The Jewish State’s Responsibility to Refugees

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[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 Galia Sabar and Noga Malkin

In this short expose, we examine the response of the State of Israel to non-Jewish refugees within the context of global insights on refugees in the 21st century, Jewish values, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Jewish refugee history. This broad context will enable us to better present and critically analyze Israel’s response to non-Jewish refugees. The vision for the Jewish response to refugees that this issue explores does not, in our opinion, necessitate a focus on the Israeli state per se as Israel, which, after all, does not represent all Jews nor Judaism as such. Nevertheless, since Israel is built on the Jewish collective ethos and does claim to act in this spirit, its response is crucial to the broader debate. Moreover, since refugee policy is contingent on a nation state for its execution, and as Israel is a state purportedly founded as a safe haven for refugees (even if its founding precipitated another, by now protracted, refugee crisis), we believe it should have a clear vision for its treatment of those seeking safety in its territory. Its response is therefore crucial to the broader debate over Jewish response to non-Jewish refugees.

Relevant to our topic, we identified three major insights that inform our understanding of the global refugee challenge. First, immigration is not a new phenomenon, nor is it transitory; people will always seek better lives elsewhere, and survival instinct will continue to push people to seek refuge when they are in danger. Second, refugees are not inherently an economic burden; rather, many of them contribute to economic development. With the right policies in place, they do not necessarily drain resources, nor take jobs away, but rather add purchasing power, create employment, and provide motivated, often young, human capital. Studies have shown that whether refugees are a benefit or a burden depends not just on who the refugees are, but on the policies of the host states: when they are given the right to work, access to capital, and educational opportunities, they are likely to have the greatest impact.[1] Finally, refugees are not the helpless mass of hungry children and women once broadcast on our screens; rather, many of them are people with agency, motivation, skills and zeal to succeed, who use social networks and information flows, and know how to demand their rights.

As for Judaism’s relationship with refugees, Judaism, both in its textual sources and in Jewish tradition, teaches its followers about the commitment to protect refugees. The 36 biblical reiterations of the commandment to love the stranger, Emmanuel Levinas’ reminder that we are responsible for others, and of course much of Jewish history, with its recurring episodes of persecution and exodus, reveal as much. In fact, the 1951 Refugee Convention – the first articulation of the international responsibility for refugee protection – was drafted through heavy advocacy from the Jewish representatives of the Israeli state, and was prompted by the persecution of Jews and others in the Second World War. Indeed, Israel was one of only 13 countries whose representatives sat on every committee that drafted the Refugee Convention and one of the first states to ratify it upon completion; Dr. Jacob Robinson, Israel’s representative to the UN conference that drafted the refugee convention, was a member of all five drafting organs of the convention. In 1967, when the Refugee Convention was expanded to include refugees from every part of the world, the Israeli state was among the first to sign on. 1967 was, of course, a consequential year for Israel in other ways, as thousands of additional refugees were created after the war.

Throughout these international processes, Israel made a clear distinction between “refugees” and Palestinian refugees, excluding its obligations towards the latter and ensuring that the international organizations founded as a result of the Refugee Convention exclude Palestinians, who remain under UNRWA’s jurisdiction.

Israel has not always stood by the obligations set forth in the international law it helped craft, even when dealing with non-Palestinian refugees. While Israel has taken in a large number of Jewish refugees, the State has historically accepted a very limited number of non-Jewish refugees. Over the years, Israel granted citizenship to a few hundred Vietnamese escaping the Communist regime between 1975 and 1979 and gave temporary visas in 1993 to eighty-four Bosnian Muslims who had fled the former Yugoslavia.[2] Yet the real challenge to the State of Israel’s policy towards non-Jewish refugees began in 2006, when an influx of tens of thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese began crossing its border with Egypt in search of asylum. Unprepared to deal with refugee status determination (RSD) processes, Israel issued a Group Protection Visa granting temporary protection from deportation – but offering no other rights. In 2008-2009, the Israeli Ministry of Interior issued unique visas to 600 Sudanese from war-torn Darfur, enabling them to work, but since then the State has accepted only 45 out of the 17,778 who applied for asylum.[3] In 2012, in a highly controversial move, the Israeli government passed an amendment to its border control law – originally issued in the 1950s as part of its struggle against Palestinians – mandating three-year imprisonment without trial for any person entering the country illegally, regardless of asylum status. This was one of several laws and procedures the State passed in contradiction to the international law protecting refugees that it had pushed to create. De-facto, these draconian procedures restricting non-Jewish asylum seekers and positioned the State of Israel in clear opposition to its basic commitments to human rights under international law.

Thus far, Israel’s response has been driven both by its version of real-politik, which claims to act in accordance with international law (by not deporting Eritreans and Sudanese), and in conversation with Jewish values (or at least not in clear opposition to them). As the above summary of Israel’s policies towards non-Jewish refugees clearly shows, Israeli policies today reflect a belief that the refugee convention undermines the Jewish identity of the State. Some have argued that Israeli policy-makers rely on “Israel’s very existence as the state of asylum of the Jewish people” to maintain compliance with its obligation under the Convention.[4] Clearly, there is no one just policy for the State of Israel. Yet Israel, like many states, has to find a way to comply with its international obligations within the complex challenges posed by influxes of asylum seekers and refugees, and maintain a humanistic and compassionate mode of conduct based on its own unique history.

What seems to us to be missing from the Israeli and global conversation, however, is a holistic understanding that mass influxes of refugees are the outcome of global doings and misdoings, and that, therefore, the response has to be accordingly global. Wealthy countries like Israel must push to tackle root causes for displacement, rather than looking the other way while the world’s poorest countries conveniently host 80% of the world’s refugees. The Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, Repairing the World, is a sharp reminder of our shared social and environmental responsibilities, and urges Jews to take a leadership role in assuming those responsibilities. Israel, as the self-selected spokesperson for Judaism, should lead the moral charge, by actively pushing for international development, burden sharing, poverty reduction, ethical treatment of refugees, and open doors – to all refugees, without discrimination, non-Jews and Jews alike.

[1] Alexander Betts, 2014, Refugee Economies: Rethinking Popular Assumptions
[4] Rotem Giladi, The International History Review Vol. 37 , Iss. 4, 2015. A ‘Historical Commitment’? Identity and Ideology in Israel’s Attitude to the Refugee Convention 1951–4.

Galia Sabar is a scholar in African Studies, specializing in the study of migration. She is the former Chair of African Studies at Tel Aviv University and currently the President of Ruppin Academic Center. Over the years, she has published 6 books and dozens of academic papers. Parallel to her scientific work she is a leading social activist. She is a board member of: Hotline for migrants; NALA – Center for Neglected Tropical Diseases and IRAC – Israel Religious Action Center. In 2009 she received the “Unsung Heroes of Compassion” award from the Dalai Lama. She was the first Israeli to win this award.

Noga Malkin is a humanitarian aid worker and researcher focusing on refugee protection in the Middle East. She holds an M.A in Arab Studies with a focus on refugees and humanitarian emergencies from Georgetown University and a certification in Arabic language through the CASA fellowship program at the American University in Cairo. She has worked for Human Rights Watch, UNHCR, Oxfam, International Medical Corps, and other organizations in various countries including Turkey, South Sudan, and Israel/Palestine.