On May 21st, I, a 26 year old first year rabbinical student, will be sitting on a Delta flight from Tel Aviv to New York City with little to do but sit back and watch a mindless movie. That same day, Mutasim Ali, a Darfuri man just one year older than I am, will stand in front of the Israeli Supreme Court as he argues that he and thousands of African refugees ought to receive proper asylum hearings.
As I wrap up my year of study in Israel—a year rich with meaning, connection to the land, full of grueling questions and debates—I struggle to contrast the comfort I’ll be indulging in with the anxiety and pain that Mutasim and so many African asylum seekers in Israel will be experiencing.
I first met Mutasim on a trip led by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights to South Tel Aviv, where we learned about the situation of African refugees in Israel. Mutasim spoke movingly about his escape from Darfur that led him to Israel. After four months in the Saharonim detention facility, Mutasim was given a bus ticket to Tel Aviv. He described his fear and confusion when he arrived there, without a word of Hebrew or an orientation to the city. At the time, he explained, his biggest dream was to successfully navigate out of the bus station.
In his five years in Israel, Mutasim has taken on the heroic role of advocating for his fellow asylum seekers, most recently as the CEO of the African Refugee Development Center. On May 5th, Mutasim, like thousands of other asylum seekers, was ordered to Holot, an open detention facility in the South for Sudanese and Eritrean refugees. Since the Israeli government passed a new law on December 10th, it now possesses the authority to detain any refugees who have entered the country illegally. In theory, the Holot Detention Center is not actually a prison, despite being run by the Israeli Prison Service. It provides housing, food and medical care, but its primary function is to convince refugees to return home through a financial incentive.
On a trip to Holot, again with T’ruah, I spent another day with Mutasim. We visited, as he has done weekly, the refugees who had been ordered there. They spoke of the lives they had led before detention: friends, family, work—even in the light of Israel’s refusal to officially assess their request for asylum and decide yea or nay. They mourned what their life was like in Holot: not much at all. Holot is an exercise in cruel boredom in the desert. Though inmates can leave, they must report for three daily roll calls, so a free day in Holot consists of having a stroll in the thick heat of the Negev and returning on time. With the indulgence of modern technology, my languid journey across the ocean will feel like minutes. But there is no such relief in Holot where to pass the day is a herculean struggle. “I feel that I’ve become zero,” one of the inmates lamented.
Just as I am struck by how different May 21st is for Mutasim and for me, I struggle to reconcile the loud, fervent cries of the American Jewish community against genocide in Darfur and the virtual silence of that same community in regards to the Darfuris now in Israel. To be clear, I am not remotely conflating the severity of these two events. Nevertheless, the same people who attracted so much concern from my community when they were being murdered in Darfur has attracted almost no attention when they suffer indefinite detention at Israel’s hands. I am proud of the American Jewish voice that has fought for justice in the past, whether for abolition or in the Civil Rights Movement. But we need that voice now to advocate for Israel to adopt a transparent process of screening African refugees for asylee status—rather than relegating them to an invisible corner of the country.
When I land in New York and wait for my connecting flight back home to Ohio, I’ll find a quiet corner to don my talit and wrap my tefillin. And as I bless the G-d who clothes the naked and sets captives free, I will pray that Israel blesses its G-d by dealing justly with Mutasim and the thousands he represents and allow them to apply for asylum.