A girl named Jerusalem: Seeking asylum in Tel Aviv
“When the lights go down in the middle of the night, where will I run to? When the lights go down in the middle of the night, where will I hide?” — Pentatonix, ‘On My Way Home’
She grabbed my hand, reaching over the half-door of her classroom. Her beautiful, big eyes were were joined by those of 20 other children in the small, cramped room. One mounted fan, six cribs, and two grown women share this space every day, with barely enough room to walk. Outside the temperature is terribly hot, and the nearest playground features grass littered by homeless people and discarded drug needles. I was standing in one of two hot, overcrowded rooms in one of over 70 similar day care centers throughout poverty-stricken Southern Tel Aviv.
I asked the girl’s name. “Jerusalem,” her caregiver said.
These young souls are the children of refugees, largely from Eritrea and Sudan, of the 47,000 refugees not recognized as such by the State of Israel. To recognize them as refugees would be to extend to them legal protections and rights, and so they remain in legal limbo at best.
These Asylum Seekers in Israel have been ignored by Israeli society at large and abused by particularly opportunistic Israeli political leaders like Minister of Culture Miri Regev, who infamously stood, campaigning in South Tel Aviv, and labeled the Asylum Seekers “a cancer.” Her apology after the fact in no way diminishes the incitement to racism she perpetrated. Interior Minister Eli Yishai and the Sheldon Adelson rag, “Israel Hayom” have labeled these refugees “infiltrators,” cruelly implicating them in a decades-old law designed to protect Israel against terrorists. After two versions of this ‘Infiltrators’ Law’ were struck down by Israel’s Supreme Court in September 2014, as violations of Israel’s ‘basic law’, a new version, approved by the Israeli Government in November 2014, now permits detention of migrants without trial. The Holot Detention Center now houses 2,000 people, asylum seekers and foreign workers whose temporary visas have expired and which the state refuses to renew.
They walked for months to escape brutal violence and ethnic cleansing in their native lands. To cross the Sinai desert, many of these refugees hire Bedouin guides, some of whom commit terrible violence, rape, and even organ harvesting upon their vulnerable clients. Those who survive this horrific ordeal are met by Israeli forces who tended to their medical needs, give them water and food, and a one-way ticket to the Central Bus Station in South Tel Aviv.
Then these traumatized refugees arrive in Tel Aviv with no official recognition of their status, pervasive poverty, a politically-driven racist social reality, and find themselves in the urban blight of Southern Tel Aviv.
On a blazing hot day this week, 60 rabbis studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute wound their way through these streets, meeting with leaders of Elifelet, a non-profit organization that cares for over 400 children and infants from over 70 kindergartens, babysitters and afterschool “HomeMade” educational centers in Tel-Aviv. These children are being born without record due to their complex legal status, and therefore are unable to get the Israeli national rights for medical care. These children all experience food insecurity and physical distress due to poverty. Their parents do not receive from the State of Israel food support, shelter assistance, mental health services, nor medical care.
Yael Gvirtz, an inspiring Israel human rights activist, who guided our experience, has challenged Israelis to internalize the experience of the Asylum Seekers, to envision themselves as,
“those whose fate and ability to exist completely depends on the authorities and their bureaucracy.”
Israel was founded after 2,000 years of Jewish homelessness, where persecuted Jews from Eastern Europe and Arab nations found refuge. Much of the world was being carved up by the Allies, placing and displacing millions, culturally and physically. The state of these African refugees in Israel is a cry for a response based in Jewish values and Jewish history. We know better. We must do better.
The situation for these asylum seekers and their children is not sustainable. The Israeli government’s response has been, at best, inadequate. There are heroes like Yael and the leaders of Elifelet who are on the ground in Southern Tel Aviv doing a fraction of what the Israeli government could — and should — be doing.
After this visit, I know we have become as “normal” as a State: we fail just like every nation does. And we are failing. Israel is a democracy based on human rights, imperfect as every other nation. But we, as a People, are called by Jewish tradition to honor and provide for “the strangers in our midst” (Deuteronomy 29, 31). The command and moral imperative could not be clearer.
One quote from an Eritrean Asylum Seeker will forever stay with me: “It is very hard here in Israel. But I believe if anyone is going to get this right, it is the Jews.”
May we be worthy of his faith. Today.