‘Remember You Were Strangers’: Ultra-Orthodox Jews Step in to Help Asylum Seekers in Israel

The group Ultra-Orthodox Against the Deportation sees it as a religious duty to aid the Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel, and is working to improve conditions in a squalid area where migrants wait for the authorities to decide their fate

Faigy Lifshitz with Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers outside the Population Authority offices in Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, April 11, 2018.
Moti Milrod

For months, Faigy Lifshitz parked her car at the supermarket near her Bnei Brak home, completely unaware that, just steps away, thousands of African asylum seekers stood for hours in the sun and rain to apply for refugee status or obtain work visas.

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Hidden from Lifshitz and her fellow shoppers’ view were the long lines of Africans waiting to enter the Population, Immigration and Border Authority offices in a dirty, isolated holding area without shelter, access to toilets, water or seating.

Once Lifshitz discovered that a scene of Third World desperation was playing out on the outskirts of this predominantly ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) city near Tel Aviv, she determined to do something about it. Along with like-minded advocates, she formed Ultra-Orthodox Against the Deportation to tackle the task.

“For me, this is the ‘Compound of Shame,’” Lifshitz tells Haaretz, surveying the scene on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day. (To protect her family’s standing in the community and her other activist work, she requested that she be interviewed using a pseudonym and that her face not be photographed.)

Earlier interview with Faigy Lifshitz, April 2018

“This is supposedly a government facility,” she continues, “but the government has failed to provide the most basic and elementary conditions for human beings here. The conditions for animals in the zoo of a Third World country are better than what you see here.

“It is terrible what we are putting these people through,” she adds. “I don’t think this place should exist at all. But as long as it is here, we need to make it suitable for human beings.”

It is, indeed, a depressing sight. As the African asylum seekers wait endlessly for a guard to gesture them to come inside, the sun beats down. When it rains, deep muddy puddles form in the former parking lot.

The vast majority of those waiting are men: Women and families with children show up, too, but they are given priority and head to the front of the line.

Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers waiting at the visa center in Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, April 11, 2018.
Moti Milrod

The ground is strewn with garbage and angry messages are graffitied on the sheeting fencing the area: “Down with deportation” and “It’s time for Bibi to leave, too.” There is also a slogan scrawled in English: “Fuck the system.”

Filling a niche

“This place sends them a message that they aren’t welcome here,” says Talia (also not her real name), a secular veteran volunteer at the site. She is one of a group of women wearing T-shirts and hats to protect themselves from the sun; some have name tags featuring the slogan “Human rights for refugees.”

Every few minutes, African men shyly approach them, usually holding out a document for them to translate and explain their situation before or after they have been allowed to enter the offices.

The facility, located in an isolated, tent-like structure behind Bnei Brak train station, is currently the only population authority office outside of the southern city of Eilat where interviews are conducted and applications for legal status and work visas are processed. As a result, those waiting in line have come from around the country.

Nearly every night, a group camps out on the ground in order to secure a good place for the next morning, or because they were unable to gain access and have nowhere else to spend the night.

In a long skirt, blond wig and glasses, Lifshitz stands out from the other volunteers. She comes from a Haredi rabbinical family.

African asylum seekers waiting in line at the visa center in Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, April 11, 2018.
Moti Milrod

Last December, when the government plan to deport these Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers en masse was first announced, Lifshitz created a Facebook page that she called “Haredim Legirush” – a play on words. The literal meaning of “Haredi” (the Hebrew word that identifies ultra-Orthodox Jews) is “fearful,” and so the name technically translates as “Fearful of the Deportation.”

She looked for an aspect of the refugee crisis that wasn’t being addressed – and decided that improving conditions at the compound was a niche she and her group could fill.

“These people are in my city: right here in Bnei Brak,” she says. “Is there a better way to practice mitzvot and uphold the values of the Torah than helping them? I can’t think of one.”

Lifshitz says that, from the outset, she and her ultra-Orthodox friends knew they wanted to form a separate organization rather than simply become members of existing advocacy groups – which are often associated with the secular left.

She says it’s important to send a message that their community cares and that they are taking action because they are ultra-Orthodox Jews, not in spite of it.

