An un-Jewish law
In adopting the provisions of the refugee convention, Israel should establish an efficient system whereby state officials and specialists examine asylum seekers' requests thoroughly and quickly.
Israel's Defense Ministry is seeking to advance the Law for the Prevention of Infiltration, which would impose harsh punishments upon both potential refugees who enter the country and those who assist them. It is a deeply disturbing proposal.
Israel, of course, is a sovereign nation, and has the right to refuse asylum to people whose lives, physical safety or freedom are not at risk in their home countries. How much better it would be, though, if instead of legislating draconian laws against refugees, Israel were to live up to the ethical teachings of Judaism and the lessons of Jewish history, and give legal validity and heightened authority to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Although Israel was an eager initial signer of this convention at a time when countless Jewish refugees were in need of a safe haven, it was never formally adopted or implemented as law.
In adopting the provisions of the refugee convention, Israel should establish an efficient system whereby state officials and specialists examine asylum seekers' requests thoroughly and quickly. This would allow it to distinguish which refugees are eligible for asylum, among those currently in Israel and those who will arrive in the future.
Throughout history, Jews have been the quintessential immigrants, forced to flee from one land to another, struggling to adjust to societies that were not always welcoming. Having faced many of the same challenges as today's refugees, we must be empathetic and understanding to ensure the creation of equitable, generous and humane immigration policies.
Hundreds of non-Jews cross Israel's borders each month. Many are refugees who have fled Eritrea or Sudan, seeking a safe haven and a better life. Some have fled the mass atrocities in Darfur and may face death if returned to their home country. Many pass through Egypt, which subjects refugees to severe discrimination and oppression. The failure of other countries to treat these refugees properly does not give Israel an excuse to do the same.
The proposed infiltrators law, which has passed its initial reading in the Knesset and now awaits committee review before final passage, would eliminate requirements for distinguishing between asylum seekers, migrant workers and potential terrorists. Based on a blanket assumption that everyone who crosses the border harbors ill intent, anyone caught would be condemned to deportation or up to 20 years in prison. The law would even punish Israelis who help refugees, by mandating identical punishment for both infiltrators and those who assist them.
There is no question that Israel must maintain safe and secure borders and uphold reasonable immigration policies. However, it already has the legal capacity to handle infiltrators and terrorists; ensuring safety and security does not require such a drastic and cruel approach.
While Israel does not have an unlimited capacity to absorb African migrants and refugees, as a far less advanced country during earlier decades it managed to absorb millions of Jewish refugees. Today's Israel, which has a robust world-class economy, can surely meet this challenge. It must combine its economic strength, flexibility and capacity with empathy and sensitivity, in order to solve its modern, complex and multifaceted immigration issues.
To those who would argue that Israel must preserve its Jewish character, I would respond that it is precisely this Jewish character that should compel a humane, just and sensitive means of dealing with those who arrive in need at its borders. If a policy cannot pass the test of Rabbi Hillel's one-footed summation of the Torah, surely something is awry.
The ethical teachings of Judaism are not obscure on this matter; on the contrary, the Torah includes no fewer than 36 versions of the admonition for proper treatment of the stranger. This fundamental empathy is rearticulated at the Passover Seder each year, when we imagine the Exodus as if it were our own personal escape from slavery. Can our hearts be so hardened that we can ignore our fundamental teachings and instead support a law that makes no distinction between those who seek to do us harm and those who seek freedom from slavery, genocide and oppression, as they literally walk from Egypt to the land of Israel?
Despite the cloud of injustice hanging over this bill, we can hope the country will take a different path. Israel should not stand alone facing these challenges. It should meet them, together with the family of nations, as a shared responsibility. Israel can, and should, set an example by granting asylum to those in danger.
Mark J. Pelavin is associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, in Washington, D.C.