According to various news reports, the state of Israel is notifying thousands of Africans who entered the country illegally that they have three months to leave or face incarceration. Last week, the Population and Immigration Authority called on migrants from Sudan and Eritrea to leave “to their country or to a third country,” meaning Rwanda or Uganda. Those who leave by the end of March will be given $3,500, along with airfare and other incentives. The ultimatum is part of a large-scale campaign to remove 42,000 illegal African migrants from Israel.
One of the arguments of the government is that these “infiltrators” threaten “the Jewish character of the state of Israel.” On the contrary, this decision is antagonistic to basic Jewish values. In addition, due to our special history, the Jewish thing to do would be to treat the stranger fairly since we of all people know all too well what it means to be an exile seeking a home. Indeed, only a few decades ago, it was Jews who were seeking asylum as refugees in so many places in the world, and when they were turned down, Jewish groups were always the first ones to raise their voices in protest.
The advocacy group, Hotline for Migrant Workers, has condemned the move since the expulsions endanger the lives of the refugees. In addition, many Jewish NGOs in the USA and Israel are opposing this disastrous policy.
Having served on the steering committee of the Tag Meir Forum, I am well-acquainted with its work in combatting racism and extremism. In recent days, this forum has prepared a letter, which expresses the true Jewish view on this issue. I signed the letter yesterday, and by now about one hundred rabbis throughout Israel have signed it as well.. The letter, which is addressed to the government of Israel, calls on the government to act according to the international treaty on refugees (which Israel not only signed but was instrumental in formulating as a response to the Shoah). In addition, the letter reminds us that the Torah instructs us to treat the stranger well because “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
This letter goes on to call upon the state of Israel to implement a fair policy for asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan. According to Jean-Marc Liling–Executive Director of The Center for International Migration and Integration, based in Tel Aviv, and an expert on the refugee crisis in Israel–instead of its discriminatory and dangerous policies, the state of Israel needs to implement the following steps right away:
- Annul the planned forced deportation/imprisonment scheme put forward by the Israeli government and Knesset, while acknowledging the danger involved in deporting refugees to a country like Rwanda, under a plan the conditions of which are kept secret and that offers no official guarantee of safety and integration.
- Make the system effective and efficient so that refugee claims are processed in a timely manner and processed fairly, according to international standards.
- Give asylum seekers waiting for their asylum requests to be processed a status that ensures minimal safety, stability and dignity (including the possibility to work legally and gainfully).
- Ensure minimal standards for children and youth – in terms of access to education, health and welfare.
Moreover, Liling explained that the language of the Israeli leadership incites against all African migrants in ways that are irresponsible, creating a climate of suspicion and resentment, which is damaging to the social fabric in our country.
There are additional activists organizing to deal with this issue in an emergency fashion. According to Rabbi Tamar Elad-Applebaum, spiritual leader of Kehillat Zion in Jerusalem–an inclusive egalitarian synagogue, affiliated with the Masorti (Conservative) Movement– “we must come to the aid of these refugees, since it would be breaking a commandment of the Torah to send them back to places where their lives will be in danger.”
I believe that it is high time for the state of Israel–which claims to be a Jewish state– to change its unfair and immoral policies towards refugees from African countries who are already in the country. We should welcome them with open arms and with a Jewish heart and soul since we know the soul of the stranger, having been ourselves strangers so many times in foreign lands throughout our history.