I remember the day that Holot opened.
It was exactly 4 years, 3 months and one day ago: December 12, 2013. I found myself squeezed into the backseat of a small car full of strangers. We were a ragtag bunch of Israelis. Most of us hadn’t known each other before. We found each other on social media and connected for the sole purpose of sharing a ride to protest the opening of Holot, a two hour drive from Tel Aviv. We came from different backgrounds and disagreed on a lot, but we agreed on one thing: that Israel shouldn’t be imprisoning refugees; Israel should be protecting them. I wasn’t really much of an activist at that point and was a rather inexperienced protester, but something in my heart drove me. Something about Holot went against the very core of by being as a human, as a new Israeli, and as a Jew.
At Holot, we met a few other cars of Israelis who came down to protest. We were no more than a dozen people in total. We didn’t have much. The “protest” had been prepared with less than two day’s notice. We held a few signs with biblical quotes commanding us to love the stranger. We chanted chants and we sang out-of-season Passover songs, trying to remind ourselves – and the handful of guards and construction workers putting the finishing touches on Holot – that we were once strangers in the land of Egypt.
It was bitter cold. Though it was in the middle of the dessert, it was nearly freezing, and the freezing rain and wind never ceased for the several hours that we protested, as if God Godself was protesting with us. We protested until the day darkened, the words on our signs froze over and our hands froze with them. Only later would we learn that the prisoners’ living quarters at Holot were built without heat.
We were protesting the transfer of the first asylum-seeker prisoners from Saharonim to Holot, which was scheduled to take place that day. The law that legislated Holot into existence was passed only 2 days before, on December 10, ironically International Human Rights Day. The High Court of Justice had previously ordered that all men, women and children who had been held without trial in the Saharonim Prison for over 12 months be released by December 15. In response, the government had rushed to find a way to keep these people in prison. They released the women and children but passed the “4th Amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law”, which allowed them to “release” male infiltrators from Saharonim to an “Open Residency Facility”: Holot. We came to protest this fictitious “release”. These men were asylum seekers. They should be free. They should have their asylum claims heard. But instead they were being locked away, far from the public eye, where no one would see or hear them.
That night and within the next few days a few hundred asylum seekers were transferred from Saharonim to Holot. They knew of the Supreme Court ruling. They knew that they were supposed to be free. The guards at Holot tried to fan away the inmates’ complaints and told them to direct their complaints to the Knesset. Where is the Knesset, they asked? Jerusalem, they answered. So the asylum seekers began to march. I met these brave men on the second night of their march, and journeyed with them to Jerusalem, where we protested for hours, hand in hand, with shouts that turned into mantras “We are Refugees” “Freedom Yes, Prison No.” The immigration police eventually arrived, separating the asylum seekers from the Israelis, sending the asylum seekers back not to Holot, but to Saharonim, to punish them for their insurgence.
This march, which became known as “The March for Freedom”, launched a mass movement of protests that lasted for months. But eventually those protests were broken, for, as we came to learn, the “4th Amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law” applied retroactively to “infiltrators” who had entered Israel in the past and lived in Israel for years. One by one, thousands and thousands of men were rounded up and “summoned” with a choice: go to Holot, or leave Israel.
Holot was created with one purpose: “to make their lives miserable so that they leave” – to quote former Interior Minister Eli Yishai, the visionary of Holot. There is no other place like it in the world. There are prisons designed to punish people who have been tried and convicted of a crime. There are immigration detention centers designed to process those who entered a country irregularly – to determine who they are and why they came. There are detention centers designed to process those slated for deportation. But Holot was none of the above. Holot was designed for individuals who could not be deported because their countries of origin (Eritrea and Sudan) were deemed unsafe, and who could not be legally imprisoned because they had been convicted of no crime and because they posed no credible threat – except for a supposed threat to the Jewish demography of Israel. Holot was designed to break the human spirit, so that its detainees and those threatened by it would be broken and brought to sign an agreement of “voluntary return”, so that Israel could send them away with a (relatively) clean paper trail and conscience and be rid of this “demographic threat.”
And it worked. Since Holot opened, roughly 20,000 Eritreans and Sudanese individuals left Israel. Some returned to their countries of origin, others to secret “third-party” countries (Rwanda and Uganda), and a few lucky ones to Western countries through private refugee sponsorship and family reunification. Now, it is possible that some of those who left were not true “Refugees” (in the international legal definition of the term), but I know that many of them were – because I knew them, I met them, and I heard their stories. And what happened to those who left? A few found safety, some after arduous and horrifying journeys; others are still on those journeys; others found their deaths (including several friends of the writer of these words); but for most, we simply do not know.
From the day Holot opened, dedicated Israeli activists visited Holot regularly, at first weekly and sometimes more. Why? First, to support the asylum seekers held there. To understand their needs and to try to help, by bringing food or medicine (which they were forbidden to bring inside) or books or legal support. But most importantly, by bringing love and support, a friendly face, an ear, a shoulder – to show them that they were not forgotten, that there were Israelis and Jews who did not hate them but loved them as human beings and friends. Second, to bear witness. To show the guards and the government that they were being watched, that the asylum seekers would not be forgotten. And to show the world.
I was one of these “activists” who visited Holot regularly since the day it opened, for over four years. First every other week, then every month. I saw many friends come and go through Holot – some I knew before Holot, and some I met there. Some survived Holot, perhaps bolstered by our support from the outside or their own strong spirit. Some did not, broken by its cruelty, whisked away by “voluntary return”, often never to be heard from again. I saw men go into Holot strong and come out skeletal shadows of themselves, broken physically by the purposely horrid food and mentally by the intentionally degrading treatment at the hands of the guards and immigration officers. But the thing that was often hardest for those that I met, was the internalization of the purpose of Holot: that they weren’t wanted, that their life in Israel was not worth living – that someone simply wanted to make their lives miserable so that they’d leave.
And today Holot is closing. Not because the Government of Israel has softened its hardened heart, but because Holot has served its purpose; it has outlived its use. There is no one left to “summon” to Holot, so the Government has begun to pursue the next, crueler phase: Rwanda or Saharonim. Leave Israel or be imprisoned, in a closed prison, forever.
I will not miss Holot. Not the putrid stench of its overflowing sewer, and not the sweet taste of the bread we broke together outside. Not the laughter we shared and not the tears we cried. The wonderful men I met there and the friends I made I will always cherish, but my heart will always sink whenever I hear that horrible word: Holot. And what those who actually dwelled within its walls must feel I cannot even fathom.
So what is next? Will Israel continue with its plans to deport or imprison tens of thousands of people who have come to us for shelter? Or will Israelis finally stand up to this cruelty and say: enough, not in our name. Let those who have come to us fleeing persecution stay. Let them be our neighbors and friends – at least until it is truly safe for them to return home. And let them help us build a better country together. And let them – and us – be loved. I hope the latter will be true.
And what will come of Holot? Perhaps one day it will become a monument and a museum, which will remind us the shame of our cruelty to the stranger and teach our children of the power of the human spirit and the importance of empathy, forgiveness, and love. Or perhaps Holot will be razed to the ground, with nothing left but the bitter sands (Hebrew: Holot) for which it was named, and with nothing but our memories to help us recall her.
May the memory of Holot forever be cursed and may those who endured her and remember her forever be blessed. And may we one day learn to love the stranger, for we were strangers in the sands of Egypt. And may that day be today.