Israeli Rabbis to Hold Prayer Vigil Urging Humane Treatment of African Asylum Seekers

Over 40 rabbis to gather at southern Israeli detention center ahead of Shavuot holiday to demand end to incarcerations, deportations.

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Asylum seekers at the Holot detention center hold up their notices of deportation, April 2, 2015.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Eetta Prince-Gibson
Eetta Prince-Gibson

Over 40 Israeli rabbis, representing all streams of organized Judaism, plan to hold a prayer vigil and study session Wednesday at the Holot detention center for African asylum seekers in southern Israel.

Rabbi Nava Hefetz, one of the organizers of the event and the educational director of Rabbis for Human Rights, said the day was chosen in part because 12 detainees face immediate deportation.

The orders were issued for individuals whose immigration status remains unclear or whose asylum application was formally rejected by Israel. They face deportation to Uganda or Rwanda, countries to which they have no connection. If they refuse, they face incarceration at the Saharonim prison, also in the Negev.

The New Israel Fund is providing the rabbis organizing the event with logistical, financial and public-relations support.

Under the slogan “For you were strangers in the Land of Egypt,” the rabbis will call on the government “to find a fair and humane solution for the asylum seekers, in the spirit of Jewish tradition,” according to their website.

Some 1,900 African asylum seekers are being held at Holot, out of an estimated 50,000 to 60,000, most of them from Sudan or Eritrea, living in Israel. Detainees at Holot may leave the facility for a few hours at a time, but must report for roll call three times a day.

Over 9,000 African asylum seekers have voluntarily left Israel in the past two years.

Speaking with Haaretz by telephone from Holot, Mutasim Ali, a detainee who has been coordinating the rabbis’ visit, explains: “The Israeli government offers each person $3,500 to leave. Otherwise, he gets sent to Holot, where we are just rotting in the sun. So some people break down and leave.”

According to a recent report by the Hotline for Migrant Workers and by ASSAF, an aid organization, based on testimonies and interviews, most of the asylum seekers were sent to Uganda and Rwanda. Because they have no legal status in these two countries, they have been forced to continue to their home countries, where they have been subjected to torture and imprisonment.

The United Nations has a clearly-established protocol for determining whether a migrant is, in fact, an asylum seeker who is entitled to protection and asylum in accordance with UN conventions to which Israel is a signatory. But successive Israeli governments have generally regarded the African asylum seekers who have crossed into Israel without authorization as illegals and sought to detain and then deport them.

“I am part of this event because Israel is more Jewish to the extent that we have compassion for others. We have a very wrong notion about what being a Jewish state means, as if by being less democratic and more xenophobic, we are more Jewish,” says Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, president of Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute. “There is a cultural war going on in Israel and it is important that all the forces of enlightenment — Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, secular, everyone — join together.”

Rabbi Susan Silverman, also a co-organizer of the event and a member of the International Advisory Council of The New Israel Fund, adds that the date was also chosen because, “Jews will soon celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, which symbolizes above all Judaism’s tolerance towards the stranger who lives among us.”

Concludes Ali, “We are alone here in the middle of the desert, and this visit, which is an expression of solidarity, is very important to help keep up our morale. It is also important because the rabbis are coming to represent of the values and ethics of Judaism. These are people who recognize their human obligations.”

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