This week, the global refugee crisis has grabbed the world’s attention. After three years of war and violence, hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Syrian’s civil war have spilled out of the region and have begun flooding into Europe. Images of a drowned Syrian child and the sight of thousands of desperate migrants being herded into overcrowded trains and transit camps across the European continent have horrified people around the world.
Jews, with a special sensitivity to the plight of persecuted innocents, have not all stood by in silence. Synagogues and other Jewish organizations in North America and Europe are taking active roles in relief efforts, as are individual Jews the world over. In Israel, the NGO IsraAid announced that it would be sending food and other supplies to Europe to assist those who have escaped war-torn regions only to be met with more uncertainty while seeking safe havens. “As a nation that has suffered the atrocities of the Holocaust, and routinely stands in the face of threats, we can’t not extend a hand to help the tens of thousands of asylum seekers looking for refuge after fleeing the atrocities in the Middle East and Africa,” said Shachar Zehavi, IsraAid’s founding director. Israel’s Opposition leader Isaac Herzog called on the government of Israel to take in Syrian refugees, saying that, “Jews cannot be indifferent while hundreds of thousands of refugees are looking for safe haven.” While these are truly laudable and correct sentiments, I have to admit that they left my head spinning from cognitive dissonance.
For nearly a decade, thousands of African migrants, escapees from genocide in Darfur and war and dictatorship throughout the continent, have been making their way through the Sinai desert and into Israel. Today, there are approximately 45,000 African refugees in Israel, but IsraAid isn’t working to assist them. And successive governments refuse to adequately investigate these refugees’ situations and grant them refugee status. In fact, they are referred to as “infiltrators” and not permitted to legally work in the country. Instead of welcoming them and providing them with temporary shelter and humane living conditions, these refugees are left in limbo, forced to eke out an existence in the poor neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv and Eilat.
The government of Israel, along with the media, has inaccurately portrayed the mostly Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers as infiltrators and “economic migrants.” While it is highly likely that a certain percentage of the Africans are not truly refugees, to date, the government has not established an effective mechanism to investigate their claims. Today, Israel’s refugee recognition rate is less than one percent. In contrast, throughout the rest of world, the average recognition rate of asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan is 85% and 74%, respectively. It simply is not possible that the Sudanese and Eritrean populations in Israel are that dramatically different than those of the rest of the world. As its own refugee crisis continues to fester, over the past two years, Israel has been encouraging the Africans to “voluntarily return” to third countries in Africa. Several thousand have left the country, sometimes with tragic results: earlier this year, three Eritreans left Israel and were murdered by ISIS in Libya.
The growing world sympathy for the Syrian refugees has spread to Israel as well, as evidenced by recent pronouncements, but this sympathy does not extend to the refugees already in Israel — the Africans. Over the past month, Israel’s High Court ordered the release of about 1,200 Africans from the Holot detention center in the Negev where they had been held for the “crime” of being refugees. But the newly released were greeted with orders forbidding them to live or work in Tel Aviv or Eilat. The mayor of Arad sent police forces out to the town’s entrance to prevent any Africans from coming in. Thousands of other African migrants have been “invited” to replace those who have been released from Holot, which will serve as a holding station before their planned expulsion from Israel.
In response to Herzog’s call to take in Syrian refugees, Prime Minister Netanyahu, true to form, refused it unequivocally, stating that Israel is too small to take in any refugees. He also used the opportunity to announce that Israel would be building a border fence that will eventually enclose the entire country, in order to keep out “infiltrators” and terrorists. Herzog admonished the Prime Minister, claiming that he has “forgotten what it means to be Jews. Refugees. Persecuted. The prime minister of the Jewish people does not close his heart and the gate when people are fleeing for their lives from persecution, with their babies in their hands.” Yet Herzog himself has not extended this generosity of spirit to the African refugees already in Israel.
Perhaps the Syrian refugee crisis will serve as a wake up to call to Israel that it can do something right now to assist the needy refugees who are already in its midst. As it is written in the Torah: “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In order to give meaning to this commandment, it is time for Israel to develop a comprehensive and humane refugee policy that can serve as an enlightened example for the developed world.