Our Commitment to Refugees as a Reflection of our Peoplehood

Holot detention center; via Wikimedia Commons

[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 Maayan Ravid and Shlomi Ravid

Jews today, for the first time in the last two millennia, live in a rather unique situation for them – they are not refugees. The creation of the Jewish State and the development of the modern nation-state system has granted Jews a historically atypical period of freedom, civic security and stability. It is also a period in which Jews are free to determine for themselves their collective ethos and destiny. As Rav Soloveitchik framed it, Jews can progress from a ‘covenant of fate’, mostly imposed on them by outside forces, to a ‘covenant of destiny’ which “… in the life of a people, signifies a deliberate and conscious existence that the people has chosen out of its own free will …”

The awareness of the plight of refugees is engraved into the Jewish historical consciousness. It began with the emergence of Jewish Peoplehood in the Exodus from Egypt and the journey through Sinai. It further developed via the exile from Israel and two millennia of a turbulent Diasporic history. The memory of persecution and search for refuge, is central to Jewish foundational texts and the lived experience as a stateless minority around the world for so long. Despite this awareness, the current refugee challenge is catching Jews unprepared, both conceptually and practically. Sadly, Israel as a state has failed to address the challenge in accordance with the command of “loving the stranger” and the response of the Jewish people, has been limited. While world Jews are known to successfully mobilize in times of great need as in the struggle to release Soviet Jewry, the current refugee crisis and its manifestation in Israel, yielded mostly apathy and silence. We argue that Israel and Jews around the world should be committed to those seeking asylum, as are many other humans and nations. We further maintain that the Jewish people are specifically endowed with a collective ethos and memory that should make them particularly skilled and motivated champions of this cause.

We focus in this essay on the way Israel treats asylum seekers living in its midst, and the response of Jews outside Israel. The State of Israel legitimates exclusionary policies toward Sudanese, Eritrean and other asylum seekers. Exclusionary policies are based on two major claims: First, the State views their entry as a demographic threat to Israel’s sovereignty and Jewish identity, and has no interest in becoming a shelter for a ‘flood’ of potential African migrants. Second, Israel considers such persons a social and economic threat – competing with local Israelis over material resources. This stance has been expressed by Israeli politicians, and voiced by the State in the Supreme Court to legitimate the detention of asylum seekers in Holot detention facility since 2013.

Approximately 3,300 people from Sudan and Eritrea are held in Holot at full capacity and 10,000 persons have been detained, without trial, to date. The facility is situated in the middle of Israel’s Negev Desert. While many other Western countries detain irregular migrants, Israel stands out due to the long duration of detention, its detention of people who have lived in Israel for years, and the size of the detention facility – far larger than any other in the Western world. For many of us, the image of this camp – a barbed wire detention facility – created to house asylum seekers in the Jewish state, is tragically ironic. One would expect that a country built by a people whose ancestors faced persecution across the world, who fled restrictive regimes, camps and near decimation, to act differently. While Israel adopts these policies, most of the world’s Jews remain silent about them.

We argue that Israel can and should improve its treatment of asylum seeking populations for three main reasons:

1. While Israel is the only Jewish state, feelings of external threat are shared by other states around the world. Feelings of cultural and competition threat, are the most widespread responses to foreign migration, in any given community. Israel is not unique in its predicament of irregular migration, or feelings of out-group threat. As states throughout the global north work to acclimate to new trends in global migration, Israel’s policies should fall in line with the common practice, rather than being an extreme example of exclusivity. This does not mean that Israel should open its borders and accept all refugees. It does mean it should accept some. We argue it would be best to start at home – caring for the people already present within its borders.

2. Much has already been written about Jewish and Israeli involvement in the drafting of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, in the aftermath of World War II and the Jewish Holocaust. Others have also written about the concept of ‘Responsibility Sharing’ in the international community, which is grounded in both international law and shared moral sensibilities.[1] Israel has always aspired to be a ‘nation among nations,’ and as such it should implement the conventions it signed in domestic law, and carry its share in the global responsibility for asylum seekers and refugees.

3. Israel has an added value as it approaches the predicament of asylum seekers. As the state of the Jewish people, created in the spirit of Judaism, it has to abide by the command to love the stranger. You cannot proclaim your love and responsibility for the “stranger” every Passover, in the prayers and texts, and then turn your back on refugees. Jews, if they are faithful to their ethos and have integrity, need to be at the world’s vanguard of helping refugees. This should become the hallmark of our Jewish identity.

Jews today are re-interpreting and re-writing their collective ethos and destiny. Do we want our children to inherit a Jewish People known for human compassion, social sensitivity and sense of justice? Or do we want notions of particularism and nationalism to define us? Will our children even want to be part of a collective whose entire sense of self rests on particularistic considerations, at the price of the same humanistic values Judaism brought to the world? This specific issue reflects a larger challenge: What will the future character of the Jewish people look like? Will we tolerate insensitivity, human apathy and sometimes cruelty performed in the name of the Jewish State? Or should we insist that the state of Israel abides by its legal, moral and Jewish commitments, as an expression of our collective covenant of destiny. The one in which, as Soloveitchik points out, the people “finds the full realization of its historical being.”

[1] Tally Kritzman-Amir and Yonatan Berman, ‘Responsibility Sharing and the Rights of Refugees: The Case of Israel’ The Geo. Wash. Int’l L. Rev. 41 Jan 2011.

Maayan Ravid is conducting doctoral research at the University of Oxford, UK, on the detention of asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea in Israel. She completed a Masters degree at the University of Oxford and a BA at Tel Aviv University in Political Science and Histories of Africa. Her academic work corresponds with over 10 years of grassroots activism with disenfranchised communities in Israel – including asylum seekers, Ethiopian migrants and Israeli residents of South Tel Aviv.

Dr. Shlomi Ravid is the founding director of the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education and the founding editor of the Peoplehood Papers.