African migrants sitting in Tel Aviv's Levinsky park.
African migrants sitting in Tel Aviv's Levinsky park. Photo by Moti Milrod
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Earlier this month I was part of a delegation of Access Israel -  the young generations program of the American Jewish Committee - that toured South Tel Aviv to learn first-hand about the challenge of refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers facing Israel. This is a complex issue, involving Jewish ethics and morals, notions of national responsibility and the challenges posed by a large foreign population. Global Jewry is checking to see if Israel is acting according to what many perceive as Jewish ideals and values in its treatment of the issue.

Yet the big question that I was left with after the tour was ‘can Israel have it all?’ Can it have a policy that does good by the veteran Jewish residents of South Tel Aviv and the African migrants, one that is ethical and responsible, and that will make my Jewish Facebook friends abroad proud of Israel?

Our tour guide, French-Israeli lawyer  Jean-Marc Liling, a French-Israeli lawyer who used to work for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees,  emphasized that Israel has no immigration or refugee policy. More non-Jews than Jews have made Israel their home since the mid 90’s, and about 10 percent of Israel’s working population are African migrants, Liling told us The system in place to determine eligibility for refugee status is opaque and inadequate at best; there is no coherent government policy  to ensure migrants and asylum seekers receive the  minimal services and rights they are  entitled to. Most of those here are in a state of limbo: they are not deported home by Israel, but are not allowed to work legally either. The result is a system characterized by arbitrariness. It is neither just nor smart, and is arguably the worst of all worlds. 

This failure is exacerbated by statements made by Israel's politicians.One example is Interior Minister Eli Yishai saying that most African refugees are criminals, and suggesting that they are HIV carriers. Another is Likud MK Miri Regev calling African migrants a ‘cancer in our body’ while stirring up a mob that went on to attack random Africans in South Tel Aviv. Statements like this, which invalidate the humanity of the ‘strangers’ among us, constitute a Hilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name), and cause bewilderment and shame among many Jews worldwide who normally support and admire Israel.

What Israel does need is a thought-out and sensible policy; the broad contours of such a policy are already known. Refugee status should be properly ascertained according to transparent professional criteria; those who are eligible should be granted assistance and the right to work, perhaps in place of importing foreign workers from Thailand and the Philippines. Those not eligible may be deported back to their country of origin, as is the practice in most other countries.

This crisis presents an opportunity, however, for concrete and substantive Israeli and global Jewish cooperation and joint learning. Jews abroad, living as a minority, have substantial experience and expertise in dealing with matters relating to refugees and minorities. Israeli policy makers should be consulting with global Jewish organizations such as –the  Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the American Jewish Committee, and others. Unfortunately, where the Israeli government has consulted with these organizations, it has mostly ignored their  recommendations.

The Israeli government, if it is to uphold both its Jewish and international obligations in a serious and responsible fashion, should form a committee tasked with creating national policy on the issue of African migrants. This committee should include leading experts from Israel and the entire Jewish world, so that global Jewry is actively involved in helping Israel formulate a credible, ethical and responsible policy.

During the tour, we met with Gabriel, a refugee from Eritrea who said that he intends to return home once conditions there improve, and  become an ‘ambassador of Israel’ to the region. Nonetheless, Gabriel continued, the current atmosphere of fear and incitement is “bad for us and bad for you.” During this period of Cheshbon Nefesh (self-examination) we must decide to do better. If Israel and global Jewry work together, we can ensure that an ethical and responsible policy puts an end to the abysmal treatment of African migrants in Israel today. Ultimately, I do believe that Israel can ‘have it all.’; With a proper policy in place, Israel can be a force for good even when confronted with such complex challenges.  

The writer is the director of Perspectives Israel, which educates about the complexity of the challenges facing Israel from multiple viewpoints. He also works at Shatil, Israel’s premier social change organization and chairs AJC ACCESS Israel.