U.S. Jews Highlight Plight of African Asylum Seekers in Israel

This Passover, human rights-minded Jews - inspired by Jewish imperative of caring for the sojourner - urge Israeli government to uphold its legal and moral responsibility.

This week, the Israeli embassy in Washington will be opening some unusual mail: letters written not on paper, but on matza. Dubbed the #BreadofFreedom campaign by its organizers — T’ruah and HIAS: The Global Jewish Nonprofit that Protects Refugees — the initiative seeks to raise awareness about the ongoing plight of asylum seekers in Israel.

Israel’s treatment of the 55,000 asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea is an ongoing sticking point between Israel and the international community, as well as between Israel and human-rights-minded Jews.

Dubbed “infiltrators” by the Israeli government and having been the target of vicious verbal attacks by lawmakers, the asylum seekers have not fared well under Israel’s system. While Israel is a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, critics say that Israel is barely upholding its international legal obligations.

When asylum seekers actually get their claims heard in Israel — something that Israel only started allowing in 2013, seven years after the first inflow arrived from Sudan, they are almost sure to be denied refugee status. Israel has an acceptance rate of less than one percent. By contrast, Canada had a 2014 acceptance rate of almost 50 percent, up from 38 percent in 2013.

Amnesty International describes Israel’s asylum system as “lacking transparency,” not offering “access to fair proceedings” and being “ineffective in ensuring protection.” As HIAS CEO Mark Hetfield describes it, the “Israelis have made the system as uncomfortable as possible for the applicants.” And recent reports reveal that Israel has struck a deal with Rwanda to deport asylum seekers there, as well as to Uganda; if they refuse, asylum seekers could face further detention.

In some ways, the story of HIAS itself echoes the sentiment behind the push to demand that Israel uphold its legal and moral responsibilities. Formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS has now shifted its focus to working on behalf of refugees worldwide. It’s a universalist agenda fueled by the Jewish imperative of caring for the sojourner, the ger, among us, just as life for Jews in the Diaspora has gotten markedly more secure. It’s also a sentiment that Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah, expressed. “It’s especially chutzpahdik to [threaten to] deport them now as we remember a time when we were strangers in a strange land.”

And while by profession devoting their lives to further the spiritual and communal needs of their own community — the Jewish one, the rabbis I spoke to who have participated in the #BreadofFreedom campaign were unanimous about the need to remember the Other.

“The essence of Jewish identity,” Rabbi Marc Margolius of the West End Synagogue in Manhattan told me, “is empathizing with -- and even loving -- the stranger.”

Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical student Raysh Weiss said that “as Jews, we know all too well what happens when one group turns a blind eye to another group's suffering.”

Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein of Elgin, Illinois said that the campaign really “resonated with” her. “As Jews, we are told that we have to welcome the widow, the orphan and the stranger — the most marginalized among us.” That the Israeli authorities were talking about deporting asylum seekers during the festival of freedom made her feel like she “had to do something.”

Those who oppose opening Israel’s doors to asylum seekers might argue that as a tiny country, and the only Jewish state in the world, Israel’s primary mission should be to protect its delicate ethnic population balance. The so-called demographic argument has long been used by the peace movement, for example, to urge the government to extricate itself from the West Bank. In the case of asylum seekers, though, the aims feel more xenophobic, as many asylum seekers are left to languish in the Holot detention facility in the Negev, or eke out a life in south Tel Aviv where overcrowding and poverty has recently led to tragedy within that community.

For her part, Rabbi Jacobs sees fallacies in the demographic argument: “Hearing 50,000 claims doesn't mean taking them all in [as refugees].” She adds that under the convention, once an asylum seeker has been granted refugee status, he or she can relocate, effectively taking the status with them. Moreover, the refugee convention has a burden-sharing arrangement in place; Israel can ask for help from other countries designated “safe” by the UNHCR. Finally, there is a tragic absurdity, Jacobs points out, in leaving these asylum to languish in inhumane detention facilities or wander aimlessly in South Tel Aviv without work permits, while Israel imports thousands of foreign workers.

As Hetfield says of the situation, it is unwelcoming, un-Jewish, and unacceptable.” Israel, he says more hopefully — as Passover is winding down, “has a real opportunity to do the right thing.”