A Jewish state based on Jewish values means dignity for asylum seekers

As a proud Jew and Zionist, I often debate with friends, family members, and colleagues, what it means that Israel is a Jewish State Is Israel a state in which World Jewry decides its policies? Is Israel a country in which the multitude of Jewish expressions, practices, and halakhic interpretations are recognized? Is Israel a state in which Jewish law is the law of the land? Is Israel a country in which the overwhelming majority of citizens are Jewish? I would argue that none of these explanations or definitions of “the Jewish State” are accurate. Yes, Hebrew, the language of our sacred text, is the vernacular. Yes, Shabbat is a national day of rest. Yes, the Magen David sits front and center on the Israeli flag. But none of this makes Israel a Jewish State. Israel is a Jewish State because it strives to live up to – and be guided by – the middot, the ethics and values, of Jewish tradition.

That being said, I am ashamed and disappointed in the action – or rather, inaction – of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israeli government with regards to the 53,000 asylum seekers in Israel. The vast majority of these refugees came from the Sudan and Eritrea, countries where they survived genocide, violence, rape, and constant danger. They lived their daily lives in fear and trekked through hazardous conditions, entering Israel through the Sinai desert, for a better life. As I previous noted in my own personal blog, the creation of a Jewish State was to be a Safe Haven, a place of protection from bigotry, discrimination, and violence. Sixty-Five years after the creation of the State of Israel, Israel must not only be a Safe Haven for World Jewry. Based on the ethics of our tradition, Israel must be a Safe Haven for all who enter. Israel must be a light unto the nations, the sliver of light amid the darkness of violence.

I acknowledge that these refugees entered the land of Israel illegally. I also acknowledge that Israel has done much (including spending $400 million to build a fence at the Sinai border) to prevent additional refugees from illegally entering Israel. However, now that 53,000 refugees are in the land and seek asylum, we cannot ignore them.

In June 2012, the Knesset passed a new amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law stating that all African asylum seekers that continued to trickle into Israel would be automatically incarcerated for a minimum of three years without even a trial. During that time, close to 2,000 refugees were detained in such a manner. This past September, Israel’s High Court of Justice unanimously overturned the Anti-Infiltration Law of detaining refugees for three years without trial, stating it denied migrants the right to dignity and liberty. However, only weeks later, on December 10, 2013, ironically the United Nations’ Human Rights Day, the Knesset passed a new Anti-Infiltration Law which allows the indefinite detention of any asylum seeker in Israel. As a result, hundreds were transferred to the Holot internment camp for refugees. In the last two weeks, hundreds more have been rounded up in Tel Aviv and other urban areas and sent to these refugee prisons. More than 1,000 have been summoned to these internment camps since this law was passed.

Close to 200 asylum seekers chose to walk out of the so-called “open” internment camp in Holot on December 15th and marched from the Negev to Jerusalem to protest outside the Prime Minister’s Office and the Knesset. This non-violent protest and march ended with the arrest of these asylum seekers.  Days later, on December 19th, these asylum seekers again tried to march for freedom. Police arrested the participants only miles into their march. Such marches and protests have continued though. Most notably, from January 5-8, as many as 30,000 asylum seekers joined a general strike and demonstration in Tel Aviv for human rights. Following this, the protests moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Disturbingly, Prime Minister Netanyahu responded to these non-violent protests and demonstrations for human rights and dignity by stating:

I’d like to make clear that protests and strikes won’t help. As we were able to stem the illegal infiltration of our borders, we are steadfast in our commitment to evict those who entered before we closed the border. I would like to clarify that we aren’t talking about refugees with whom we deal according to international treaties; we are discussing illegal migrant workers, who will be brought to justice.

Netanyahu and many members of the coalition government refer to these refugees simply as illegal infiltrators and illegal migrant workers. They are given the option – if we can really call it an option – of remaining locked up indefinitely or “voluntarily” self-deporting back to violence and genocide. The fear is that these refugees are taking jobs away from Israeli citizens. Further, the fear is that these are tens of thousands of residents who will now impact the economy and the country’s infrastructure. However, the first priority of the leadership of the Jewish State, if it is truly a state guided by the ethics and values of the Jewish faith, is to ensure to safety, rights, and dignity of those refugees who seek asylum within the borders of the state.

Our Torah commands us that we cannot stand idly by and witness the blood of our neighbor (Lev. 19:16). We cannot simply allow these asylum seekers to return to the violence and bloodshed that they fled. So too, our Torah commands us to pursue justice (Deut. 16:20). Thus, we cannot be bystanders as Israel indefinitely detains these asylum seekers and denies them basic rights. We are taught to not oppress the stranger, for we too were once strangers (Ex. 22:20). We, as Jews, throughout our history fled hate, bigotry, violence, and genocide. We would have been much better off as a people if other nations were Safe Havens for us.

Of course, our priority as Jews must be to look out for ourselves and protect World Jewry. Yet, Rabbi Hillel reminds us, “If I am only for myself, What am I? If not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot 1:14). Let our Safe Haven be their Safe Haven. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) urges the Israeli government to ensure that the treatment of asylum seekers are in line with international refugee and human rights law so that they have access to fair and efficient asylum procedures. Currently, this is not the case. I also urge Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Knesset to do the same, not only because of the UNHCR’s recommendations, but because of the ethics and values of our faith which guide us in all that we do obligate us to do so. May the Jewish State and its leaders continue to strive to exhibit the ethics and values of Jewish tradition; and may we continue to pursue justice for all of humanity in the process.

About the Author
Rabbi Olitzky serves as rabbi and spiritual leader at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey. He received rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, as well as an MA in Jewish Education from JTS’ William Davidson School of Education. He has been a leader and educator for Jewish youth since for over a decade and is dedicated to getting the Jewish community more heavily involved in issues of social justice.
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