African Asylum Seekers and the Zionist Dream

The Zionist dream lays out a vision of Jewish sovereignty over a piece of land, and the accompanying opportunity to build a new utopia — a moral society firmly rooted in Jewish tradition.

Yesterday, as I stood at Jerusalem Pride, I thought how far that vision had come: What could be a better culmination of 2,000 years of exile than Jews from across the world marching for equal rights while holding signs with the biblical verse, “Love your neighbor as yourself”? (Leviticus 19:18)

However, when it comes to African asylum seekers, we are not only failing to implement this verse, but in fact, engaging in a direct violation of the biblical prohibition of Leviticus, 19:33-34:  “And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not do him wrong. The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself….””

In doing so, we are failing to implement the vision of morality that lies at the core of Zionism.

There are approximately 40,000 asylum seekers in Israel: 8,000 Sudanese and 32,000 Eritreans. Many of the Sudanese escaped the genocide in Darfur, while the Eritreans escaped a military regime so oppressive that the number of people fleeing it is second only to Syria.

In Israel, one Sudanese and four Eritreans have been officially granted refugee status by Israel; there was also a one-time humanitarian gesture to grant 500 Sudanese permanent residency. Compare this to Europe, where rates for granting refugee status to Sudanese and Eritreans in Europe range from approximately 70-80%.

As if this were not enough, the Israeli government has made a concentrated effort to harass asylum seekers in an effort to get them to “voluntarily” relocate to countries such as Uganda, even as stories continue to unfold of relocated asylum seekers being victims of violence. For example, a recent law requires asylum seekers to deposit 20% of their wages into a special fund that will only be returned to them when they leave the country. Then, there is the Holot detention facility: Asylum seekers with legal residency permits are being sent there, seemingly at random.

In addition to the loss of tax revenue that Israel would earn from these people’s wages if they were not in prison, it also costs the Israeli government approximately 25,000 NIS per refugee to continue running the facility. It’s also unclear how this facility makes Israel any safer, since it picks people with no criminal records, and releases them back to Israeli society after a few months.

The “right” that most of the asylum seekers are demanding is simply for Israel to process their paperwork and officially decide whether or not they have refugee status in Israel. Why is that too much to ask?

The Jerusalem African Community Center is a lifeline for Jerusalem’s 2,500 asylum seekers, providing everything from medical services, to social workers, to Hebrew and English language education, to tutoring and day-care services, to legal services and help in filling out paperwork. They are currently running a crowd-funding campaign for their children’s services program, which will provide children of asylum seekers with an after-school learning center, tutors, and daycare during school vacations for the upcoming school year.

On Tisha B’Av we mourned the destruction of the Temple, but we also mourned the fact that we are still living in an imperfect society – a society rife with injustice. However, the time for mourning has ended. The time for action is here.

The prohibition against oppressing a stranger is listed by the Torah as a commandment to be implemented upon entering the land of Israel not only because political self-determination is a prerequisite for the opportunity to create a Godly society, but also, because a society that oppresses the Other is bound to wind up oppressing itself -making it weak, divided, and vulnerable to external threats. This is what happened to the Jewish people during the Second Temple era, leading to destruction and exile.

Now, we have an opportunity once more to build a moral society. We are, after 2,000 years of longing “A free nation in our land”, as we sing in Hatikva.

Now that we have this freedom, how will we use it?

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.
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