OPINION: Not in my name

Yesterday, someone shared a picture of an Israeli woman wearing a shirt that read “Death to the Sudanese” on my Facebook wall. The woman was a Tel Aviv resident taking part in a protest on Tuesday night to encourage the Israeli government to deport African asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea. Asylum seekers were violently attacked and their car and grocery store windows were shattered. According to Haaretz newspaper, the protest was organized by Knesset member Michael Ben Ari, and Miri Regev, another Knesset member, called the Sudanese “a cancer in our body.”The Jerusalem Post recently reported on the Molotov cocktails thrown into a Nigerian woman’s open day care and an Eritrean family’s private apartment in Tel Aviv’s Shapira neighborhood. Violence against the African asylum seekers in Israel has been exponentially rising. These incidents reminded me of all the violence and hatred ensuing in Israeli society toward African asylum seekers. This is not the first case of violence against African asylum seekers. There have been many hate crimes perpetrated against Eritrean, Sudanese and other asylum seekers of African descent for the past few years. Whether it’s the government, the media or Israeli society influencing or perpetrating these abominable acts, this racial violence and prejudice must be stopped.

Israel, let us recall, was one of the founding signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention, implemented by the United Nations in response to the abundance of refugees in Europe after the Holocaust. Israel, however, never ratified the convention, and Netanyahu’s government has made the daily life of asylum seekers today as challenging as possible in an effort to get people to leave without actually kicking them out.

Since 2005, asylum seekers from Africa have entered Israel’s borders through the Sinai desert in Egypt. Eritrea’s brutal dictatorship, the genocide in Darfur and the longest-running African civil war (South Sudan) have led to the flight of these people from their homelands. I am often asked why Israel is the destination country for most of these migrants. The answer is: It isn’t. There are millions of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees in other countries, most of them in other African countries or in Egypt, Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia. The 50,000 people who have made their way to Israel are a tiny minority of this entire population of refugees. Without anywhere to go, many asylum seekers started making their way to Israel, seeking out Bedouin-organized smugglers who know the vast Sinai terrain to help them.

While I do fault Egypt for allowing Bedouin criminal organizations to conduct systematic rape, torture and organ trafficking within its borders, I feel that it is also our responsibility, as Jews in Israel and abroad, to assist those who have suffered such abominations and now reside in our country — one that prides itself on existing in the Jewish name and on implementing Jewish values. We pride ourselves on being advocates against another Holocaust taking place, and we have been instrumental in the fight to end the genocide in Darfur, but when it has come to Israel’s treatment of African asylum seekers, we look the other way. It is true that Israel is a tiny country trying to maintain its Jewish majority, but no moral person could accept this rationale as an acceptable excuse for the ongoing strain of misbehavior toward Africans, especially not when the racial undertones to these policies are so obvious.

There have been numerous claims that the asylum seekers are raping and burglarizing the Israelis, but the statistics of the police department prove otherwise. The crime rates among the African asylum seekers are much lower than that of the general Israeli population. While I do not excuse or condone any crime whatsoever, I do believe that it is unacceptable to exaggerate and make erroneous claims about an entire population of people. 

Israel’s lack of policy on refugees is going to explode in our faces sooner than we think. The government provides no services whatsoever to the African asylum seekers and goes so far as to print visas denying permission to work. Netanyahu’s solution to the “problem” is to build a gigantic detention facility isolated in the Negev Desert, where 10,000 “infiltrators,” as the government calls the asylum seekers, will be housed. The facility is designed after the notorious Australian detention facilities, which have proven to lead to high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression, and suicide attempts in both adult and child occupants. Israel’s facility is currently under construction, and the Israel Prison Service will run it. Those detained will be kept in the facility for indefinite periods of time, as they are incapable of applying for refugee status in Israel. Even though it is illegal under international law to treat asylum seekers as criminals, the government’s recent passing of the Anti-Infiltration Law makes it apparent that this is exactly what is happening: “Infiltrators” may now be kept in detention (prison) for up to three years without trial and without due process.

I believe that we, the Jewish people, all of us refugees at some point in our histories, know better. I urge Israel to implement a transparent and just procedure for asylum seekers to gain refugee status and rights, as we requested in the Refugee Convention and as every other Western democratic country in this world has implemented, so that those who are suffering from today’s genocides, dictatorships and atrocities can live in dignity. As Rabbi Hillel stated so pointedly, “In a place where there is no person to make a difference, strive to be that person.”

As a New Israel Fund Social Justice Fellow working for ASSAF, Maya Paley published two reports on the livelihoods and communities of the Sudanese and Eritrean populations in Israel, pointing out the effects of Israel’s policies on their psychological and physical wellbeing.