We Once Were Refugees Ourselves

On November 19 of this year, the Netanyahu government passed a bill to forcibly evict some 40,000 African refugees who had reached Israel after fleeing persecution, primarily in Eritrea and the Darfur region of Sudan.

Who were these people targeted for expulsion?

Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers have been coming into Israel since the Sudanese genocide in 2003. They would walk out of Sudan (and later Eritrea), go across Egypt and through the Sinai desert. The journey is a perilous gamble. They travel hundreds of miles on foot. The threat of kidnap and torture at the hands of Bedouins who roam the desert is ever-present. If they were not captured and if they survived hunger and thirst, once they slipped across the border from Egyptian Sinai into Israel, it’s only to face the Israel Defense Forces, who load them onto buses and drop them off, homeless and penniless, in South Tel Aviv.

On the evening of December 12, we ushered in a celebration of religious freedom and national renewal: the festival of Chanukah. The successful Maccabean revolt transformed the Jewish people from a condition of religious persecution and political subjugation to one of national self-determination, responsible and capable of their own self-protection.

We celebrate our return to freedom and independence. We celebrate our ability to live as Jews, true to our vision of justice and for a reign that lasted 100 years, from the success of the Maccabees until the rise of the Roman Empire.

It would take almost 2,000 years until there would be a free and independent Jewish state again.

National self-determination has been the exceptional situation for Jews. We have endured political subjugation, exile, and dispersion for far longer than we have been a free people in our own land.

We do not need to reach very deeply into our past to recall times when Jews were desperate to leave the countries of their birth because of persecution and murder, misery, suffering, and death that all too often happened when no place would accept them. For some Jews alive today, the experience of being a refugee is not just an historical memory but a personal one. Our experience as the other in the diaspora has been filled with terror, expulsions, and flight. Too often, when we did escape, we found ourselves unwelcome anywhere. Jewish refugees escaping the horrors of Nazi Germany often were refused entry and sent back, sometimes by the boatload. In 1939, the S.S. St. Louis, carrying 937 refugees from Nazi Europe, was turned back from our shores. During the British Mandate over Palestine, Jews weren’t even allowed to return to the Jewish homeland. Other Jewish refugees who had come home to Palestine smuggled them in past the British naval blockade. (That’s a story that we know well, if only because of the movie “Exodus.”)

In 1950, after the horror of World War II, and still wrestling with its aftermath, the United Nations, attempting to make our world a better place, created the High Commissioner for Refugees and established definitions and conventions for the treatment of refugees. Twenty six countries were the original signatories to the convention, including the United States and Israel. Non-governmental organizations also were permitted to be signatories. Among the original NGO signatories were the World Jewish Congress and the World Union of Progressive Judaism.

The convention, which went into effect in 1954, is founded on Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes the undeniable right to seek asylum from persecution. The convention establishes fundamental principles for the treatment of refugees in host countries. Among other things, it states explicitly that:

  • A refugee may not be detained due to illegal entry. A refugee is not an “illegal immigrant.”
  • Discrimination based on race or religion is prohibited.
  • The forced repatriation of refugee to a place where that refugee has reason to fear a threat to life or liberty is expressly prohibited. (That forced repatriation is called refoulement.)

Given Jewish historical commitments as well as the express obligations it undertook as a signatory to the U.N. convention on refugees, it was particularly disturbing to learn what the Israeli government has begun to do.

For decades after its founding in 1948, Israel welcomed refugees from outside the Jewish faith. In his first official act as prime minister in 1977, Menachem Begin granted refuge to 66 Vietnamese who had been rescued at sea by an Israeli ship. During a visit to the United States later that year, he recalled the St. Louis to explain his decision. “They were nine months at sea, traveling from harbor to harbor, from country to country, crying out for refuge,” Begin said. “They were refused. We have never forgotten the lot of our people … And therefore it was natural that my first act as prime minister was to give those people a haven in the land of Israel.”

In 2007, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert echoed Begin’s act when he granted temporary residency permits to nearly 500 Sudanese asylum-seekers. But as the number of African migrants swelled in subsequent years, Israel’s receptiveness began to flag.

By 2010 there were 25,000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel. They chose Israel for many reasons: because it was a democracy, because it was easier to reach than Europe or — for many Sudanese — because it was an adversary of their own government. They hoped that the enemy of their enemy would look kindly on them.

As the government struggled to deal with the newcomers, many continued to languish in the poor and overcrowded neighborhoods of southern Tel Aviv, with no money, no support system, no work permits, living in overcrowded apartments in a neighborhood that already was impoverished. Dozens squatted in a park across the street from the city’s main bus station for weeks on end.