“We are very specific that we are doing this in the name of our faith and in the name of the Torah and in the name of our Judaism and the will of God, who calls on us to be human and humane toward each other. The Torah is very precise in what it tells us: Thirty-six times in the Torah it is mentioned that we have to remember the “ger” – the stranger – because we were strangers in Egypt. Every human being is made in God’s image and if people are in need, we must help them. Jews are people who have suffered so much. We were the ‘black people’ of the world for thousands of years.”

Asylum seekers waiting in line at the visa center in Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, April 11, 2018.
Moti Milrod

The group is led by a steering committee of three men and three women, supported by a wider circle of friends and volunteers.

Well-intentioned but amateurish, the group’s first major project to improve the Bnei Brak space literally fell apart. With great fanfare, on the eve of Passover in March, they erected a shelter to protect the asylum seekers from the elements. The photogenic effort – ultra-Orthodox and secular Israeli volunteers, along with the asylum seekers themselves – was featured on TV news shows. However, the shelter was so hastily constructed that the first serious spell of wind and rain flattened it, and the wooden stakes and black netting were soon resting in the dirt.

In the meantime, though, the publicity sparked what Lifshitz calls “a miracle.”

Biblical Studies lecturer Diana Lipton, who immigrated to Israel from Great Britain seven years ago, was so inspired by the group that she contacted Lifshitz and offered to donate a substantial sum of money toward making the Bnei Brak compound “a place we aren’t ashamed of.”

Lipton, herself an Orthodox Jew, says that since moving to Israel, she “found it depressing that the religious community in Israel has been so uninvolved in things I care about – especially things that involve compassion for others.”

Regarding the issue of the asylum seekers, she admits to being “very depressed when I’ve gone to demonstrations on their behalf to see so few people with kippot.”

So when she saw the video of Lifshitz’s efforts to build the shelter, it moved her. “There was something powerfully symbolic, encouraging and inspiring to see this positive, strong image of religious Jews from this insular community taking this action,” she explains. “Here were people not only with kippot and women with head coverings, but representatives of the far end of the religious spectrum stepping in. I was really happy to see this powerful visual representation of their concern. Why should this only be a leftist, secular cause?”

Both cursed and praised

Ultra-Orthodox Against the Deportation's Faigy Lifshitz with African asylum seekers, April 11, 2018. "For me, this is the ‘Compound of Shame,’" she says.
Moti Milrod

On Sunday evening, five days after we first spoke at the site, Lifshitz is standing beside Talia and the two women look on excitedly as the Bnei Brak space is transformed as a result of Lipton’s $5,000 donation. Professionals have erected white tents with metal rods and sturdy shades, drilling them into the ground.

The second major step Lifshitz has taken to improve the area is visible in a corner: two portable toilets. The first month’s rental costs were covered by donations, Lifshitz says, adding that she will raise the rest of the money – by crowdfunding, if necessary. “This place used to smell terribly of urine,” she says. “Not anymore.”

Beyond providing shelter and toilet facilities, Lifshitz says her priorities at the site are cleaning and installing some sort of seating. She would also like to find a way for the asylum seekers to access water without having to buy it in bottles from the supermarket or a vendor. The volunteers even dream of a small play area for the children who must wait there with their parents.

“If we succeed in making this place decent and nice, it will send a message to the world that there are Israelis who care. And also, hopefully it will shame the government into shutting it down and providing something better,” says Talia.

Lifshitz admits that reactions to her efforts have been mixed within her own community. She has been both cursed and praised on her Facebook page, she reveals.

Her family, whom she describes as “totally removed from Israeli politics and the media,” were surprised when she first described the scene at the compound. “They are so shocked,” she says. “They ask me, ‘How can the State of Israel treat people that way?’”

She and her fellow advocates believe the Sudanese and Eritreans are refugees and deserve humane protection in Israel.

“We don’t share any other brand of politics. We don’t call ourselves left wing; we don’t call ourselves right wing. We are human beings who love other human beings – and we are here to say that what has been done to us as Jews in the past, we refuse to perpetrate on others.”

Jews, she concludes, must always “remember the feeling of foreignness, of being alone.”