Why being a Zionist has led me to support Israel’s asylum seekers

People have told me that supporting the African asylum seekers and being a Zionist are mutually exclusive. They say that by supporting them, we threaten the demographic nature of our Jewish state. How can I, on one hand, support a Jewish state in Israel while defending a proposed threat to it? This after all, is what the media and our government have led us to believe. The media paints the African asylum seekers as migrant infiltrators, spilling into Israel for better economic opportunities. Netanyahu has repeatedly called them illegal work infiltrators. We are told that Israelis are living in terror from these criminals, and that we cannot integrate such a critical mass of people into our society.

Approximately 10,000 African Asylum Seekers and their supporters gather across from the Knesset, asking for their voices to be heard.
Approximately 10,000 African Asylum Seekers and their supporters gather across from the Knesset, asking for their voices to be heard.

I’m a Zionist. I believe that Israel needs to be a state for the Jewish people. I’ve believed this for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a Zionist home, waving the banner of a Jewish state, defending Israel as it’s been demonized in the media, in University campuses and anti Israel rallies. Moving to Israel 3 and a half years ago, my Aliyah cemented my Zionist convictions: I wanted to be part of this state, I wanted to be Israeli.

But this country is more than that. It’s more than a nation of Jewish people. We embody the values that our Zionist founders wanted to imbue to the state: a Jewish democracy founded on equality, freedom and human rights. This is why, when I see the asylum seekers, I see an opportunity. An opportunity for a nation of immigrants and refugees, who have lived the brutal consequences of racism and fascism, to open our hands and our hearts. This is why I stand by a Zionism and an Israel that not only stands up for those Israeli and Jewish values, but fosters them. Inspires it’s citizens to engage in it’s values and principles. We are a nation that has continually flourished in a hostile environment, providing the middle east with an example of a beautiful modern democratic civilization in our ancient homeland. Let’s live up to our name.

In 1951 Israel was one of the first signatories on the UN refugee convention. By signing and ratifying it, we stood by those very values we built our state on.

Today, thousands of Africans are fleeing persecution in their countries and finding physical safety in Israel. However, Israel is not assessing their claims, in opposition to the Refugee Convention. By not accessing their cases, we do not even know the number of genuine refugees in our country. This has allowed our government to label them as infiltrators without any data or facts. Yet, Eritreans and Sudanese have high refugee status recognition rates globally: 80% of Eritreans and 35% of Sudanese are granted refugee status in other countries. Israel won’t even accept their claims.

Our government’s solution has been to build an “open detention center” run by the police under the anti-infiltration law. This jail bans the asylum seekers from working, subjects them to roll call three times a day and only allows them to leave for 48 hours before being liable to arrest. Here they can be detailed indefinitely without judicial review. Additionally, the government has stated that it will stop renewing the group protection visas it has so far been providing. Without this visa, they are liable for arrest.

The government claims that it approved this law to “preserve the state’s Jewish and democratic nature”. However, aside from the human rights it tramples on, the numbers speak differently. Each year Israel approves approximately 70,000 foreign worker visas for jobs Israelis won’t do. There are approximately 53,000 asylum seekers in Israel right now. If the government cuts back on foreign workers visas, it can provide jobs for those asylum seekers without overwhelming or threatening our Jewish nature. After all, 53,000 asylum seekers only compromises 0.6% of our total population.

It’s written in our Declaration of Independence that our state will be “based on freedom, justice and peace.” It’s by these values that I became a true Zionist, and it’s by these values that I stand up for human beings who need them guaranteed the most.  I won’t be lied to by my government. Only by accepting the asylum seeker’s cases can we determine who is a refugee. With this in mind, I’m asking our government to be faithful to the convention we signed: let’s start accepting their cases and begin the process to determine who is a refugee. Once we know who needs our help, we can begin the noble process of opening our hands and hearts by providing help, shelter and dignity to those who need it.

It’s time we take this opportunity to show the world how we can enact those great values of democracy, freedom and equality that I believe define our state. It’s time we stopped being apathetic and begin to stand up for freedom and equality: not only for them, by also for ourselves.

About the Author
Hailey is based in Jerusalem after making Aliyah from Toronto, Canada. Interested in both Israeli politics and Jewish history, she is currently finishing her M.A in Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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