For You Were Strangers in the Land of Egypt

Refugees held at Holot; photo credit Hotline for Refugees and Migrants.

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 19“For You Were Strangers in the Land of Egypt” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Reut Michaeli

The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants is Israel’s leading organization protecting the rights of refugees, migrant workers and victims of human trafficking. For over 15 years Hotline staff and nearly 750 volunteers have been visiting Israel’s immigration detention centers to monitor their conditions, meet with detainees and provide paralegal intervention and legal representation. We represent some of the most vulnerable people in Israel and advocate for government policies consistent with a just, equal and democratic Israel. The HRM assists vulnerable individuals, particularly those held in immigration detention, to uphold their rights. Since our inception, we have served over 60,000 people. We have been successful in passing significant legislation regarding refugee issues. Our work has been internationally recognized, and we were proud to receive the National Medal for Combatting Human Trafficking from President Shimon Peres.

I am writing these words shortly before Shavuot, a time when we read Megilat Ruth. Ruth is known as the first convert to Judaism. Ruth, the migrant, who married Boaz and will be the great grandparents of King David, is welcomed by the Jewish people. She is honored and respected. Unfortunately, this is not the way Migrants, Gerim, are treated in the State of Israel today. Whether they are Olim who converted in a non-orthodox congregation, migrant workers or refugees. Those who were not born Jewish are not treated with the kindness and respect that the Torah teaches us. The discussion of the Jewish state is so focused on demography and numbers that we have forgotten about Jewish values and heritage.

Jews have a long history of migration. We have been a migrant nation from the time we left Egypt, running away from oppression and slavery. We were migrants in exile from Eretz Israel for 100 years after the destruction of the first temple. And after the destruction of the second temple we spent 2,000 years in exile moving from place to place to find safety and freedom. For me personally the story of Jewish migration is the story of my grandparents who together ran away from Romania in 1941 and came illegally to British mandate Palestine. They were held in a detention center in Atlit for over a year and only then released to the community with no help and no rights. It is precisely this history that obliges us, as a migrant nation, to show kindness to the strangers amongst us.

The mitzvah to protect the stranger appears in one form or another a total of 36 times in the Torah, the most famous in Leviticus Chapter 19, “When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. You shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (33-34). This is why we, at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants choose to defend the rights of migrants and refugees in Israel and to combat human trafficking. We believe that one of the things our society will be judged upon will be the way we treat migrants – “Gerim.”

Unfortunately, we as Jewish people living in the Jewish state fail to protect the strangers and to welcome them to our society. There are currently 39,000 African asylum seekers residing in Israel. Approximately 70% of them are from Eritrea and less than 20% from Sudan. Eritrea is a closed-off dictatorship ruled by one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Human rights organizations and a U.N. special rapporteur for Eritrea testify that Eritrea has become a “giant prison.” Eritrean asylum-seekers who’ve been deported (refouled) were arrested immediately and tortured or simply executed. As for Sudan – the majority of refugees from Sudan who arrive in Israel are members of different African tribes that reside in Sudan’s periphery and are persecuted by the central government in Khartoum. Most of them escaped from the genocide in Darfur.
Israel is a signatory to the Refugee Convention that was drafted as a lesson from the Holocaust. Despite that, over the years, Israel has recognized less than 1% of asylum claims. While in other developed counties, between 10-50% of applicants receive refugee status. Until 2013 most people did not have access to the asylum system. Being deprived of this basic right, they lack many other rights that go hand in hand with the recognition: they have no work permits, they receive no state allowance, or health services. As described above, asylum applications were not accepted for many years, and many who recently submitted claims were either rejected or received no answer. Only 10 Eritreans and one Sudanese have been recognized as refugees to date.

At the same time, asylum seekers are being detained: any man can be summoned to Holot detention facility near the Egyptian border, for 12 months. A lot of pressure is being used to convince this community that they should leave. In detention, they are pressured to voluntarily leave for a third country (Rwanda and Uganda), and if they refuse to do so – they risk indefinite detention in harsher conditions. Most of them prefer to stay in Israel fearing torture, death and additional plight in their homelands or on their way from Israel to Africa and then to Europe. Israel needs to fulfill its obligations, legal and moral, and implement different solutions. For many years the government claims that detention is needed in order to remove the refugee population from South Tel Aviv, where many have congregated over time, a phenomenon the government itself created. There was a deliberate policy to concentrate them in the poorest part of Israel. This was a way of marginalizing them by pushing them to the periphery of society. It has the effect of moving them out of sight of most Israelis, so that Israelis stop thinking about them as people and rather they are perceived as ‘infiltrators.’ It is much harder to hate someone who is your neighbor and whose son studies with your own son. If we do not know them it is easier for us look away when the Government acts against them.

Israel knows how to absorb migrants. Starting in the early 90’s over a million immigrants or Olim were absorbed into Israel, and that was not the first time Israel increased its population by more than 20% in less than ten years. The knowledge and experience to integrate this population exist, but there is no political will to do so. There are many different alternatives to the current policy of mass detention. We need to finally take steps to normalize their lives in Israel.

The first step would be to grant asylum seekers work visas. Under the current system, asylum seekers in Israel do not have formal work permits, and this results in them being exploited by employers. Opening up the legal labor market will also have the secondary effect of dispersing much of the asylum seeker community into different parts of the country. Many Israeli employers are facing a shortage of workers so there is the potential for a win-win outcome. The Government could decrease the poll tax on employing foreigners or offer to subsidize employers in the periphery of the country who employ asylum seekers. Dispersing and integrating the community into different cities around the country, will ease the burden on South Tel Aviv.

The public health system will also benefit if the asylum seekers could work legally. If the government included the asylum seekers in the national health system, the monthly payments would be deducted from their salaries and become part of the pool making up the overall Israeli public health system. The refugees would benefit from having access to health care that is their right as workers in Israel, and the system benefits overall from their participation.

In addition the Government should immediately invest more resources into South Tel Aviv itself. The money that has been used to build and run the biggest detention facility for migrants in the world, (over 75 million dollars) would be better spent improving the conditions and infrastructure in South Tel Aviv for all its residents. This should include community centers, low-cost housing, improved transportation, and health and welfare services to the benefit of everyone.

Adv. Reut Michaeli is the executive director of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants.