Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg
American-Canadian-Israeli queer Jewish educator-activist.

Israel’s Unholy Treatment of Refugees Must End Now

"Give back the money": asylum seekers protest in front of Knesset, 22 April 2020. Credit: Hanan Offner.
"Give back the money": asylum seekers protest in front of Knesset, 22 April 2020. Credit: Hanan Offner.

Reading this week’s Torah Portion – Parashat Acharei Mot – Kedoshim – I cannot help but think of Israel’s refugees and asylum seekers, who are particularly suffering at this time, and how we can and must do better.

Parashat Kedoshim (lit. “Holy”), which this year is read together with Parashat Acharei Mot, includes what is known as the “Holiness Code” (Leviticus Chapter 19), a basic code of ethics for the Jewish people. There are numerous articles in this code that make me think of our relationship with our friends and neighbors who have come here to Israel in search of safety and asylum, but allow me to highlight just a few, in the order in which they appear in the biblical text.

Let’s begin with Leviticus 19:9-10: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God.”

This law is a basis of Jewish economic justice and compassion, reminding us that no person should go hungry, whether citizen or stranger, and that we must share the fruits of our possessions with those less fortunate. After all, our fortune, our possessions and the land that we imagine we own are not inherently ours, but actually divine gifts, from which we merit to derive benefit so long as we share those benefits with others. Ownership is not absolute, but conditional; not permanent, but temporary. The land belongs to the Divine, and we are merely its stewards. (See also, for example, Leviticus 25:23: “the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me”). 

We also never know when our fortune may turn, and we may be forced to glean among the fallen sheaves of the field, as happened to the biblical Naomi and Ruth. Especially at this time, amidst the coronavirus crisis, we must realize how transient and fleeting our wealth is, and how vulnerable and interdependent we all are. On the Hebrew calendar, this is also the time of the Counting of the Omer, the counting of our days and of our blessings – a reminder to be grateful for each day of life and each plate of food, and to share our fortune with those less fortunate. We must therefore strive to build a society where everyone’s basic needs are taken care of, whether a relative or a stranger. In one time and place we may be on the fortunate side, at another we may be on the less fortunate side. On whichever side we find ourselves, we should be able to live in health and dignity. 

Israel, therefore, has a number of social safety nets available to all its citizens and permanent residents, including: national insurance (which includes unemployment insurance, disability insurance and health insurance) and welfare – to help those who have fallen out of fortune’s favor. Indeed many Israeli citizens have needed to make use of these safety nets in recent weeks due to the coronavirus crisis. However, the Government of Israel has refused to make virtually any of these protections available to asylum seekers – who have also lived, worked, paid taxes and contributed to Israel for years, but now find themselves unemployed, as the restaurants, hotels and other businesses where they worked are now closed. The asylum seekers, our colleagues, neighbors and friends, are part of Israeli society, but have been left without access to even the “gleanings” of Israel’s social welfare system. Without the means to buy food, pay rent, or cover medical expenses, the collapse of the asylum seeker community will have terrible effects not only on the community itself, but also on the neighborhoods and broader communities of which the asylum seekers are part. The Government of Israel’s refusal to grant asylum seekers durable status or any social safety net is not only unwise; it is an affront to Jewish ethics and basic human compassion and dignity. 

 

The Holiness Code continues (Leviticus 19:11-12): “You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another. You shall not swear falsely by My name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord. You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.”

The so-called “Deposit Law”, which went into effect in Israel in May 2017, was a law designed to deceive, defraud, and steal the wages of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers. This law forced employers to deduct 20% of the salaries of asylum seekers into special deposit accounts, which the asylum seekers could access only upon departing Israel or upon being granted official refugee status by the Israeli government. It is estimated that NIS 285 million are currently sitting in these deposit accounts, while hundreds of millions more are presumed to be deducted (i.e. stolen) by employers under the guise of the law and never deposited. Thank goodness, last week the High Court of Justice overturned part of this law. The court recognized that the Deposit Law transgressed the basic “right to property”, or in other words, constituted unjustified theft, by denying individuals access to their hard earned wages. The court also questioned the validity of the promise of returning the deposit upon refugee status recognition, given that only one dozen (!) out of 30,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers have been granted refugee status in Israel. 

