The Africans in Tel Aviv and Jewish Values

The issue of the African “infiltrators” in Israel is very complicated.  The arguments for deportation of illegal immigrants who are not employed and are committing crimes certainly resonate with a large percentage of the population.  Arguments about providing refuge for these individuals on humanitarian grounds certainly tug at the heart.  But, I have yet to hear anyone discuss the situation from the perspective of core Jewish values – the approach which should play at least some role in the decision making process of a Jewish state.

Let us review some of the important facts.  The Population, Immigration and Border Authority estimates that there are approximately 60,000 “infiltrators” in Israel.  That label is used for those who have entered the country “not via one of the recognized border stations.” Approximately 85% of the “infiltrators” are from Eritrea and Sudan (about 34,000 Eritreans and 15,700 Sudanese, including South Sudanese). Each month about 2,000 additional migrants sneak into Israel through the Egyptian border and most of them end up residing in south Tel Aviv.  Israel has set up a line of protective and deterrent steps, such as the erection of a physical barrier along the southern border, the establishment of a large detention center for all “infiltrators” and an enforcement of the prohibition on employing unauthorized migrants.  All of these seem to be very important and legitimate steps for a country to take in the face of an illegal immigration crisis.  (It is important to note that aside from these “infiltrators,” there are approximately 110,000 additional unauthorized migrants in the country.  They are mostly tourists and migrant workers who entered Israel legally but “overstayed” their visa.)

However, I would like to take a step back and analyze the lead up to the recent crackdown.  The recent focus on this on these infiltrators was triggered by reports of alleged rape of a 15 year old girl by Africans in south Tel Aviv. This led to more reports involving rape, robbery and other crimes.  When the statistic emerged that 40% of the crime in Tel Aviv comes from these infiltrators, the Israeli residents of south Tel Aviv complained that they no longer felt safe to stroll the streets or to let their children play as they used to.

Since the outcry began, four “Molotov cocktails” have been thrown on apartments of African migrants in the Shapira neighborhood of south Tel Aviv with one of them hitting a daycare center for children of migrants.  Fortunately, no one was injured but property was damaged.  Residents of south Tel Aviv organized a rally in late May to protest the high concentration of African migrants in Tel Aviv and the government’s lack of response to the situation.  Knesset Members Danny Danon and Michael Ben Ari also spoke out against African migrants and called upon the government to act immediately by detaining and deporting all “infiltrators.”  Violence was quick to break out, as some members of the crowd smashed the windows of shops run by African migrants, pillaging and destroying goods. Several migrants were also physically attacked by protesters.  The violence then spread to Jerusalem a few weeks later when a fire was set to an apartment rented by African migrants, injuring four of them, and the words “get out of the neighborhood” were spray-painted on the building.  The Prime Minister condemned the violence but also announced that he would “solve the infiltrator problem” by acting to “return all infiltrators to their countries of origin.”

Violence towards these people runs against core Jewish values.  Yes, they are “people” and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.  A quick glance through Ethics of our Fathers clearly yields this point.  Hillel taught “love all creations,” not specifically those who have a different skin color or who entered your country legally.   Ben Azai taught “do not disgrace any person,” without qualifying that disgracing is permitted if you prefer not to have these types of people in your neighborhood.  Rabbi Matya taught to “greet all people with concern for their welfare,” not with violence and nasty statements regarding the need to expel them.  The very beginning of Genesis describes all humans as being created “in God’s image” and we must certainly treat every human as such.

There may be grounds to expel illegal immigrants from a country.  But we must adhere to core Jewish values when determining how to treat all the infiltrators and in determining who should and should not be expelled.

As a first step, we need to distinguish between economic migrants, refugees and individuals with criminal or terrorist intent. The majority of “infiltrators” are asylum seekers who left their African countries of origin for a variety of reasons – to escape genocide, wars, general violence, natural disasters, poverty, or persecution.  Some seek to reunite with family or acquire an education.  To provide some context regarding why they would be seeking asylum, Eritrea is one of the most repressive regimes in the world – some religions are illegal, military service in abusive conditions can be endless, and those who express any objection to government practices risk incarceration, torture, and death.  Sudanese “infiltrators” are often fleeing genocide, ethnic violence and civil war.

Is the Jewish approach to simply send these refugees back to the conditions from where they escaped?   Is it Jewish to refer to the current situation as “an ‘infiltrator’ enemy state has been established inside Israel” as MK Danny Danon declared?  How Jewish is MK Aryeh Eldad’s call for the IDF to begin “shooting at infiltrators at the border?”  Is Minister Eli Yishai reflecting any Jewish values when he bashed the “infiltrators” as a threat to Israel’s character as a Jewish state, that they spread disease and more recently, that they are “all criminals?”  What is a greater threat to the Jewish state – infiltrators who seek asylum and refuge here or our failure to act with the most fundamental of Jewish values?

