In recent weeks, voices against expelling asylum seekers in Israel have been growing by leaps and bounds every day. Rabbis, academics, business people, authors, Holocaust survivors, and more are signing petitions and letters protesting the decision of the government of Israel to expel asylum seekers to countries in Africa, such as Rwanda and Uganda, where their lives will almost certainly be at risk.  Every day, there are small demonstrations of one kind or another, and this Saturday night there will be a big demonstration in Jerusalem against this immoral and impractical policy.

Why is it immoral?

  • Because we Jews were refuges and asylum seekers only a few decades ago, when we fled persecution and knocked on doors all over the world, seeking freedom and safety. (See my recent post on this issue)
  • Because our Torah instructs us over and over again to treat the stranger fairly, since we were strangers in the land of Egypt
  • Because as human beings we believe that all human beings have the right to life and liberty, and it would be simply wrong to send these asylum seekers to places where they will be in danger
  • Because if Israel is meant to be a Jewish state, this means that is should act ethically and fairly to other human beings.

Why is it impractical?

  • According to spokespersons of the Prisons Authority in Israel, there is not enough space in the prisons of Israel to hold all the asylum seekers who will refuse to be expelled
  • Because the international community will not tolerate this kind of behavior since this is clearly against international law
  • And hopefully because the citizens of Israel will not allow it!

Many of the groups who are protesting this unbelievable decision of the government of Israel are not just saying what they are against, but are offering suggestions of what can –and must—be done to salvage this embarrassing mess that the government decision has brought upon us. For example, Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism recently issued  a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu in which it suggested that the government develop an alternative program, one that is appropriate and relevant for the asylum seeks who are currently in Israel

This program should include, among other things, the following components:

  1. Make it genuinely possible for all who so wish to submit an application for asylum.
  2. Perform a quick and thorough examination of the applications and approve them at an acceptable rate according to the norm in other countries worldwide.
  3. Grant status to asylum seekers who have been in Israel over a long period of time as well as to minors seeking sanctuary.
  4. Ensure basic social services in the areas of education, health and welfare.
  5. Administer meaningful activities to ease the burden on the residents of south Tel Aviv by way of strengthening the welfare, education, housing and community infrastructure in these neighborhoods.

In fact, many of the human rights groups which have been working with asylum seekers during the past few years in Israel have been making these suggestions to representatives of the government of Israel, but they have so far been clearly deaf to their concerns. Hopefully the growing outcry of more and more groups in Israel—and from abroad—will force the government of Israel to cease from hardening its heart and instead act in a manner which would be more befitting of an enlightened government of a modern Jewish state.

In the background of this issue, is the growing gap between the ultra-right-wing nationalist and ultra-“religious”  ideologies (which are leading the country to an increasingly isolationist position in the world), on the one hand, and the liberal, progressive, humanist Jewish ideology of large segments of Israeli Jewry, and most of Diaspora Jewry, who seek to be part of the world by sharing universal concerns with other human beings. It is amazing to see that the “leadership” for this cruel policy of the government of Israel is coming from Modern Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews and even rabbis, who should be ashamed of themselves.

The great irony is that many of these so-called “leaders’ come from families and communities who were asylum seekers only a few decades ago.   I often wonder whether they read the same Torah that we do, since they seem to have forgotten or totally sublimated some of the main moral messages of our tradition!

Several years ago, I was teaching a session in a dialogue group of Jews and Muslims in Israel which we called Kodesh—”Religious Voices for Peace”.  When I brought the verses (and rabbinic commentaries) from the Holiness Code in Leviticus chapter 19 which talk about loving your neighbor as yourself, and loving the stranger in your midst as yourself, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”, one of my Muslim colleagues asked me: Do the rabbis in Israel know these texts?!?”

A very good question indeed! I wonder what their answer would be!

It is not too late for the government of Israel to reverse its unfortunate decision to expel some 20,000 asylum seekers. Hopefully more local and international pressure will catalyze our “leaders” to rethink this policy and to adopt many of the good ideas that are being suggested by so many people and organizations of good will in Israel.