This hints at the fact that Israel’s “refugee status determination’ process, as it currently stands, is itself nothing more than an institution of organized fraud and deceit. Israeli officials, out of one corner of their mouth, declare that they are engaged in due process, checking asylum claims, while out of another corner insist that these people are not refugees, and continue to ignore asylum applications, with over half of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum claims remaining unanswered. Israel’s “refugee status determination” process is one of the greatest frauds and deceits that Israel has perpetrated against asylum seekers, against the Israeli people, and against the world. Israel refuses to check asylum requests in good faith, calls asylum applicants “infiltrators”, and though it dare not forcefully deport those who have applied for asylum, it continues to pursue methods explicitly and unabashedly designed “to make their lives miserable so that they leave” (in the words of former Interior Minister Eli Yishai of Shas). And perhaps most profane of all, the Government of Israel does all this in the supposed name of protecting the “Jewish character” of Israel. The stealing, deceiving and defrauding of asylum seekers in the name of Judaism and the Jewish people, is nothing short of profanation of the name of God. 

 

In case the above is not convincing enough, or lest one think that the above law refers only to the defrauding of a fellow Israelite, Leviticus continues (Leviticus 19:33-34): “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God.”

When Israel wrongs refugees and asylum seekers, men and women who have fled violence and persecution in search of safety and refuge, Israel transgresses multiple Jewish ethical imperatives at once. It is forbidden to wrong our fellow. It is forbidden to wrong a resident stranger, who must be considered our fellow. I find it unfortunate that the High Court of Justice did not completely nullify the Deposit Law also on these grounds – that all members of Israeli society must be treated equally and fairly, and any mechanism purposely designed to embitter the lives of refugees asylum seekers should be seen as null and void. We must not embitter the lives of refugees as the Egyptians once embittered ours. We must not treat migrants as second-class humans. We, especially as Jews, should know better. We should treat migrants, immigrants, refugees and strangers differently from how most majority cultures treat them. We should treat them with respect, dignity, empathy and love – just as we would treat ourselves. Because at the end of the day, they are no different from ourselves. It is only mere circumstances of fortune that separate us.

 

Which brings me to the opening of Parashat Kedoshim: “The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am Holy” (Leviticus 19:1-2). What does it mean to be “holy”? The root of the Hebrew word for holy (kadosh – קדוש) means to separate or distinguish. For one to be a holy – or for a community to be holy – does not mean for one to be inherently better than any other, but rather to act differently.

The rabbis of the Talmud ask what it means to be like God, to walk in God’s ways. Rabbi Hama tells us that it means to walk in the attributes of the Divine, as follows: “As God clothes the naked… so you too must clothe the naked. As God visited the sick… so you too must visit the sick. As God comforted mourners… so you too must comfort mourners. As God buried the dead… so you too must bury the dead” (Sota 14a). To be holy, like God, means to take care of basic human needs, for all those in need.

Even more so, the Bible further tells us, in Deuteronomy 10: “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God, to walk in God’s paths… [God] upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow, and loves the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

To be Jewish means to help the vulnerable and the stranger, the unfortunate and the refugee. To be holy means to help those in need and to act with compassion and not greed. To be human means to help fellow humans – now more than ever.

The High Court of Justice gave the Government of Israel 30 days to return the deposit funds to the asylum seekers to whom they belong. The government must return these funds immediately without delay and aid all those whose wages were stolen under the guise of the law. The Government of Israel – and all the people of Israel – must further use this opportunity to reflect not only on the Deposit Law, but on how we have related to refugees and asylum seekers for the past decade, and how we must change our ways. We must stop profaning the moral character of Israel by seeking to “make their lives miserable”. Rather we must sanctify the moral character of Israel by seeking ways to allow asylum seekers and refugees – along with all who reside here – to live in peace and dignity, and be productive members of Israeli society as long as they are here. We must grant durable status, giving access to national insurance and welfare, and to gainful employment and housing outside of south Tel Aviv and other neighborhoods where they live. It is the wise, the just, the holy, the Jewish, the humane and the right thing to do. And if not now, when?

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* To support asylum seekers in Israel, follow “Right Now: Advocates for Asylum Seekers in Israel” (English) or the “Give back the money” campaign (Hebrew.)

**Translations of biblical verses are from the Jewish Publication Society translation, with some emendations of my own. 

About the Author
Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg is an American-Canadian-Israeli queer Jewish educator and activist. Elliot is a senior educator at BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social change and co-chair of Right Now: Advocates for Asylum Seekers in Israel.
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