Can a Jewish Country Say No to Asylum Seekers?  

Can we Jews, who just 75 years ago in the face of a government bent on annihilating our people, could find no country in the world willing to let us in, refuse asylum today to those who seek it legitimately?

Is it not our duty to act on the commandments contained in the Torah specifically directing us to remember from where we came?  To wit:

“And a stranger shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21)

The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:34)

How can we callously stand back in the face of the Ministry of Interior’s aggressive, multi-tiered campaign to deport African asylum-seekers or imprison them within 90 days if they do not leave the country?  Can a country that is populated, as we are, by former refugees, look aside as the government moves to send 35,000 people to countries where they will face discrimination, poverty and possibly even death?

Although the government labels the vast majority of the 35,000 refugees as “infiltrators” because they illegally entered Israel via Sinai, Dror Sadot, spokeswoman for the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, said they are primarily legitimate asylum- seekers fleeing genocide.
Forced deportation to Rwanda, said Sadot, will likely place them in life-threatening circumstances.

We even make it extremely difficult for asylum seekers to apply for such status.  In 2017 alone, 7,000 Eritreans and Sudanese tried to submit asylum applications, but the Population and Immigration Authority prevented them from physically doing so.  The only office in the country where one can apply for asylum (located in Tel Aviv) doesn’t even allow for Africans to use their rights and refuses to take in the asylum applications of the thousands of them who wait in line for days.

Tel Aviv Judge Buffy Tam visited that one facility recently and wrote in a response penned two weeks ago to an appeal submitted by attorney Guy David for a native of Sri Lanka.:  “After the respondent agreed, the court visited the Refugee Status Determination Unit twice, and saw that all the phenomena described in a large number of the appeals submitted over the past few months are indeed taking place.” The judge noted the “lengthy waits in line, management of the lines by unofficial agents, irregularities, violence and bullying, and the fact that most are waiting in vain because in the end only a few are allowed entry (each day) and even for them, some gain entry but in the end they are not allowed to submit their request.”

Last week the ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority announced that it is actively pursuing strong measures to deport these individuals beginning in March, including indefinite prison sentences, for those who refuse to leave.

While minors and their parents will be exempt from the action, all other migrants who do not accept $3,500 to voluntarily leave Israel by the end of March will be denied temporary visas and locked in a Negev prison facility.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has now renewed his pledge to forcibly deport African asylum-seekers to Rwanda, whose government will reportedly receive $5,000 per person sent there.  (n.b. If all 35,000 asylum seekers left under this framework it would cost the government of Israel $175 million, monies that could be better spent on an absorption program to further integrate these men, women and children into society.)

Thankfully, we have a tradition of welcoming refugees, even those who are not Jewish.   38 years ago then Prime Minister Menachem Begin saw the plight of the Vietnamese boat people and opened Israel’s doors to 350 refugees.  Those grateful men, women and children are now an integral and productive part of our society.

Before anyone says that, well, that was only 350 people, let’s do a real comparison.  For sure 35,000 people being absorbed into today’s population of 8.3 million is a larger percentage than 350 into 1980’s population of 3.87 million.   But remember in 1980 Israel was an economic disaster with inflation at 129.83% while today it stands at almost zero.  There is no question that Israel is in much better shape to absorb 35,000 asylum seekers today than it was to absorb 350 boat people in 1980. There is no question we can get this done.

To his credit, former Prime Minister Begin knew his Torah and he was a product of Jewish history. As such, he had no choice but to open the doors of Israel and say welcome.

It is a travesty of faith for a ministry headed by someone who claims to be religious to blatantly violate the religious laws he purports to uphold.  Shame on him for closing his eyes to this humanitarian crisis in the making and shame on us for standing by and letting it happen.

About the Author
Sherwin Pomerantz is a native New Yorker, who lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years before coming to Israel in 1984. An industrial engineer with advanced degrees in mechanical engineering and business, he is President of Atid EDI Ltd., a 29 year old Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm which, among other things, represents the regional trade and investment interests of a number of US states, regional entities and Invest Hong Kong. A past national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel, he is also Immediate Past Chairperson of the Israel Board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and a Board Member of the Israel-America Chamber of Commerce. His articles have appeared in various publications in Israel and the US.
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