More than 50 rabbis and lay religious leaders, representing all three of the main streams of organized Judaism, stood in a close circle on the grounds outside the Holot Detention Camp in the Negev desert, in a prayer service and vigil.
Surrounded by the seemingly endless and empty, monotonous brown of the desert, they called on the Israeli government to "find a fair and human solution for the asylum seekers, in the spirit of Jewish tradition."
They were joined by dozens of volunteers from the Negev Pre-Military Academy at Sde Boker, who volunteer at Holot once a week, together with dozens of detainees. Almost all of them put on, like the rabbis, the distinctive T-shirts handed out by the organizers, imprinted with the logo, "For you were strangers in the Land of Egypt."
The event was jointly sponsored by Rabbis for Human Rights and The New Israel Fund. As the ceremony began, Rabbi Susan Silverman, who is also a member of the International Council of the New Israel Fund, declared that, "As Jews, we have suffered so much and so we have a great responsibility to treat the strangers. The refugees here need our protection, kindness and humanity. This is our religious and moral responsibility."
Rabbi Nava Hefetz, Educational Director of Rabbis for Human Rights, added: "As the Children of Israel stood trembling at Sinai, we said, 'na'aseh v'nishmah': We will do and we will hear. We promised God that we would obey the covenant, and that is how we became a people. At that time, we did not know what our future as a people would be. We did not know that we would be vulnerable throughout history. Yet we vowed that in our own land, we would treat the strangers with love."
Some 1,900 African asylum seekers are being held at Holot, out of an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 currently in Israel. Most of them are from Sudan or Eritrea. Detainees at Holot may leave the facility for a few hours at a time, but must report for roll call at least once a day.
The prayer service. (Ilan Assayag)
In part, the ceremony was timed to draw attention to the at least 12 deportation orders issued against migrants whose immigration status remains clear or whose asylum application has been officially rejected by Israel.
Over 9,000 African asylum seekers have voluntarily left Israel in the past two years, receiving $3,500 from the Israeli government and sent to Rwanda or Uganda. However, according to a recent report by the Hotline for Migrant Workers and by ASSAF, an aid organization, based on testimonies and interviews, because they have no legal status in these two countries, the asylum seekers are soon forced to move on to their home countries, where they are subjected to torture and imprisonment.
If they asylum seekers refuse to leave Israel, the state can incarcerate them indefinitely at the Saharonim high-security prison, also in the Negev.
The service was also timed to coincide with the upcoming Shavuot holiday. "On Shavuot," said Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, "we read in the Book of Ruth that Ruth went to a different land to find food. As Jews, we know more than any other people what it means to be dependent on the kindness of host countries."
Opening the ceremony, Hefetz read from a prayer she composed for the event: "Impart upon us Your wisdom so that we will succeed in treating [the refugees] as flesh of our flesh...Plant in our hearts love for every person with respect to whom they are and expand our hearts so that we will be able to hold them..."
Noting that the Jewish people received the Torah, including the Ten Commandments, on Shavuot, the rabbis have also compiled a list of "Ten Commandments of Conduct Towards the Stranger." Each commandment was read by a rabbi, first in Hebrew and then in English. Worded in style similar to the original, the first commandment reads, "You shall honor the stranger, the asylum seeker and the refugee in the way you wish to be honored...."
The prayers were interspersed with well-known tunes taken from the traditional prayer liturgies.
Although the detainees were given a five-page handout with the service, printed in Hebrew and English, it is likely that few if any understood the references to Shavuot or the meaning of the songs and other prayers.
Rafael Gebreyesus, a 28-year-old asylum seeker from Eritrea who has been in Israel for six years and at Holot for 15 months, tried to follow the text and to sing the tunes. "I don't understand very much, that is true," he tells Haaretz. "And I am not a religious man. But I do understand what really matters – that these religious leaders have come here to tell us that they care about us. They are showing us that religion can help people treat each other better. "
Concluding the service, Mutasin Ali, an activist among the detainees who coordinated the visit, addressed the assembly: "We have no life at all here. We are isolated and lonely. But you, Jewish rabbis, are here because your history explains to you what it means to be a refugee. We do not want to stay forever – no one chooses to be a refugee. We want to go back to our homes. Until we can, we ask for your protection. Your leaders have put us here. Thank you so much, very good people, for welcoming us to your country."
Noa Leigh-Littman, 18, is one of the volunteers at Holot from the Negev Pre-Army Academy in Sde Boker. This summer, after the academy ends, she will enlist in the Israel Defense Forces, where she will be serving as a teacher and counselor for new recruits. She reveals that she had been active in Telem, the youth movement of the Reform Movement in Israel, but that "Judaism was not the primary reason I am here. I am here as a human being." And yet, she continues, "it's meaningful to me that this was organized by rabbis. I had a very difficult time over the Passover holiday. On Passover, as Jews, we celebrate our freedom from slavery and I kept thinking about the people imprisoned here in Holot. A people that doesn't know itself cannot really celebrate. Listening to the rabbis makes me think that Judaism can have a role to play in making society better."
As the service ended, the rabbis handed out fruits, also symbolic of the first fruits that mark the Shavuot holiday.
The prayer service. (Ilan Assayag)
Rabbi David Jaffee, an Orthodox rabbi from Boston, in Israel on a Sabbatical year, wore his phylacteries during the prayer service. "It is not customary to wear T'fillin [phylacteries] at this time or at a ceremony of this sort," he explains. "T'fillin are meant to symbolize holiness and our connection to God. The word used in Hebrew for this facility – shahut – refers in religious terms to something that has no movement. Spiritually it is equated with impurity. This is a place where these men are kept, waiting, with no movement in their lives – a place that is spiritually impure. It was important to me to bring a bit of sanctity and holiness to this place."
Following the ceremony, Hefetz notes that Israel "helped draft the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. As Europe was filled with refugees, we as a people understood better than all, what that means. And now, we as a sovereign state, are treating the refugees in the same horrible way that many Jewish refugees were treated after the Holocaust."
She calls on the government to act in accordance with the United Nations protocol and to "set up a personal interview for each and every migrant from Eritrea and Sudan."
Rabbi Professor Yehoyadah Amir, of the Hebrew Union College (Reform), says that it is "unfortunate that rabbis do not make their voices heard on political, social and economic issues. This is based on a deep misunderstanding of the role that religion should play in our lives. Ensuring that our health system doesn't collapse is more important than making sure that we observe kashrut. And when we abuse the refugees and the minorities, when we allow racism to spread throughout our country – this is a much more serious problem than Torah-reading, as important as Torah-reading is."
And yet, Amir continues, he leaves Holot with a troubled feeling. "There is great symbolic significance in what we do. We have given ourselves strength, and we have given support to the refugees – but we haven't changed anything."
During the service, Gebreyesus has unwittingly answered Amir's query. "I know that this ceremony won't change anything. And when they get on the bus, we will go back into our prison. But they have given us strength to face it, knowing that we are not alone. I believe that good will triumph – in my country, and in yours, and we will be able to go home safely some day."
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