Last month, in a 9-0 ruling filled with moral outrage, Israel's Supreme Court nullified an amendment to the Infiltrators Law that had allowed the government to imprison refugees for up to three years upon their illegal entrance to Israel. The ruling came in response to an appeal by the Hotline for Migrant Workers, The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Assaf and other advocacy organizations, primarily on behalf of the 54,200 refugees from Eritrea and Sudan currently in Israel.
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Writing the court’s opinion, Justice Edna Arbel drew on Israel’s Declaration of Independence, Jewish texts and Jewish history to justify the need to act humanely toward desperate refugees.
To date, only two out of the approximately 2000 refugees currently imprisoned have been released - one, a rape victim from Sudan, whose incarceration only ended in response to another Hotline appeal to the High Court. Instead of following the Court’s directive to free the others, Interior Minister Gidon Sa'ar is floating a less draconian version of the same legislation, trying to sell shorter imprisonment as morally defensible, ignoring the Court’s argument that you can’t lock up innocent people to deter other potential refugees from trying to reach Israel.
While leftist leaders for the most part supported the ruling, cheering the opportunity to expunge a moral stain on our nation’s character, many right wing leaders attacked the decision in the same terms they apply to the refugees.
According to coalition chairman Yariv Levin (Likud), Minister Uri Ariel (Bayit Hayehudi), and MKs Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Hayehudi), Miri Regev and Tzipi Hotovely (Likud), refugees are taking over the country, are a threat to Israel’s Jewish and democratic character, and endanger the security of the state. They argue that the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty revised to exclude refugees from its protection and the court weakened.
Why do these right wing legislators bring such extreme charges, several of which are easy to disprove? Why should the refugees – who have nothing to do with the Occupation or settlements – become a left-right issue at all? And where does their animus toward refugees come from?
The claim that Israel is in danger of becoming a country of refugee labor migrants is foolish. According to a July 2013 report from Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority, there are 54,200 refugees currently in Israel, far less than one per cent of the population. By comparison, there are about 93,000 tourists from the Former Soviet Union who have overstayed their visas, and 83,000 legal and illegal foreign workers in Israel. Is anyone calling to lock them up? Since the security fence was built in Sinai, the number of illegal refugees has dropped from its peak of 17,272 in 2011 to 84 in 2013. If we once feared an endless influx of African refugees, that scenario is behind us.
Refugees pose no security threat to Israel, despite the government linking them through the term “infiltrator” to the fedayeen who committed cross-border terrorist attacks 50 years ago. The personal security of a resident walking down the streets of South Tel Aviv, as problematic as it might be, has nothing to do with our national security.
Politicking is going on on three levels. First, playing to the Likud’s disenfranchised base, legislators like Miri Regev don’t mind inciting possible violence against a foreign and even more disenfranchised population for short-term political gain.
Second, refugees are caught between the Knesset and the Court. What infuriates this group of politicians is less the perennial in the jockeying for power between the legislative and judicial branches of government, but that the court occasionally dares to reign in the excesses of the settlement enterprise, even with a right-wing Chief Justice.
And third, the right tends to automatically denigrate any issue associated with human rights as a leftist concern, playing its familiar trope that the left is more concerned with non-Jews than Jews. While the left has done a bad job showing disenfranchised Jews in Israel why their rights also need and receive protection, most institutional prejudice in any country is directed against its minorities.
On a deeper level, there is an unarticulated debate about the meaning of the “Jewish character” of the state and the hazards it faces. Demography is the paramount threat to the Jewish character of Israel perceived by these Likud and Bayit Hayehudi leaders. The immediate 'peril' comes of course from Palestinians – our citizens and our neighbors – a danger paradoxically exacerbated by those leaders own Greater Israel schemes. But tens of thousands of mainly Muslim Africans tilt the balance further away from a Jewish majority in Israel, regardless of the fact that these refugees are not planning to stay in Israel for good.
And finally, some right-wing leaders reject empathy for or identification with these refugees from our own long experience as refugee as sentimental, more of the left’s suicidal soft-heartedness toward the threatening “other.” They share a deep-seated suspicion, fear and hatred, of the non-Jewish “other”. In other words, they hate goyim.
And because of our history of unparalleled suffering, anti-goyism gets a free pass. So when Shas uses horrific rapes in Tel Aviv for a fear-mongering election campaign, or a local party in Hadera manipulate fears of alleged sexual rapacity in an anti-refugee ad, no one points out the similarity to Nazi hate campaigns against the dark-cloaked Jewish “other.”
We could be implementing a fair and transparent system of review for refugee status and asylum appeals, developing plans to improve security for all residents of South Tel Aviv, or planning wisely to redistribute refugees around the country. We could be debating what constitutes a proper “Jewish” response to the refugees. We could be investigating how to deter a renewed wave of refugees while also treating those who already here humanely, until they go home.
But that would require leadership instead of demagoguery, creative solutions rather than imprisoning defenseless people, and vision in place of politicking as usual.
Don Futterman is the program director of the Moriah Fund, a private American foundation that supports the Hotline for Migrant Workers, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and other NGOs working to strengthen Israeli civil society. He can be heard on the Promised Podcast.