Israel's Lethal Apathy Toward Refugees

Israel seems to have crossed a series of red lines in its handling of asylum seekers; as Yom Kippur and its message of ‘return’ approaches, the injustices committed by the state mean that the gates of repentance are gradually swinging closed behind us.

Natasha Roth
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Natasha Roth

"Help us return to You with a whole heart..."

We say these words from the Kol Nidrei service near the beginning of Yom Kippur's 25-hour fast, abstaining from food and drink in order to repent and prepare for a return to God. Yet how are we to return with a whole heart, when we seem to have no heart at all? Barely a month ago, we endured the slow, macabre spectacle of a group of Eritrean asylum seekers stuck for a week behind a fence just inside our border, all of them silent witnesses to Israel's lethal, prejudicially-informed apathy. We were starving them in preparation for a return, too, albeit one to either the infernal torments of the Sinai, or to another captivity in Saharonim prison.

There is a growing sense that Israel has, over the past few months, crossed a series of red lines in its handling of asylum seekers. From the violent riots in May to the aforementioned desert fiasco in September, the government has laid itself a moral minefield, and each detonation caused by its casual and disastrous cruelty erodes our ability to return to some sort of ethical equilibrium. The seething injustices committed in the name of demographics are having a corrosive effect on our right of spiritual return; with each wrong, we can hear the creaking of the gate gradually swinging closed behind us, ready to clank shut completely.

Israel's intransigence and lockdown as a city of refuge comes in spite of full awareness of the terrors African immigrants have escaped. As an illustration, Eritrea (from where most asylum seekers in Israel have come) inflicts on its citizens all the crushing exploitation, neglect and restrictions one would expect from one of the most viciously enforced dictatorships in the world.

Yet, whatever desperation they faced in their country, for the majority the misery is only beginning once their journey starts. If they are fortunate, the worst they will suffer is privation and exposure from having to trek through the desert. All too frequently, however, asylum seekers are kidnapped by Bedouin smugglers, who keep them chained up in the Sinai. In order to extort ransom money, the victims' families are dialled and made to listen while their relatives are tortured. It is hard to imagine a more lacerating phone call. This can continue for weeks or months; scorching days of blood and iron, in exchange for cold cash. Somehow, however, when faced with groups of people who have been subjected to physical, mental and sexual abuse, the government and the army find it within themselves to either leave them floundering in the desert or put them in another prison, further postponing lives that are becoming defined by locks, keys and metal bars.

Examples of the consequences of this chain of events are common currency at the African Refugee Development Center in Tel Aviv. Tesfay (not his real name), a 35 year-old Eritrean man whom the ARDC has been assisting, was kidnapped in the Sinai and held in chains for 6 months, during which time he was severely tortured. Now, after finally receiving a temporary licence to remain in Israel, Tesfay has had to leave his job washing dishes in a restaurant; the extent of the damage caused to his arms and hands has left him unable to hold a plate properly. And yet, for all the physical suffering and injustice he has endured, his most aching concern is his reliance on others, and his inability to support himself. "I am a man", he keeps telling me. If this is a man, then those who would see him imprisoned and deported are not worthy of the same classification.

Nonetheless, there are those in Israel who hold the conviction that such people are deserving of yet more ill-treatment. Interior Minister Eli Yishai, with his increasingly impenetrable chainmail of hubris and hatred, seems determined to squeeze every last drop of agony out of African immigrants before he can kick them out and bolt the door behind them. Each rush of blood to the head Yishai experiences, with its accompanying spurt of violent rhetoric to the media, is another turn of the screw for asylum seekers in Israel.

Such is the climate of aggression that has been cultivated here that many Sudanese coming to our office have begged to be allowed to return to warzones, rather than remain in Israel. Yet there is no return for these people, and as long as we continue to fire bullet after bullet of prejudice at them, there won't be for us, either.

We must be humane to be human, and we must recognize that humanity in action can return humanity as a state to those who have had it stripped away. "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you", says a quotation from Ezekiel in the machzor, the prayerbook of the Days of Awe. To claim those for ourselves, we must first offer them to the bruised wanderers among us.

Natasha Roth made aliyah from the UK in March 2012, and is currently the Identity Claims Coordinator at the African Refugee Development Center in south Tel Aviv.

Migrants sitting outside the synagogue next to Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv.Credit: Natasha Roth



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