Sukkot is the Jewish holiday of hospitality: the stranger, the poor and the downtrodden are invited to share in the celebration and partake in the feast of the tabernacles, along with the original ushpizin — the seven exalted guests who are to be greeted annually in every Sukkah.
The custom of welcoming and according succor to the other is an integral part of the Jewish tradition, reinforced by the experience of centuries of Jewish displacement and dispersal. For this reason, Israel was especially instrumental in promoting the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees adopted in 1951 and in the subsequent update of this critical humanitarian instrument, the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which entered into force 45 years ago, on October 4, 1967.
Today, however, Israel is defying its own heritage and international obligations: It is denying refuge to those knocking on its doors, expelling many who have sought a haven within its boundaries and mistreating those it cannot deport. After the holidays, on October 15, it is slated to arrest and intern all persons without status in Saharonim — what may very well be the largest internment camp in the world. Israel’s treatment of asylum-seekers in its midst is immoral, illegal and un-Jewish. If it is to stand true to its own values and traditions, it must alter its course now. A wise, humane and pragmatic policy toward refugees is possible. More important, it is mandatory if Israel is to maintain its global image and abide by its own ethical legacy.
There are currently approximately 60,000 asylum-seekers in Israel, most of whom have arrived in the country during the past decade. The vast majority are from Eritrea (some 70%) and Sudan (20%). The remainder hail from other parts of Africa, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Niger, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria. From the outset, official policy has maintained that these illegal migrants would be granted collective temporary protection without employment rights if they could not be repatriated. But despite literally thousands upon thousands of requests to be recognized as refugees in line with international conventions, only a few have actually been processed and just a handful accorded this coveted status. This situation has allowed Israel to summarily expel large groups when it deemed that they no longer faced any danger in their home countries, as in the case of Cote d’Ivoire and most recently, Southern Sudan. This is also the reason why Eritreans — who hail from a country with the poorest human rights record in the world — and Sudanese (citizens of an enemy state) remain.
Social friction between disadvantaged Israelis and asylum-seekers (especially in large urban concentrations) has therefore been almost inevitable, regardless of the ministrations of several remarkable civil society organizations dedicated to offering humanitarian support. This past spring, anti-refugee riots broke out in south Tel-Aviv, African homes were torched in Jerusalem, and almost anyone with a dark complexion (including Ethiopian Jews and African diplomats) has been harassed.
This xenophobic outburst has been fueled by right-wing politicians and buttressed by a shift in government policy. In May, the minister of the interior, Eli Yishai, announced that the construction of a fence along the Egyptian border to prevent any further entry into the country would be expedited, that all current illegal migrants would be incarcerated, and that he intended to deport the tens of thousands of what he terms “infiltrators” still in the country as quickly as possible. The government officially approved these moves and the Knesset has subsequently translated them into legislation.
Many of the statements justifying these new measures are, sadly, nothing short of racist. The tone was set by Prime Minister Netanyahu:
The phenomenon of illegal infiltration from Africa is extremely grave. It threatens the makeup of Israeli society, national security and national identity.
The view that refugees constitute an “existential threat” has constantly been reinforced by Yishai, who has stated bluntly that “migrants endanger the Zionist enterprise” and that “it is either us or them.” To press home these points, the minister has accused asylum-seekers of “engaging in criminal acts, taking the place of Israeli workers” and “transmitting diseases.” It is hardly surprising, in these circumstances, that these outrageous sentiments — in the past often directed at Jews — have been echoed by many elected representatives, to the extent that some have suggested that the “infiltrators” must be expelled because they “rape the daughters of Israel.”
In this climate, all attempts to mitigate government directives have come to naught. The fence has, indeed, reduced entry of African refugees by over 90 percent in recent months. But it has also been the direct cause of some unspeakable human tragedies (the entrapment of 21 refugees between Egyptian positions and the fence last month—ending in the illegal refoulement of 18 men whose destiny is unknown, is just one case in point). Every country has the sovereign right to limit or even prohibit entry into its domain. No country, according to the international conventions that Israel helped to design, can deny assistance to starving refugees knocking on its doors.
The social issues emanating from the inability (or is it unwillingness?) to respond to the needs of the tens of thousands of asylum-seekers still in the country persist. Putting them in a massive jail in the desert is neither going to solve the problem nor absolve Israel of its responsibility for assuring the well-being of the strangers in its midst. And appeals to national unity cannot overshadow the obligation to respect human dignity, which Israel, more than perhaps any other country in the world, is commanded to uphold.
Israel, after 64 years, needs an immigration policy, one guided by the values embedded in Jewish religion and the lessons learned from its history. This should include, first, strict restrictions on entry into the country coupled with the absorption of individual cases in compliance with humanitarian law. Second, it must incorporate the processing of all applications for refugee status according to existing conventions. And third, it has to make explicit provisions for the care of asylum-seekers and for the protection of their rights. Thus, in lieu of wholesale incarceration, work permits must be granted and medical and education services offered in order to reduce the likelihood of further social confrontation and to enable a dignified existence. Only through such a policy can Israel, a country established largely by refugees, live up to its past and to its vision. This is what the concept of ushpizin is all about.