aviv and elsewhere.”

The seven organizations are Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), The Aid Organizations for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (ASSAF), Physicians for Human Rights – Israel, the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC), Kav-L’Oved, and Amnesty International.

Instead, these groups say that

“There are other options the government can choose: Invest capital intended for imprisonment into infrastructure and services improvement in communities housing an asylum-seeker population; Issue work permits that would allow for the regulated community dispersal across the country, and Integrate asylum-seekers into the labor market for industries where we are continuing to import foreign workers from other countries. In addition, the government should be reviewing asylum requests in accordance with international standards.” (The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants Bulletin)

In October 2013, from Jerusalem I wrote to explain what motivated these Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers to escape their countries of origin on foot through hundreds of miles of arid desert to reach Israel: https://rabbijohnrosove.wordpress.com/2013/10/29/eritrean-and-sudanese-asylum-seekers-in-tel-aviv-israel-journal-part-vi/

In October 2015, I wrote again from Jerusalem following an overwhelming vote by the World Zionist Congress, the parliament of the Jewish people, where I was an ARZA delegate, to grant these destitute refugees asylum status in Israel: https://rabbijohnrosove.wordpress.com/2015/10/23/wzc-resolution-on-eritrean-and-sudanese-asylum-seekers-in-israel-jerusalem-report-2/

And today, I write not only to support these seven Israeli human rights organizations in their work on behalf of these refugees, but to say that I believe that the majority right-wing government of Israel has done an injustice to these people and has acted contrary to Jewish prophetic and rabbinic values of compassion and treatment of the stranger.

I understand the reasons why advocates of the law have taken this position. Many South Tel Aviv residents are angry that these refugees have taken over their neighborhood. Some claim (falsely) that the refugees have brought an increase of crime to Israel based on several highly publicized criminal acts by individual refugees. Studies show, however, that there is far less crime from this refugee population relative to their numbers than from Israelis themselves.

MKs have argued that granting asylum will encourage a large wave of refugees seeking safe haven in the free and democratic Jewish state to come from Africa and other Middle Eastern nations. The Israeli government, however, has now completed a security fence extending the entire length of the southern border to close that once open border and prevent more refugees from entering Israel.

It seems to me that fear of the “other,” of the stranger and the unknown is what has motivated this vote. Yes, Israel lives in a violent corner of the world, and with all the Palestinian terror against innocent Israelis, fear is justifiable and every sensitive human being, and Jews in particular, have to appreciate the stress and strain that Israelis live with every day. I was in Israel when the knifings began and I too felt the fear. I’ve lived there during the Yom Kippur War and I know the fear that the entire nation felt. And I was in Israel during the height of the suicide bombings in March, 2002 and feared even leaving my hotel. Israelis have every justification to be afraid and to take all reasonable actions to protect themselves from violence.

But these refugees are not violent. They ran for their lives. That ought to have been the central issue before the MKs after all the other concerns were dealt with. It seems to me that they were.

All these Eritrean and Sudanese refugees (who are already in Israel) need is a safe haven from two of the most brutal dictatorships in the world until such time that conditions change in their nations and they can return home, which is what virtually all of them want. In the short term, they want to work in hotels and the Israeli service industry or do work that foreign nationals are doing in the hundreds of thousands in Israel.

Every other western democracy grants political asylum to those who can demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution should they return to their country of origin. Israel does not, except of course, for Jews, and this is one of the great contradictions that Israel embraces.

This most recent Knesset vote is therefore deeply disappointing and distressing. The only positive I can glean from what has taken place is that these seven human rights groups, Israel’s Reform movement, along with many Members of Knesset  who voted down this law have by their positions sustained the dignity of the state of Israel as  a democracy and Jewish state thus fulfilling Israel’s core mission to be, as the prophet Isaiah preached 2700 years ago, an or lagoyim, a light to the nations of the world. Kol hakavod v’chazak v’eimatz!

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