Shayna Abramson

Israel’s Law to Deport Asylum Seekers Makes Me Ashamed as a Zionist

A major blow to Zionism was struck this week -that is, if we define Zionism as the establishment of a nation-state dedicated to Jewish values, such as human dignity, justice, and not oppressing the stranger.

I am referring to the bill, which passed a first reading in the Knesset, that will force asylum seekers to choose between being in jail or being deported to Rwanda. The bill will also close the notorious Holot detention facility, which has been declared unconstitutional numerous times by the Israeli Supreme Court. The facility was built to house asylum seekers, but after the asylum seekers are deported or sent to prison, there will be no need for it.

Until this point, Israel has encouraged “voluntary” removal of asylum seekers to Rwanda  and Uganda through various means, including withholding part of asylum seekers’ wages and agreeing to return it only when they agree to leave Israel.

Of course, withholding an employee’s wages is a violation of a Biblical prohibition*, but no matter.

The solution should be simple: Israel should process the paperwork of the asylum seekers and grant refugee status to those who are refugees, while kicking out those who are not. Instead, Israel prefers to keep asylum seekers in limbo, refusing to process their paperwork, because it knows that, if it does so honestly, it will be forced to declare the majority of them refugees, and allow them to stay in the country.

The majority of asylum seekers escaped genocide and civil war in Sudan, and political oppression and violence in Eritrea, yet so far, less than 1% have officially been recognized as refugees by Israel -one of the lowest rates of recognition of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees in the Western world.

This bill, in addition to violating Jewish values, may also violate international law: Asylum seekers have the right to non-refoulement. They have the right to not be sent back to their countries of origin while their case for refugee status is being processed and decided on. Technically, however, they may be sent to a different country, provided that the place they are sent to does not pose a risk to their safety. Many of the asylum seekers Israel has sent to Rwanda and Uganda however, have been harmed. Some have been killed; others have disappeared and are presumed to be dead. This means that forcibly deporting them to Rwanda may indeed be a violation of their right to non-refoulement.

If Israel is a culmination of Herzl’s vision of Zionism – a Western nation-state for the Jewish nation -then this law separates Israel from the family of Western nations by posing an egregious violation of the Western human rights norms. If Israel is a culmination of cultural Zionism, in which the state adheres to Jewish values, then this law is an egregious violation of the Jewish values that all humans are created in God’s image, and that it is wrong to oppress the stranger.

Either way, this law is a shameful act for the State of Israel, and it makes me ashamed as a Zionist.

*See Leviticus 19

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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