When I made aliyah more than two years ago, I was shocked to discover a community of Darfuri asylum seekers living in Israel. Like so many American Jews I was active in the Save Darfur campaign; I wrote letters, sent money and prayed in synagogues waving green “Save Darfur” banners. Yet to this day, I do not fully understand why I, like so many American Jews, had little awareness of the African asylum seeker situation in Israel.
Before I moved to Israel, I taught North American Jews about Israel, Judaism and Jewish values. I continued to teach those subjects to Diaspora Jews in Tel Aviv since making aliyah, but I gradually started spending more and more of my free time volunteering as a Hebrew tutor to non-Jewish asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan (including many Darfuris).
My African students are some of the most kind, compassionate and inspiring people I have ever met. The bonds of friendship we have formed have enhanced my understanding of what it means to be a Jew, an Israeli and a human being.
Sometimes my friends back in the United States ask me why I came all the way to the Jewish State to teach non-Jewish refugees from Africa. I answer that teaching refugees is the most Jewish thing I could possibly think of doing. In the Jewish home where I was raised, I was taught to love the stranger, for we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. I learned that helping the oppressed is one of the most essential Jewish precepts, because we ourselves suffered from oppression.
Sadly, the Israeli Government has turned a blind eye to oppression of others and a deaf ear to the pleas of modern day strangers, many of whom who had to overcome slavery and torture in Egypt on their quest for freedom. Those in power seemingly have blotted from memory their ancestors’ or their own struggles as refugees.
Since 2005, the State of Israel has stubbornly refused to process African asylum seekers’ applications for refugee status. Until recently, Israel issued Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers “temporary residency permits,” renewable every three months, which allows them to stay in Israel and not face deportation, but guaranteed them minimal rights.
In 2012, the state passed new amendments to its so-called “Anti-Infiltration Law” which allowed the state to hold newly arrived “infiltrators” in indefinite detention without trial. Nearly 2,000 asylum seekers were detained under this law before Israel completed a fence along its border with Egypt that prevented new “infiltrators” from arriving.
While the Israeli High Court unanimously overturned the 2012 Anti-Infiltration Law, legislators recently passed a new version of the Anti-Infiltration Law that allows for any asylum seeker in the country to be detained indefinitely in an “open” internment camp. This “open” facility in the middle of the desert is locked at night, guarded by prison guards, and residents are required to be present for three roll-calls a day. To add insult to injury, the Israeli Ministry of Interior announced this week that it will selectively stop renewing asylum seekers temporary residency permits and instead “summon” people, some of whom who have lived in Israel for years, to pack up their belongings, and report to collection points to be taken to the internment camp.
I understand that Israel cannot provide refuge for every individual fleeing war or oppression in Africa, but Israel has a moral, legal, and Jewish obligation to the strangers already in her midst. The situation is complicated, but the solution to the “African question” is not internment camps, which must be sustained at great financial cost, I might add. The solution is to objectively evaluate the refugee claims of the 54,000 asylum seekers in Israel and to grant refugee status to those who deserve it.
African asylum seekers are not a threat to the Jewish State; they merely want to live a life of human freedom and dignity. My friends and students, like countless other asylum seekers, are more than happy to work, contribute, and demonstrate loyalty to this country that has been their home. The true threat to the Jewish State is the continuation of immoral and un-Jewish treatment of refugees.
I hope that my American Jewish friends will join me and Jewish organizations like T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, New Israel Fund, HIAS and Right Now, which have been advocating for asylum seeker rights in Israel. I believe that as American Jews, who know what it is like to be strangers in a strange land, we must tell our Israeli friends that we find Israel’s treatment of African refugees to be un-Jewish and unjust. If you want to save Darfur, start in Israel. If you want to help Israel, start with Darfur.
A native of Chicago, Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg works at the Secular Yeshiva of BINA, a center of pluralistic Jewish learning and social action in south Tel Aviv, and is a member of Right Now: Advocates for Asylum Seekers in Israel. The opinions expressed in this piece represent solely those of its author.