“I’m ashamed to see that happening in my country, but because of your race, you feel you don’t belong to that place anyway,” he said. “That’s one of the major problems we face there.”
So Ali, 27, like many other non-Arab Sudanese people and Eritreans, journeyed to Israel, the nearest democratic country. Five years later, Ali is, by his description and that of monitoring groups, a “prisoner” at the Holot detention center in the western Negev, about 37 miles from the nearest city, Beersheva. While he and about 2,000 other detainees are free to come and go, they must check in with authorities three times a day and are subject to a 10 p.m. curfew at the facility; failure to follow the rules leads to imprisonment.
The detainees, say activists, remain in a state of sociopolitical limbo in a country largely unreceptive to an approximately 44,000-strong group of African immigrants; Jerusalem takes little action on granting asylum seekers the legal and social protections of refugee status.
On Monday, the Israeli High Court of Justice ordered the closing of Holot within 90 days and voided a measure the Knesset passed last December that allowedincarceration without trial for those who illegally entered the country. Asylum seekers and advocates counted it as a small victory in an uphill battle for refugee rights.
“While we are content with the court’s ruling, the Right Now coalition will continue to advocate for greater change and more protections … including a fair Refugee Status Determination process, a cessation of Israel’s deterrence policy of coercing asylum seekers to ‘voluntarily return,’ social residency and the right to work, including work permits, health care and welfare benefits and the condemnation of all racist rhetoric and violent incitement towards the asylum seekers,” said Maya Paley, co-founder of the Right Now coalition, a volunteer-run group working to raise awareness of the issue in the United States.
Paley’s comments alluded to life outside of Holot, which is still rife with obstacles for African asylum seekers.
“We didn’t expect this from Israel,” Ali said, explaining that he and other asylum seekers thought Israel’s history and democratic government would make it a welcoming place for those seeking refuge.
That people like Ali have received anything but a welcome embrace from the Jewish state has sparked protests within Israel and spurred activists and rabbis in the wider Jewish community, including in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., to take notice. And while Israel determines what to do with the influx of asylum seekers, more than 6,000 have reversed course and headed to their home countries where, according to a new 83-page report by Human Rights Watch, they face possible criminal charges, torture and imprisonment.
Israel’s 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Act, also known as the “Anti-Infiltration Law,” referred to Palestinians trying to cross into Israeli territory from neighboring countries, as well as all sub-Saharan Africans who entered Israel illegally, as infiltrators.
Bill Frelick, refugee program director at HRW and editor of the organization’s recent report, said the language in the law itself may be part of the reason Israel has been so unwelcoming to those seeking asylum.
“These are not people that have any intention of doing any harm to Israel,” he said. “The legal framework in the statute itself frames this as a security and legal issue.”
In January 2012, the Knesset passed an amendment to indefinitely detain anyone entering Israel illegally. This was struck down by Israel’s High Court in September 2013, but other regulations have since allowed for the arrest and detention without trial of anyone entering the country suspected of committing certain crimes.
Israelis and the Jewish community should demand better, said Columbia native Anna Rose Siegel, coordinator of the Right Now coalition’s regional activities in Baltimore and Washington.
“As Jews our commitment is to those who have experienced parallel persecution,” she explained. “Israel was founded as a refugee nation.”
Rabbi Sid Schwarz of Rockville similarly keeps human rights at the forefront of his concerns. He is on the board of T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization, is a senior fellow at Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and serves as director of the Rene Cassin Fellowship Program, a one-year educational program on Judaism and human rights for young professionals. For the last couple of years, the fellows have spent a day of their study tour in Israel exploring the issue of African refugees.
Whether drawing from halachic, rabbinical or historical sources, Schwarz said, they all point to Israel being a place of refuge.
“We are a people who in our history oftentimes needed refuge. The Holocaust is the most recent example, perhaps even more recently that Israel has been a haven for Jews from the Soviet Union, Argentina and France,” he said. “I think just from the perspective of history, a Jewish state should have as compassionate a policy towards refugees as possible.”
He also cites the Passover story, in which Jews were strangers in Egypt, as demonstrating why Jews should be sensitive to other strangers.