Migrants
Migrants queueing for food in Tel Aviv. Photo by Daniel Tchetchik
Text size

I am saddened by the recent xenophobic violence in Israel against African migrants and asylum seekers, and sadder still that, even in condemning the violence, Israeli discourse repeatedly refers to the victims as "infiltrators." A handful of politicians, including the one with authority over the political asylum process, have used even more offensive terminology, while vowing to make these people "miserable."

I am the president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the oldest refugee organization on earth, founded in 1881. HIAS happens to be a Jewish organization. We were established to rescue and resettle Jews fleeing to the United States after facing mob violence in czarist Russia.

In the first half of the 20th century, HIAS' job did not get any easier. Countries like the United States slammed their doors on immigrants in general, and on Jews in particular. I do not need to remind Israelis or Diaspora Jews that, shortly after the welcome mats were rolled up, Jews who wanted to flee Hitler were trapped in the Holocaust. The six million Jews who were murdered in occupied Europe is roughly equal to today's Jewish population in Israel.

Out of the ashes of the Holocaust, however, the United Nations recognized the need for the establishment of the State of Israel. This made the mission of HIAS much easier to accomplish, as all Jews finally had a homeland. Sadly, the creation of Israel also led to more mass displacement - 726,000 Arabs displaced from Palestine and 856,000 Jews displaced from Arab countries. The majority of those Jews were absorbed into Israel.

As a nation founded by Jewish refugees, Israel is committed to following the UN's Refugee Convention, which was devised in 1951 as an international treaty. Israel is one of only two countries in the Middle East to have signed the convention.

And of course, the challenge of African asylum seekers fleeing on foot across the Sinai evokes obvious parallels from millennia of Jewish experience, starting with Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt. Today, asylum seekers arriving in Israel report that, after being cursed and shot at by Egyptian soldiers, they crossed the border and were rescued by the Israeli Defense Forces. The IDF treated them with respect, gave them water and food, and brought them to safety. Furthermore, Israeli citizens established voluntary organizations to assist the migrants and to stand up for the rights of asylum seekers in the country's well-functioning justice system.

HIAS is also proud of the efforts of our own Israeli staff to advise and train the Israeli government in its struggle to establish a functioning asylum system. Such a system is essential to enable Israel to distinguish between refugees who have a right to be protected from deportation to their home country, and economic migrants, who are not so entitled. The Israeli asylum system is now functioning. We hope that soon it will start functioning well. But this will not happen as long as Israeli leaders - including the minister of the interior, who oversees the system - refer to asylum seekers as "infiltrators," "economic migrants" and worse.

Under such leadership, it should come as no surprise that the Israeli asylum system has the lowest rate for refugee approval in the developed world. This rate stands at zero, in spite of the fact that the largest number of asylum seekers seeking safe haven in Israel come from the repressive state of Eritrea. In the United States and most other countries, Eritreans are approved for asylum at a rate of 85 percent or higher. In Israel, Eritrean asylum seekers are not even given the opportunity to plead their case.

The U.S. State Department's most recent human rights report on Israel, released in May, includes a damning indictment of the country's asylum system: "According to NGOs, officials periodically characterized asylum seekers as directly associated with rises in crime, disease, and terrorism. On December 8, 2011, in an interview with Army Radio, Minister of Interior Eli Yishai said, 'I will safeguard the Jewish majority of the state, and I ensure that the last of the Sudanese, and the Eritreans, and all of the infiltrators, to the last of them, will return to their countries.'"

Words matter. Anti-infiltrator rhetoric only serves to fuel xenophobic tensions within Israel, gives ammunition to Israel's enemies abroad, and undermines the confidence of Israel's friends in the Jewish state's commitment to refugee protection.

The American Jewish community and its institutions take justifiable pride in advocating for Israel and highlighting its achievements as a democratic state that respects human rights. As such, we cannot simply turn our backs when we hear Israeli leaders describe all asylum seekers as "infiltrators" or when the official in charge of the asylum system pledges to "lock up [the migrants] and make their lives miserable."

The State of Israel has a right to protect its borders and enforce its immigration laws. As Israeli leaders acknowledge, it also has an obligation to follow the Refugee Convention. Where Israeli leaders fall short, however, is in using words that mislead the public about who is entering their country. The government calls them "infiltrators." The migrants are, however, "asylum seekers." Under international law, the latter are entitled to a fair and just refugee status determination to decide without prejudice, on a case-by-case basis, if they are in fact "refugees." To do otherwise is sadly to undermine the values that form the underpinnings of the Jewish state.

Mark Hetfield is the interim president and CEO of HIAS, in New York.