As the daughter of a rabbi, and now a rabbinical student myself, one of the most essential precepts ingrained in my Jewish education has always been: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
In passing a new “Anti-Infiltration” bill into law in the early morning hours of December 10 (International Human Rights Day no less), the Knesset seemed to blot from memory the Jewish experience of being a stranger, how the State of Israel was founded largely by people fleeing persecution, and Israel’s historic role in drafting and being one of the first ratifiers of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
The new law replaces a previous law voided by the High Court that allowed for detention of asylum seekers for at least three years without so much as a trial. The Court ordered the state to individually review the cases of each detainee for release within 90 days, establishing a December 15 deadline. Totally disregarding the spirit of the court’s decision, the Israeli Government has found a way to replace the old law with an even harsher one.
Israel’s amended statute allows for the indefinite detention of thousands of people in an ‘open facility’ that is fenced in and run by the Israeli Prison Service. According to the law, these individuals will be locked in at night and required to report in three times a day, to prevent work or flight. This facility will be in the relatively isolated area of Holot Halutza in the Negev, which means that residents will have little opportunities to stray far or put their past traumas behind them. No limit has been set for how long asylum seekers can be confined under these conditions.
Approximately 1,000 asylum seekers remained in the Saharonim ‘closed’ detention facility some 85 days after the High Court decision. Instead of being released, they were transferred to the Holot compound this weekend. Israeli authorities intend to round up and detain thousands of other African asylum seekers who are currently free.
The new law flies in the face of the High Court decision and Jewish values. Justice Edna Arbel made it clear in the court’s decision that prolonged detention of African migrants was inconsistent with Jewish values and impacted migrants’ “bodies and souls.” She wrote: “We cannot forget our basic values, drawn from the Declaration of Independence, as well as our moral duty towards every human being, as inscribed in the country’s basic principles as a Jewish and democratic state.”
How can a country founded by refugees, people searching for a homeland for over 2,000 years, disregard a group of people so desperately in need of escape? These refugees are simply requesting sanctuary from the storm raging in their home countries. Although that is being granted, begrudgingly, it still flirts with the border of humanity.
During the heated debates on the floor of the Knesset, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar accused opposition party members of “striving for an infiltrator nation.” He vowed not to “give up the crucial tool of deterrence” and said “not only are we not ashamed of it [the law], we would be ashamed and embarrassed if faced with powerlessness in protecting the only country we have.”
“This law is needed in order to deter potential infiltrators. The present reality is a human ticking timebomb,” said MK Miri Regev, Chair of the Knesset’s Interior Committee. “If it were up to me, they’d all be sent back to where they came from.”
Despite that rhetoric, there is no imminent threat of large numbers of additional African asylum seekers coming to Israel, since the construction of a border fence with Egypt more than a year ago. And, Israel is prohibited from returning Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers to their home countries against their will, as MK Regev champions.
I have gotten to know an Eritrean man who was released from detention and now lives in South Tel Aviv in a room with ten other people. He considers himself one of the lucky ones for having his freedom and surviving torture camps in Sinai. He has siblings still in Israeli custody. Under the new law, he too may be returned to a life in captivity.
Yet it is not too late for a righteous course correction back to foundational Jewish and Israeli values. Through judicial or legislative redress, I urge Israel to remedy its moral turpitude in its refugee policies. As Hillel said, “If I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when?”
Now is the time, and we must not only act for ourselves. We must help the stranger in our midst.