Israel Confronts Strangers In Its Midst

Jewish History Tells Us To Respect African Immigrants

Un-Jewish Crackdown: Respecting strangers is an age-old Jewish tradiiton. That’s what makes Israel’s crackdown on African immigrants so disturbing.
getty images
Un-Jewish Crackdown: Respecting strangers is an age-old Jewish tradiiton. That’s what makes Israel’s crackdown on African immigrants so disturbing.

By Leonard Fein

Published July 01, 2012, issue of July 06, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

What shall be done about the large number of non-citizens that dwell in Israel? This question is no longer merely vexing, it is urgent, inflammatory, sometimes violent, often vulgar.

The ger has a long and detailed history in Jewish texts and thought. Its conventional translation is “stranger,” but you don’t have to search hard to find alternatives: sojourner, foreigner, alien.

Who are today’s aliens? There are some 14,000 migrant workers who entered the country legally but whose visas have expired or have otherwise become void. There are a number of Palestinians and Jordanians who work in Israel, some illegally. There are more from other population groups. And there’s the heart of the current matter, nearly 60,000 irregular immigrants, defined by the Ministry of the Interior as “infiltrators.” They have arrived in Israel from Eritrea (60%), Sudan (25%), the balance from the Democratic Republic of Congo and other African countries; they come via Sinai, where many experience brutality from Bedouin gangs who guide them to the Israeli border. Once in Israel, if identified as Sudanese or Eritrean, they are detained for a few weeks and then given a document that is, in effect, a deferred deportation order that must be periodically renewed, explicitly stating that it is not a work permit, plus a one-way bus ticket to Tel Aviv, where they are dropped at a park near the Central Bus Station. And it is typically in that same neighborhood that they find shelter, work, and some social and medical services provided by volunteers.

These days, they also find rampant hostility from others in the neighborhood, hostility that has lately been marked by violence and by unambiguously racist slogans; hostility that has been encouraged by a number of Israeli politicians, most notably Eli Yishai, minister of the interior. It is Yishai’s ministry that has formal responsibility for handling immigration issues, and the current policy includes a law that was passed last January, holding that a camp shall be built near Saharonim, in the Negev, for these “illegals” (including their children), with buildings to house 13,600 of them and tents for the others.

The plan bumps head-on into two bodies of law. First, there is the clear and repeated biblical statement: “You shall not oppress a stranger, because you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). More proactively, in Deuteronomy (10:19): “You are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.” And still more: “There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you” (Exodus 12:49).

Still, the practical utility of such precepts is arguable. Less arguable are the requirements of the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees, adopted in 1951 with Israel’s intense involvement and enthusiastic endorsement. (Back then, the urgent problem was Europe’s displaced persons.)

Who is a refugee? The Convention, amended in a 1967 protocol, defines the word: “A person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

No one reasonably argues that according to that language, the 60,000 irregular immigrants in Israel are not refugees. But, since 1948, Israel has awarded refugee status to exactly 166 people. In recent years, Israel has categorically denied Eritreans and Sudanese access to refugee status determination, which leaves them in legal limbo. And therein lies the outrage and also the plain violation of international law.

The convention also forbids the arbitrary detention of illegal immigrants. Hence the plans for a massive detention center are also a violation of Israel’s legal obligations.

There is growing recognition of these issues by Israel’s leadership. Whereas Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on May 29, in the immediate aftermath of the anti-immigrant rioting: “My policy on the matter of the illegal foreign workers is clear: First, stop their entry through the fence, while at the same time, expel all infiltrators from Israel,” by June 4 he admitted that Israel cannot consider deporting the vast majority of African immigrants, because of the poor political or humanitarian situation in their countries. “It’s clear that we cannot return Sudanese and Eritreans to their countries,” Netanyahu said.

Presumably, that means that Israel now intends to finish the fence under construction along the Sinai border and to proceed with plans for the detention center.

The truth is that any alternative policy is enormously complicated. Making asylum a reality and enabling refugees to live in dignity raises endless problems. But here’s another truth: We who were slaves — strangers, aliens — unto Pharaoh in Egypt, we who therefore know the heart of the stranger, ought we not insist that plausible claims for asylum be processed? Or, if we expect others to acknowledge that Israel is a Jewish state, is it wrong to expect that it will behave as one?

Contact Leonard Fein at feedback@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.