Spurious Jewish State Narrative Mars Asylum Seekers Debate

The spirit of George Orwell is alive and well in Israeli attempts to claim that African migrants are not refugees, activist says.

Mira Sucharov.
Mira Sucharov
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Asylum seekers at the Holot detention center in the Negev.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
Mira Sucharov.
Mira Sucharov

When it comes to human rights, Oded Feller knows how important something as simple as language can be. A human rights lawyer at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Feller appears briefly in the Silvina Landsmann’s documentary film Hotline, named for the NGO dedicated to helping asylum seekers navigate the labyrinth of Israeli bureaucracy.

What saves the film, which recently won the Best Documentary award at the Jerusalem Film Festival, from being utterly depressing is its focus on the little-engine-that-could of an NGO chugging against a national political machinery that seeks to avoid adhering to the international legal convention to which the country has pledged.

“It’s important to the government to construct a spurious narrative,” Feller put it to me in a phone interview,” to tell themselves that these aren’t refugees.” Instead, the word you hear from the members of Knesset sitting across from Feller and other NGO activists at a Knesset committee meeting, including Sigal Rozen, Public Policy Coordinator at Hotline, is “infiltrators.” Once they call them infiltrators, Feller says, they easily justify — to themselves — denying them their rights.

This slippery use of language underscores the overall sense of chaos that permeates this issue in Israel, a theme the film lays bare. A town hall meeting where Rozen tries to patiently respond to an angry mob of South Tel Aviv residents dissolves into chaos. The legal system itself is chaotic, often playing out through the singular preferences of the Interior Minister of the day, as Feller describes it. And the lives of the migrants are chaotic, some clamoring to secure basic services for their children, as they seek to navigate the government bureaucracy with the help of Hotline clerks. The Hotline employees enjoy some marked successes — like explaining to one migrant that the phrase “this is not a work permit” on his temporary visa does not actually forbid him from working. The spirit of George Orwell is alive and well.

There at least two apparent value conflicts that drive the issue of asylum-seeking in Israel. One is the impulse of individuals seeking to uphold human rights principles against those who wish to protect their space from strangers. The other is the dilemma, phrased compassionately in the film by a visiting British MP to Hotline’s offices, of a Jewish state attempting to maintain its demographic character. On closer inspection, though, what seem like irreconcilable dilemmas are actually policy problems. And the nature of a policy problem is that it has solutions, even if collective preferences need to be wrangled to get there.

It took Feller — whose passion for human rights as displayed on film was as intense as the frustration expressed by the South Tel Aviv residents at that town hall meeting — to point out to me that the anger of the residents who feel their neighborhoods have been overrun can’t all be chalked up to xenophobia. The municipal infrastructure in those areas, he says simply cannot support the overcrowded conditions of dozens of people living in one apartment.

Oded Feller. Photo: Emil Salman.

And while a successful refugee claim won’t prevent overcrowding and the stress on a city’s infrastructure, it would enable the individual to move away from subsisting on the periphery and be supported through social services and gainful employment so that she — or most often, he — does not need to rely on the kind of informal networks that have become the norm among asylum seekers.

But it takes a concerted move away from reactionary xenophobia to think more productively about the second of these issues: that of Israel’s Jewish character. While Prime Minister Netanyahu has framed the issue in terms of being a threat to Israel’s “existence as a Jewish and democratic state,” even tens of thousands of asylum seekers will not a non-Jewish-state make. Bibi’s “democratic” threat claim similarly doesn’t hold up. Israel is a master of immigration of large populations from non-democratic countries — Jews from Arab countries, Ethiopian Jews, and Jews from the former Soviet Union.

According to the UN Convention on Refugees (to which Israel is a signatory), asylum seekers are entitled to have their refugee claims heard. Israel hears some claims — but not in a good faith way, in many cases sitting on claims indefinitely. According to data from Hotline, Israel’s acceptance rate of asylum claims (much less than 1%) is the lowest in the developed world. And Israel, as Feller explains, simply does not make asylum requests at all easy to submit.

For his part, Feller says he is not in the business of changing Israel’s immigration policies. Countries are permitted to set their own. What he is adamant about is that Israel uphold its human rights obligations. It’s hard to, though, when one side uses Orwellian language to describe the other.

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