The Israeli High Court decision on asylum seekers and PM. Netanyahu’s tour of South Tel Aviv took place the week we read that it is forbidden to return somebody fleeing oppression to their oppressors. Rav Bibi, the third generation Talmudic Amora, also had something to say about asylum seekers.
I am catching up on Israeli news after returning this morning from Prague. The Ascherman family comes from a number of small towns and villages south of Prague, and this was an opportunity to show my children some of their roots. While my great grandfather came to the U.S. in the late 19th century, there were a number of Ascherman’s (generally Aschermann or Aschernova) on the lists at Terezin and at the Pinkas synagogue in Prague of those murdered in the Holocaust. Nevertheless, we learned much about the spirit of relative tolerance and pluralism towards the Jews, and internally within the Bohemian Jewish community, both 120 years ago, and now.
While I have been away, Israel has taken additional steps in her war against our Bedouin citizens, the army continues to prevent Palestinian shepherds from Uja to get to lands far from the unauthorized Kkhavat Omer outpost. Israel still hasn’t agreed to pay the disabled a stipend comparable to minimum wage…
All of these issues remain more or less where they were the day I left. However, there have been dramatic developments regarding those African asylum seekers fleeing for their lives, who were able to make their way to Israel before Israel built a fence to keep them out. Many insist on calling them “infiltrators” here solely for economic reasons. Yet, we are unwilling to properly carry out the “RSD” procedures to determine who deserves refugee status. Strangely, the number of asylum seekers being granted refugee status here is much much lower than those from the same populations receiving refugee status in other countries. Proper RSD would expose the lie that almost none of the “infiltrators” are truly refugees.
One of the ploys of recent years has been to pressure asylum seekers into “agreeing” to leave for countries that Israel tried to keep secret (such as Uganda and Ruanda) by detaining them, denying them the ability to work, etc. Denying work is reminiscent of what we are taught about the Sodomites, who would give marked coins as seeming tzedakah to indigent wayfarers entering their city. Nobody would accept the marked coins as payment, and when they dropped dead from hunger, they would take the coins back. They would piously proclaim that nobody had taken any steps to harm the strangers in their midst.
Reports from these Uganda and Rwanda by “Foreign Policy” (foreignpolicy.com June 27, 2017) and others indicate that at best they left to fend for themselves, and often the money Israel gives them is immediately stolen. In many cases, they are never actually admitted into the country, smuggled over the border, and become part of the stream of human misery trying to get into Europe on unsafe boats.
Israel’s High Court has come under tremendous criticism for outlawing detention centers and limiting the Israeli government’s ability to abuse these people. Finally, the Court accepted a version of the Holot “open” detention center. This Monday the Court permitted what most countries refuse to permit, and in some cases, their courts ruled that it is contradictory to international refugee law largely written by Jews after the Holocaust-the deportation of asylum seekers to third countries. They did express great discomfort and said that the asylum seeker must “agree,” cannot be detained more than 60 days to obtain the “agreement,” the countries they are deported to must be safe, etc. Chief Justice Naor reminded the State that two years ago she had suggested spreading out the asylum seeker population, so as not to continue to pit the asylum seekers against the inundated South Tel Aviv residents, who are also suffering.
Our demagogues have had a field day. Government minister after government minister has decried the decision and called for new legislation to legalize involuntary deportation. Prime Minister Netanyahu toured South Tel Aviv to the cheers of some. Those South Tel Aviv residents protesting the government’s cynical creation of suffering for asylum seekers and residents alike were kept far away. Our Prime Minister called for a three pronged approach of fences, legislation and secret agreements with third countries.
Long before Israel’s High Court or the 1951 Refugee Convention, our and our sages addressed this issue. We read in this week’s Torah portion, “Ki Titzeh,” “You shall not turn over to his/her master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his/her master. S/he shall live with you in any place s/he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever s/he pleases; you must not ill-treat him/her.” Deuteronomy 23:16-7). Many today view the escaped slave as the closest parallel to today’s asylum seeker. This is discussed length in the Talmud (Gitin and Arakhin), by Maimonides, and by Rashi. Ironically, in Arakin 29a it is Rav Bibi who says that the obligation not to ill-treat the escaped slave applies even in the case of a non-Jewish slave owned by a non-Jew living outside the Land of Israel.
Our Jewish tradition and our history demand that we open our borders to those fleeing for their lives, treat humanely those living among us and allow them to work and feed their families, have compassion on South Tel Aviv residents by spreading the population of refugees and asylum seekers throughout the country, and give asylum seekers a fair chance to prove their refugee status. Some of the many who are truly refugees must be allowed to remain, in the tradition initiated by Menachem Begin. Citing the St. Louis, his first official act as prime minister was to take in 66 Vietnamese boat people. If we feel that the thousands fleeing for their lives today are too many, we must cease the supposed secret agreements with countries that neither want our asylum seekers nor are willing to treat them humanely. From some of my discussions over the years, I believe that we could form open agreements with countries such as the U.S. and Canada and others, were we to agree to grant refugee status where warranted and absorb some of the refugees here.
If only our Bibi would listen to Rav Bibi.
First published in Times of Israel