Nearly 60,000 Africans fleeing war, oppression and violence have sought refuge in Israel, a prosperous and democratic country established in 1948 by refugees themselves.
These asylum seekers were not just fleeing from oppression but to a prosperous and democratic country. While Israel’s courts have protected them and new Israeli friends have defended them, the welcome asylum seekers have received has been less than warm. In fact, the official government term for these individuals is “infiltrators,” and they are unofficially known as “illegal work migrants.” Concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods, supporting themselves by working only in the gray market, labeled a threat by the government and living on the margins of society, their treatment has exacerbated social tensions in places such as south Tel Aviv.
The Israeli government’s response was to build a fence to prevent new unauthorized border crossings. By all accounts, the fence has been a success with crossings now close to zero.
The success of the fence, by limiting the potential for new arrivals, presented Israel with an opportunity to demonstrate the Jewish values of human dignity, refugee protection and treating the stranger among us as thyself. The Israeli government could have pursued this opportunity simply by ceasing to call asylum seekers “infiltrators” and by allowing those already in Israel to remain and work legally until it is safe to return home.
That opportunity was squandered.
The Knesset instead amended the “anti-infiltration law” that, in effect, allowed the government to detain “infiltrators” in prison for up to three years. Consequently, thousands of asylum seekers were arrested and jailed until Israel’s High Court unanimously struck down the detention provisions on Sept. 16, 2013. The court ruled that “since ancient times, people have always fought for freedom. Denying the freedom of the infiltrators by imprisoning them for a long period of time is a critical and disproportionate limitation of their rights, their bodies and their souls. We must not forget our basic principles that flow from the declaration of independence and our moral duty toward every person, as a person, as they are etched on the basic pattern of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”
As the Jewish homeland, Israel has made the job of HIAS, established 130 years ago to provide a welcoming new home for Jewish refugees and migrants, much easier. Israel was est- ablished to do the same and has succeeded. HIAS and the global Jewish community have no better friend than Israel, a democratic state that much of the time sets a positive example for the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, Israel’s treatment of African asylum seekers is not worthy of a free and democratic Jewish state. The Knesset reacted to the unanimous court ruling by passing another law, this one placing asylum seekers in what it calls an “open” facility. These internment camps, located in a remote corner of the desert, require check-ins three times a day with violators moved to prisons.
With the new law, the government of Israel squandered yet another opportunity to demonstrate Jewish values to the rest of the world.
Recently, approximately 20,000 asylum seekers held a peaceful demonstration to protest the new law and the government’s latest actions against them, and they staged a national strike to protest their treatment.
“We fled because our lives are in danger in our home countries; we are asylum seekers,” the protesters said in a news statement. “We call on the public not to believe the government’s lies.”
The Tel Aviv office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees also asked the government to stop “sowing fear and chaos” among the migrants, who, it said, should be referred to as “asylum seekers” and not “infiltrators,” and urged the Israeli government “to examine the asylum requests of the foreigners and stop the large-scale arrests in south Tel Aviv.”
How has the government reacted? By missing still another opportunity to show the world how asylum seekers should be treated. Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar said he was “not impressed with all the crying and complaining” and further fanned tensions by suggesting that we should “think about the Israelis who have lost their jobs [to the migrants].”
Prime Minister Benjamin Net-anyahu further argued that “we are not talking about refugees with whom we deal according to international treaties; we are discussing illegal migrant workers who will be brought to justice.” Yet, the Netanyahu government’s misnamed National Status Granting Body stacks the deck against asylum seekers, denying more than 99 percent of all applicants asylum, the highest rejection rate in the developed world.
The American Jewish community should not miss this opportunity to encourage our friend Israel to lead by example on Jewish values about the treatment of others, particularly the persecuted and the stranger among us.
Mark Hetfield is president and CEO of HIAS, the international Jewish nonprofit agency that advocates on behalf of refugees.