NEW YORK — With thousands of asylum seekers and their allies demonstrating across Israel, the Jewish state is confronted by a major political and social challenge. But so, too, is the entire Zionist movement.
Some on the Israeli political right have even referred to the approximately 50,000 asylum seekers from Africa as “a cancer” and an existential demographic threat to the Jewish character to the State of Israel. Faced with this type of threat, any policy regarding detention and deportation can be justified.
So, what are the protesters demanding? They are calling for asylum-seeking families to be reunited, for a fair and internationally sanctioned refugee adjudication system to be implemented and for an end to indefinite detention.
Numerous Israeli nongovernmental organizations and activists have rallied to the asylum seekers’ cause, as has a coalition of 15 North American Jewish organizations who have called on the Israeli government to “institute a comprehensive, impartial system to manage the stable population of current asylum seekers and any who may make their way across its borders in the future.” The coalition also criticizes the detention of asylum seekers at Holot, which is labeled as an “open” reception facility but is virtually indistinguishable from a minimum-security prison.
How the government of Israel should respond to these claims can be viewed from a variety of perspectives — international law, domestic legal rulings and the fundamental values of Israel as a Jewish and Zionist state.
Israel is obligated under the 1951 Convention Related to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 additional protocol, which it has signed and ratified and which Israeli courts have viewed as binding. Among the key international law provisions is a mandate not to return a refugee to his or her country of persecution. But without a fair adjudication procedure, how can the Israeli government know who warrants protection as a refugee and who is migrating solely for economic reasons?
Israel has the lowest approval rate for asylum seekers among Western countries and in almost all cases excludes key populations of migrants such as Eritreans and Sudanese from consideration for refugee status.
In September 2013 the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that the Prevention of Infiltrators Act does not allow for the prolonged detention of asylum seekers. Prior to this ruling asylum seekers were frequently held for lengthy periods of time in Kitziot prison and other facilities. By November the Knesset had amended the law to allow for detention without trial for one year and indefinite detention without judicial review if it is an “open” center.
And yet, Holot can hardly be considered “open,” as ordered by the High Court of Justice. At Holot, asylum seekers are held in a barbed wire enclosed facility far from major population centers, with requirements to check in three times a day and closure at night. This is an Orwellian charade, with a prison masquerading as an “open facility.”
And stepping beyond the strictly legal requirements, how should a committed Zionist, in Israel or the Diaspora, respond to Israel’s treatment of asylum seekers? For those of us dedicated to Zionism, the World Zionist Organization’s Jerusalem Program contains our central articles of faith. The Jerusalem Program declares the goal of “strengthening Israel as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state and shaping it as an exemplary society … rooted in the vision of the prophets, striving for peace and contributing to the betterment of the world.”
As Jews and as Zionists the central principle of welcoming the stranger is derived from Torah, “thou shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt,” (Exodus 23:9) and from a history of wandering in search of a safe haven from persecution. Israel has been a refuge for generations of Jews, fulfilling the particular calling of Zionism.
But Zionism also has essential universalist goals that are undermined when Israel turns its back on Eritreans, Sudanese and others who have come to the Jewish state seeking protection. To be an “exemplary society” Israel cannot leave tens of thousands of asylum seekers in legal limbo, deny them authorization to work and separate families through indefinite detention.
And the argument that caring for the asylum seekers threatens Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state is the ultimate red herring. The just over 50,000 asylum seekers is now a stable population due to the completion of a fence on Israel’s border and is not required to be granted either citizenship or indefinite status. Moreover, this number is dwarfed by the nearly 200,000 legal and illegal migrant workers and tourists without valid status, not to mention the 4.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem who would be incorporated into Israel if a two-state solution isn’t reached with the Palestinians.
Finally, some in Israel have argued that concern for asylum seekers is a form of Diaspora myopia where refugee issues in Israel are viewed through the lens of Jewish engagement with refugees in the United States, Australia and elsewhere. But in Israel a vibrant NGO community has developed and new political leaders such as Stav Shaffir of the Labor Party have called out the government for its treatment of asylum seekers, declaring, “The serious fact is that we are not dealing with this situation. … Israel has no policy with asylum. It has never started the interviews to check who really deserves refugee status.”
And so we watch with dismay as Israel careens from protest to protest ultimately failing to meet its national and international obligations or to fulfill the core values of Judaism and Zionism. Israel, and all who labor on her behalf, must face up to this challenge and help turn the page where Israel will take its place as an exemplar of just policy toward asylum seekers and in so doing, truly “contribute to the betterment of the world.”
(Gideon Aronoff is chief executive officer of Ameinu, a North American organization of progressive Zionists.)