Asylum Seekers Are Tokens in Israel’s Game of Monopoly

Israel may not be able to provide 'free parking’ to all refugees, but the least it can do is give them a comfortable vehicle as they make their way around the board.

AP

"Go to jail. Go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect 200 pounds, dollars or shekels." In a game of Monopoly, these are the most frustrating words. But with just a throw of the dice or a small fine, you are allowed to move on. In real life, it's much more difficult.

To be deprived of your freedom and find your life on hold is especially distressing if you have not committed any crime. This is the fate of refugees who were persecuted in Sudan and Eritrea, made terrifying journeys across the desert in search of asylum and now find themselves incarcerated in detention centers in the remotest parts of the Negev desert. Their plight has attracted criticism from international human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International.

Last week, accompanied by students from the Jewish human rights organization T'ruah, I visited the Saharonim and Holot detention centers to see for myself.

At a time when Israel faces a barrage of international criticism and its misdeeds are frequently exaggerated in the media, it is important to keep things in proportion. What we saw there were not the most deplorable of human rights crimes. While Israel is forced to cut the education and defense budgets for its own citizens, it ensures that the refugees have roofs over their heads, are fed, live in safety and receive a small monthly stipend. This is more than most countries - including their own - would do for them.

But the conditions are not enviable. As an Orthodox rabbi and a Zionist, I want my country to hold the best human rights record. Mediocrity should not be an option.

The bags of food and cosmetics that my students from T'ruah collected for these refugees were quickly snapped up. These people were clearly needy. "What crime did we commit to be treated the way?" they asked me.

Having an adult share a prison dormitory with nine other people, eat a very basic diet and stagnate in a desert with absolutely nothing to do all day, seems a dreadful waste. Outside the prison, I met a small group of refugees who were trying to organize adult education classes for their fellow inmates. A charity had donated textbooks for their use, but they were deeply discouraged when the prison authorities refused to allow them to bring a blackboard into the prison.

It is no surprise that faced with the choice between indefinite prison sentences in Israel and deportation to a foreign country many opt to leave. But this is simply another random move, a role of the dice for individuals who soon find themselves en route to another foreign land where they will have no legal status and no way to earn a living.

They suffer indignity, we foot the bill and our moral record is tarnished. Is this is better than allowing them to live freely, work and pay taxes in Israel, until it is safe for them to return home?

In our search for the correct approach to refugees, one biblical episode offers guidance. As Moses leads the Jewish people toward the Land of Israel, he contacts the local rulers explaining that we are fleeing the oppression in Egypt and request safe passage through their lands. The replies he receives include refusal, curses and threats of war.

In the face of these inhospitable tribes, God's response is decisive: neither they nor their descendants may marry Jews, "For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt." (Deuteronomy 23:4)

These tribes have long since disappeared, but as the Sefer Hachinukh (Book of Education 561) explains, the lesson remains pertinent. The Jewish people should be defined by loving-kindness and sensitivity. People who lack these qualities are an anathema. We should not let them into our families.

It's not enough just to tolerate refugees; they have to be welcomed and assisted. Anything less is a dereliction of duty. So the politicians and rabbis who brand asylum seekers as infiltrators, make their lives miserable or fail to provide support lie beyond the pale of Jewish ethics.

We may not be able to grant a "free parking" bonanza to all the world's refugees, but those who reach our shores must be warmly welcomed. We must recognize their humanity, empathize with their suffering and educate our synagogues, schools and communities to give them every support. "You shall love the stranger, for you too were strangers in the land of Egypt."

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's Israel Rabbi and the Senior Rabbinic Educator for T'ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. He writes in a personal capacity.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz
AP