So, what should be done?  I believe that as Jews we absolutely must accept human beings who flee to our midst to seek refuge.  That is the price that we must pay for establishing such a wonderful, democratic state based on Jewish values.  To find out which of the migrants in Israel are refugees in need of protection, the State must conduct Refugee Status Determination (RSD) for individual asylum seekers. The state is only conducting RSD in about 15% of all cases of migration to Israel.  We only do this for those who did not come from Sudan, Eritrea, or the Democratic Republic of Congo.  We do not process the asylum claims of Sudanese and Eritreans because they are defined “non-removable” since Sudan is considered an enemy state of Israel and Eritrea has been declared a danger zone by the UNHCR.  Because we cannot deport the “infiltrators” to their home countries, we do not process their asylum requests.

To restate that, because the situations in their home countries are so dangerous, our government fails to analyze their desire to find safety and refuge in our country! Just for the sake of comparison, the approval rate of the asylum applications of Eritreans in the United States is over 85%.  These people are running away from something terrible and as a people who have experienced our fair share of that over the last 2,000 years, perhaps we should think again before not even processing their applications.   Once again, a core Jewish value is being ignored.  The Bible specifically instructs us to embrace strangers and foreigners “because we were strangers in a foreign land.”  As people who know what being a refugee means, we need to provide safe haven for others in need regardless of the legal classifications of their home countries.  Those who do not have legitimate claims for asylum should be treated with dignity and respect by all Israelis during their detention and deportation process and those who meet the asylum criteria must be embraced and welcomed.

This notion of Jewish values must be taken one step further.  We are called Jews, “Yehudim,” based on the root “hodah,” which means “thanks.”  We are a people who recognize the good that has been done to us by God and by others. Last week, I heard a touching presentation from an Ethiopian Jew who related how he, his family, and thousands more crossed Sudan on their trek to be airlifted to Israel.  He described how the Sudanese people built huts for them and provided them with food and water.  He begged his country, Israel, to repay that favor and treat the Sudanese “infiltrators” with dignity and respect.  Basic “hakarat hatov,” acknowledging the good which has been done for us by others, demands that they receive better treatment.  This is the very definition of what it means to be a Jew.

As I mentioned earlier, the event which raised the issue of the infiltrators to the forefront of the country’s agenda was crime.  In April – May 2012 there was an increase in reports of crimes allegedly committed by African migrants, including robbery and rape. Police officials who were quoted stated that “infiltrators” are involved in 40% of the crimes in the Tel Aviv District.

A few counterpoints to using crime as the basis for the national hysteria over this issue must be made.  First of all, this 40% figure is not supported by any published statistics.  Second, according to police data presented to the Knesset Committee on Migrant Workers on March 19 2012, the crime rate among foreigners in Israel stood at 2.24% in 2011 while the crime rate among the general population in 2010 stood at 4.99%.  Finally, we must be clear.  These are not a group of criminals who have come to Israel.  Rather, since these asylum seekers are not processed and ultimately recognized as refugees, they are not granted the right to work.  Senior police officials have attributed the increased crime among migrants to the fact they are prohibited from working, calling some of these acts “crimes of survival”. Police Chief Yohanan Danino has encouraged enabling asylum seekers to work as a means of reducing the crime rate.

In conclusion, I think everyone needs to take a step back from the hysteria and study all the facts.  We should tighten the borders while developing a coherent immigration policy.  That policy should include a fair, professional and efficient asylum system for all “infiltrators” which does not allow large backlogs of asylum claims to accumulate or force legitimate refugees into a life of crime.

The leaders of Israel, a country built by Jewish refugees and governed by Jewish, democratic values, should strive to set a more positive tone towards African migrants. We must remember that some of these asylum seekers are fleeing from the very same enemies that Israel faces today and from the same type of persecution from which Jews have fled throughout history. The Prime Minister must direct government officials to stop using insidious language.  Public statements about the need to rid the country of a negative phenomenon, the reference to African migrants as a “threat” and the criminalization of all African migrants as “infiltrators” have increased the degree of the mass hysteria and have fanned the flames of an already burning reality while spreading xenophobia.

Does the influx of so many non-Jews into our Jewish country create numerous challenges and obstacles?  Yes, it does.  But that does not negate the fact that as people who strive to live based on core Jewish values, we all must work to bring the violence, the rhetoric and the undignified treatment to an immediate halt.

(Information for this column was provided by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society)

About the Author
Dov Lipman was elected to the 19th Knesset in January 2013. He is the author of seven books about Judaism and Israel, and holds rabbinic ordination from Ner Israel Rabbinical College and a masters in education from Johns Hopkins University. He has been at the forefront of combating religious extremism in Israel and is a leader in efforts to create Jewish unity both in Israel and around the world. Former MK Lipman is invited to speak on behalf of the Jewish state both in Israel and around the world and serves as a political commentator for i24 News and ILTV. He currently serves as Senior Manager - Community Outreach for Honest Reporting.