In 2013, the tensions had hardened into outright hostility. That year, Israel sealed off its border with Egypt and implemented a raft of policies aimed at making life for asylum-seekers already in Israel more difficult. The government of Israel established the Holot facility for African asylum seekers. It is in an area defined as an army zone, near the border with Egypt. The facility is surrounded by a high fence and run by the prison service. Since it is against international law to imprison refugees simply for entering a country, Holot is not defined as a prison. The detainees are free to leave the compound but must return each evening for bed check, and they must sign a document every day.

Because the Holot Detention Center was filled to capacity on November 17, 2016, the Knesset unanimously approved the proposal by Interior Minister Arye Dery and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan to close the center in four months. “The infiltrators will have the option to be imprisoned or leave the country,” the Public Security ministry said in a statement.

Therefore, the government will begin deporting asylum seekers, telling them that they will have to leave or be jailed for an indefinite period of time. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced an agreement to deport 40,000 Africans who entered the country illegally. Netanyahu said the deportations were being carried out in line with an international agreement allowing Israel to deport migrants without their consent. “This will enable us to close down Holot and allocate some of the large funds going there to inspectors and removing more people,” Netanyahu said.

Speaking before Sunday’s vote, Netanyahu noted that after closing down the Egyptian border as well as deporting some 20,000 African migrants through various deals, Israel has reached the third stage of its efforts — “accelerated removal.”

Israel tacitly recognizes that Sudanese and Eritreans cannot be returned to their dangerous homelands, so it has signed deals with third countries. In August, the Israeli High Court of Justice approved the emigration policy, but also ruled that Israeli authorities had to first ensure that the countries to which migrants were being deported were safe. Though the state has not named the third countries, they have been identified in media reports as Rwanda and Uganda. The same media reports state that Rwanda and Uganda will be paid $5,000 for each deportee they accept.

Erdan dismissed expressions of “serious concern” voiced by the U.N. refugee agency, which said Israel had “legal obligations to protect refugees and other persons in need of international protection.” He claimed that the third countries that have agreed to receive the deportees are safe, and that claims by aid agencies, which he called “left-wing organizations in costume,” were false and focused on interests other than those of the Israeli public. He added that imprisonment for those who refused deportation, along with other tactics, such as forbidding migrants from sending what little money they may have earned back home, he hopes would help migrants understand that there was no advantage to staying in Israel.

Expulsion to a third country is largely unprecedented in the Western world. Italy and Australia signed similar agreements with third-party countries — Italy with Libya, and Australia with Malaysia — but both proposals were shot down by local courts. In both cases, courts ruled the bills inconsistent with international law and the 1950 U.N. convention on refugees.

Today there are between 35,000 and 37,000 African asylum seekers in Israel. That is less than half a percent of the population. Still, it is a material number; the equivalent proportion in the United States would be roughly 1.6 million. But it is a number that Israel, the “start-up nation,” can deal with. Israel is wealthier and wiser today than it was when Begin recognized the need for Israel to be a haven for those in need.

At the end of November, 25 U.S. Jewish organizational leaders signed a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu, urging him to stop the plans to deport the refugees and offering to assist in their care. “We are concerned that if you move forward with these plans, the lives of thousands will be put in jeopardy” they wrote, and continued, “As a people who were once refugees, and once were strangers in a strange land, we believe we have a special obligation toward refugees whatever their religion or race…”

Mark Hetfield, CEO and president of HIAS, which has a rich history aiding Jewish immigrants to this country and more recently has been a leader in advocacy for immigrants, signed the letter. So did Rabbi Asher Lopatin, president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah; Rabbi Phillip Scheim, president of the Rabbinical Assembly; Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center and senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism; Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College/Jewish Reconstructionist Communities; Rabbi Jason Klein, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Assembly; Gideon Aronoff, CEO of Ameinu; Paul Scham, president of Partners for Progressive Israel; Rita Freedman, acting executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee; Gal Peleg Laniado, the central shaliach of Hashomer Hatzair North America; Kali Silverman, director of Habonim Dror North America; and Rabbi David Rosenn, executive vice president of the New Israel Fund.

In Leviticus we are reminded that “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 am the Lord your God.”

When we light candles this Chanukah in our celebration of national renewal, let us not forget those in need of refuge. just as we had been so many times in our history.

About the Author
Mark Gold is a Board Member of Partners for Progressive Israel (PPI). He has served as Secretary of the American Zionist Movement, President of Americans for Progressive Israel, and has been a delegate to the World Zionist Congress. Hiam Simon of Englewood, NJ, is the past chief operating officer of Ameinu. He lived in Israel for many years, where he was the dean of students for what is now the Alexander Muss High School, and he served in the IDF as a noncommissioned officer in the artillery.