Jewish memories and values - not just international law - must guide Israel's treatment of asylum seekers
Feb 7, 2018, 3:05 PM
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The state of Israel is about to commit a crime against itself. The imminent mass deportation of African asylum seekers will be a devastating blow to our moral credibility, undermining our ability to speak in the name of our religious values, our historical experience, our vital self-interests. This act could have critical political consequences for Israel, alienating whole constituencies – from young American Jews whose attachment to Israel is already wavering, to black members of Congress who have stood with Israel for decades. I fear this move will haunt us for years to come.
The government insists it isn’t sending asylum seekers into mortal danger, that they will be repatriated to a so-far unnamed African country which is prepared to accept them. It notes that each asylum seeker is being offered a year’s worth of wages to begin a new life. It insists that it is complying with international norms.
But the asylum seekers have every reason to mistrust Israel’s assurances. Over the last few years, the government has promised a new life to deportees who would “voluntarily” leave for Rwanda – the alternative being open-ended imprisonment. And so several thousand accepted the deal. Recent accounts in the Israeli media reveal that deportees are left stranded without documents, and without prospects for work. Some end up hungry and on the streets. Some attempt to be admitted into UN refugee camps, without success. And so most leave Rwanda and begin wandering again.
According to asylum seekers in Israel, many of their family and friends who were deported from Israel end up in Libya, trying to get onto a boat to Europe. Some of them, say asylum seekers, have drowned in the attempt. I met one African young man who said his uncle, a deportee, ended up in a Libyan slave market. I have no way of verifying these claims. But given the nightmarish reality for migrants, it’s likely that at least some of the deportees will find themselves in life and death situations. When the deportations begin in earnest, and those reports inevitably accumulate, how will we bear the shame?
The government’s defenders insist that it isn’t Israel’s responsibility to worry what happens once asylum seekers leave. After all, they entered Israel illegally, and most of them came here not to escape life-threatening situations at home but to seek work.
In fact, we don’t know who among the Africans is eligible for refugee status, because the government hasn’t established a credible mechanism for checking asylum seekers on a case by case basis. Instead, it has created a bureaucratic maze that discourages Africans from even applying for asylum. Horror stories abound of asylum seekers waiting for hours on line, only to be told that the office handling their request has abruptly closed, or else moved to a new location. In some cases, Africans have been warned by officials not to apply for asylum because that would only jeopardize their status.
The government insists that the Africans aren’t refugees but merely young people seeking a better life. Yet almost all the Africans here are Eritreans and Darfurian Sudanese – both migrant populations that have received refugee status in other Western countries. If they are economic migrants rather than asylum seekers fleeing unbearable conditions, why hasn’t Israel experienced an influx from other parts of Africa? Why only these two populations?
The official policy of the state of Israel has been to inflict misery on asylum seekers, to encourage them to flee from here. Many have been imprisoned in Holot, the desert detention camp. Government ministers have incited the Israeli public against the asylum seekers; the government refers to them as “infiltrators,” an Israeli term usually reserved for terrorists slipping across the border. A recent law allows the government to confiscate 20 percent of asylum seekers’ salaries, refundable only when they produce a one-way ticket at the airport.
And still most have stayed, seeking the right to work 12-hour days at menial jobs Israelis don’t want.
Government defenders cite the Supreme Court’s endorsement of the legality of the deportations. What further proof is necessary, they ask, that Israel is fulfilling its responsibilities under international law?
But there are moments that touch on the core of a people’s identity and experience that transcend legal categories. When it comes to asylum seekers, international law cannot be the only measure of Jewish behavior. We need to judge ourselves by our memories and values.
Supporters of the deportation are right about this: It is not the responsibility of the state of Israel, which is the only designated safe refuge for the Jewish people and which has taken in millions of destitute Jews, to worry about the world’s refugees. Israeli society, already fragmented in multiple ways, might not survive a massive influx of refugees with no connection to the Jewish people. That’s the reason the government built a fence along our border with Sinai. And that fence has solved the problem: Last year, not a single asylum seeker crossed the Sinai border.
But it’s one matter to keep out asylum seekers, however painful, and quite another to deport those who have found refuge among us. Hiring “inspectors” and offering them bonuses to hunt down asylum seekers, as the government intends to do, compounds the disgrace.
There is some good news. The government, under growing public pressure, has backed away from a blanket expulsion of asylum seekers, and is instead focusing on single young men while sparing women, children and families. In addition, asylum seekers from Darfur may be given refugee status.
That still leaves around 20,000 young men marked for expulsion. To prevent this self-inflicted Israeli tragedy, pressure on the government needs to intensify.
But the campaign to stop the expulsion must be waged with sobriety. Groups that have resorted to Holocaust imagery undermine its credibility. However bitter their plight, asylum seekers are not Anne Frank. Holocaust manipulation is no less vulgar coming from the left than from the right.
In recent days I’ve been asking myself: What would Menachem Begin – whose first official act as prime minister in 1977 was to admit Vietnamese boat people into Israel – do if he were prime minister today?
In one sense it’s an unfair question: Bringing in a few dozen Vietnamese refugees is hardly of the same magnitude as absorbing 35,000 African asylum seekers. But I strongly suspect that, at the very least, Begin would have agonized over the decision. He would have understood that this isn’t just a matter of meeting the minimal standards of international law. He would have felt the weight of risking the moral capital of the Jewish people.
Where is the sign of unease from our leaders, some indication that they understand why so many Jews are tormented by their decision? Part of my feeling of shame today is the absence of shame among our leaders.
About the Author
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, where he is co-director, together Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University and Maital Friedman, of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), and a member of the Institute's iEngage Project. His latest book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, is a New York Times bestseller. His previous book, Like Dreamers, was named the 2013 National Jewish Book Council Book of the Year.