March in the Negev is fickle. Warm in the sun, cool in the shade, and downright cold when the wind blows. Which it does, often. A dust devil forms and sweeps through where we are sitting; I cover my face just in time. Many of my fellow guests at the Refugee Seder at the Holot Detention Facility, in which I participated as part of T’ruah’s Year-in-Israel Human Rights Program for rabbinical students, are not so lucky. They are still rubbing the dirt out of their eyes while the detainees resume speaking without missing a beat. Living here for more than a year now, they’re used to it.
That might not be much longer, though. If the current policy change pushed by the Interior Ministry goes through, these detainees will be offered a choice: deportation or prison. Imprisoned not at Holot but at Saharonim Prison, which looms not far in the distance. Deportation is likely to be to Rwanda or Uganda. For the 2,000 Eritrean and Sudanese men held in Holot, and the 50,000 men, women, and children who also fled persecution and are now in Israel, neither is a safe or acceptable option.
That afternoon, I met Kamar, whose family in Darfur narrowly escaped when rebels burnt their village to the ground. With just a few possessions, they fled to Chad to escape the continuing political and ethnic upheaval in South Sudan. After much harassment, Kamar decided to try for Israel in 2008, having heard stories of a land of democracy and opportunity. Surviving abuse from smugglers, nearly being shot at the border, and a three-month stint in Saharonim Prison, he worked in construction in Israel's Red Sea port of Eilat for five years before being interned in Holot in 2014. He cannot go home, but he is not allowed to sustain himself in Israel, either.
The proposal for a “third country” sounds reasonable in theory. But the options that will likely be given—Rwanda and Uganda —pose grave dangers to the refugees. We know from the testimony of previous asylum seekers that the money and documents given when they leave Israel are confiscated when they enter Rwanda and Uganda, and they are granted no legal protection or rights as refugees. These countries are not safe places as termed by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, of which Israel is a signatory.
I am not alone in thinking this. As a rabbinic student fellow with T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, I am one of more than 1,800 American rabbis and cantors who care about Israel as a Jewish, democratic state and thus cannot approve of these deportations.
It is especially tragic that the government is refusing even to hear asylum cases given that the international conventions on refugees are a direct response to the Holocaust—an attempt by the international community to ensure that no one will ever find themselves with no place to go in times of need. Israel has long been a place of refuge—first for Jewish survivors of Nazi Germany, and later for hundreds of Vietnamese refugees fleeing totalitarian communism. In the 1990s, Bosnian Muslims were offered asylum at kibbutzim, and more recently Israel took in refugees from Liberia and Darfur. In all these cases, Israel truly lived the biblical words, “You shall not wrong or oppress a foreigner, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21).
Currently, Israel grants asylum seekers legal residence, but refuses to actually hear their cases for asylum or designate them refugees. The resulting limbo status prevents asylum seekers from acquiring work permits, and therefore from sustaining themselves or contributing to Israel’s economy. Worldwide, some 88 percent of Eritrean asylum seekers are granted refugee status; the figure for Sudanese is 64 percent. In Israel that number is less than 1 percent.
Those who oppose the integration of asylum seekers in Israel argue that a small country cannot absorb 50,000 asylum seekers while maintaining its own character. But the Refugee Convention provides for other countries to share the burden of Israel’s refugees — however, first Israel must hear these cases.
This past weekend, we sat down to the Passover seder and remembered our journey through the desert to freedom. We recalled when we cried out to God from the bonds of slavery, and remembered how God “heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery and our oppression.” If we truly are b’tzelem Elohim—if we walk in God’s ways—how can we ignore the plea and plight of the African asylum seekers in our midst, especially as we relive our own flight to freedom?
Sarah R.F. Sholklapper is a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. A native of the DC area, she graduated from George Mason University with a degree in Government and International Politics; she is currently spending the year studying in Israel and is a T'ruah Israel Fellow.
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