Two weeks ago, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein took the extraordinary step of ordering the immediate conditional release of Mutasim Ali, a 28-year-old Sudanese asylum seeker from Darfur, after 14 months in the Holot Detention Center in the Negev. The release followed three petitions and three appeals filed by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrant Workers on Ali’s behalf. It was a temporary and isolated corrective to Israel’s terribly misguided policies about African refugees, but Ali is not in the clear; he can be recalled to Holot at any time. If he refuses to go, he can be sent to Saharonim Prison instead.
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Ali is a natural leader. Soft-spoken and articulate, with excellent English and Hebrew, Ali is telegenic, gracious and focused. He was a central figure in organizing the refugee protests of 2013 and 2014, and insured that they remained non-violent. He has the quiet charisma of someone who has suffered but has lost neither hope nor purpose.
But in talking with Ali, he made it clear that while he has felt responsible to help other refugees and asylum seekers in Israel, his mission in life is to help Darfur. He would like nothing more than to go to law school and gain the tools to continue his struggle for his homeland, ideally in Canada or the United States, where he would not be subject to Israel’s punitive refugee policies. Israel, to its shame, grants almost no one refugee status.
After being arrested multiple times in Sudan because of his political activism in 2006-7, Ali tragically made the decision to flee through Egypt to Israel because of American Jewish support for the Save Darfur campaign. He mistakenly believed that Israeli Jews would show the same empathy for victims of persecution as their American brethren.
But if Ali thought Israel’s leaders could possibly care about the suffering of non-Jews, he chose the wrong decade. Prime Minister Menahem Begin, who welcomed Vietnamese boat people to the pride of Israel’s citizens, has been replaced by Benjamin Netanyahu, Ayelet Shaked and Miri Regev, populists who see all goyim as the enemy, no matter how down-trodden, and who exploit Israeli xenophobia for their own political agendas.
Ali formally requested asylum in 2012, years before the other detainees held at Holot. The application process was a two-year bureaucratic slog because of the government’s policy not to process any asylum requests from Sudanese or Eritrean refugees. Since then, three years have passed, and Israel’s government has yet to rule on Ali’s case. Ali was among the first refugees summoned to Holot, likely targeted due to his public prominence within the Sudanese refugee community and his appearances in the Israeli media. A hearing had been scheduled for this week before a High Court panel, but was postponed when Ali was released.
Perhaps the government feared a sympathetic ruling that could serve as a precedent for other Holot inmates, but the explanation given for Ali’s sudden release was that his asylum request had not yet been processed due to bureaucratic delays, and that Israel has yet to establish a policy about Sudanese refugees from Darfur. Furthermore, his release was implemented as a decision by the Interior Ministry, meaning it does not have legal standing. The claim that the overall policy is still being determined has been offered by successive Israeli governments for more than a decade, according to Canadian Parliament Member and former Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler, a tireless supporter of Israel who has taken an interest in Israel’s refugee situation and Ali’s case in particular. In any case, Ali should never have been detained.
And while Ali is deserving of much better treatment, he is hardly alone. Close to 2,000 mostly Eritrean and Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers in Holot are subjected to the tedium of their remote Negev confinement: empty days, endless lines, and utterly inadequate health care, including no help for the many suffering mental disorders. Prison officers and immigration officials engage in a relentless routine of good cop, bad cop, humiliating and infantilizing detainees, docking their paltry monthly living stipend (480 shekels) for minor infractions such as bringing vegetables into the center, haranguing them about how they are not wanted in Israel, and offering cash payments so they will “voluntarily” leave the country. The not-so-secret destination is Uganda, either directly or via Rwanda, where they are bilked out of their departure pay by smugglers. In Uganda, they have no legal protection and no future.
Is this how Jews should treat refugees?
If Israel had visionaries at the helm, they would embrace Mutasim Ali as a future leader of his own people, and a potential bridge to Africa. Since the Sinai fence has reduced illegal migrants to almost zero, we could create exemplary and humane frameworks for temporary absorption, until conditions allow refugees to return home.
But since the Israeli right demonizes refugees, even centrist and most leftist Israeli leaders have cowardly failed to take up their cause. Tone deaf to the disgust our policy evokes among our European allies and unable to distinguish it from the anti-occupation din, our leaders cry that Israel’s eight million citizens are swamped by 47,000 Africans, at a time when 60 million people have been displaced worldwide.
That leaves only Israel’s High Court – likely to face the wrath of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked if it strikes down the government’s draconian amendments to the Anti-Infiltration Law for the fourth time – and those same North American Jewish leaders Mutasim Ali once pinned his hopes upon.
Most American Jewish leaders have remained astonishingly, unforgivingly silent. Perhaps reluctant to speak out because of Israel’s already tarnished reputation, they have unwittingly provided Israel’s critics with even more ammunition in global forums. Helping Mutasim Ali would be a good first step for U.S. Jewish leaders. Demanding the closure of Holot and a humane refugee policy would be a lasting legacy.
Don Futterman is program director for Israel of the Moriah Fund, a private American foundation which supports the Hotline for Refugees and Migrant Workers and Assaf as part of efforts to strengthen civil society in Israel. He can be heard weekly on TLV1’s The Promised Podcast.