Oops: Bennett and I don’t agree. But migrants find justice in Israel’s courts.

Naftali Bennett

Naftali Bennett

Alas, it was too good to last. As, perhaps, we could have predicted.

On Thursday, I wrote that I rather surprisingly found myself in agreement with Israel’s Minister of the Economy, Nafatali Bennett—a far-right politician with whom I am typically at ideological loggerheads on all matters political, cultural, and religious. Bennett had launched an investigation of businesses that employ migrant workers; he was reported to have said: “We are doing right by exploited workers [working] under substandard conditions.” I suggested that this was a good start to dealing with enormous labor problems that include not just migrant workers (legal or otherwise), but also Palestinian laborers (legal or otherwise), and Israeli citizens. I even quoted Yom Kippur-specific Scripture in which the prophet Isaiah calls on us to “untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free.”

Alas.

On Sunday, writer and filmmaker David Sheen reached out to me to suggest I watch a segment about Bennett’s initiative produced by Israeli Channel Two News, in which the minister explains his motivations to both ministry employees and Channel Two’s reporter—and (sadly if unsurprisingly) his motivations are in fact entirely in-line with the government’s ongoing efforts to demonize and dehumanize African migrants (many of whom are actually refugees) and free Israel of the inconvenience of dealing with them at all (in contravention of both international law and agreements to which Israel is a signatory).

In the voice-over just before we see Bennett himself, we learn that

At the Ministry of the Economy, they believe that if employing an infiltrator costs as much as employing an Israeli, the infiltrators won’t be able to find work, and will return to Africa. [Note that “infiltrator” is the government’s official term for African migrants and refugees in or on their way to Israel, a term which in Hebrew is historically rooted in the Israeli-Arab conflict and thus trades in an existential fear]

The report then cuts to footage of Bennett himself speaking with ministry employees who we’ve been watching going from business to business with clipboards and a translator. Bennett:

Whoever knows that if he comes here, he won’t find work, because it won’t be worth anyone’s while to hire him, they’ll stop coming—which has already started to happen—but those who are already here will gradually leave.

Reporter Gilad Shalmor notes that Bennett’s comments actually contradict police recommendations that the migrants be allowed to find work as a crime preventative, and poses the question: “What happens when [the migrant] doesn’t find work—he’ll be on the street and then what?” Bennett replies:

In the very short term, there might be a certain [problem] in that regard, but in the medium and long term, the entire phenomenon will decrease.

As Open Zion has repeatedly reported, these migrants have not randomly and lazily wandered across a border in search of an easy income: These are people who have crossed literal wilderness and often survived gangs of smugglers who rape and torture them in order to escape governments that have violently oppressed them in the past and frequently threaten them with death should they ever return. Some who have been forced to return anyway have literally jumped off trucks to their deathsrather than risk their chances back “home.” I’m not sure how powerful Naftali Bennett thinks he is, but the likelihood that he will be able to put a full stop that sort of desperation—or that, indeed, visiting 160 places of business in Tel Aviv will convince all of the nation’s employers (who are, it transpires, among the worst in the Western world with regard to minimum-wage violations even when the workers are fellow citizens) to stop exploiting such a vulnerable community—seems slight.

There is some good news out of Israel regarding the African migrants, however: On Monday, the High Court ruled unanimously to overturn the government’s recently crafted policy allowing authorities to arrest and detain migrants for up to three years without a trial. As the Jerusalem Post reports:

Justice Edna Arbel said Monday that detaining the African migrants rather than making a decision about whether they should be legally deported or granted asylum, “violated their fundamental constitutional rights to human dignity [that] is the basis for Israel’s values as a Jewish and democratic state.”

As a result and rather suddenly, the state may have to offer permanent residence to the migrants inside 90 days.

The ruling certainly doesn’t end the desperation, or provide work or food, or even do anything about Bennett’s own attitude (which, if history is a guide, will likely harden in response to the High Court).

But it provides a real measure of justice for those who have been illegally detained, and serves as a potent reminder that many in official Israel still recognize the Jewish State’s commitment to a foundational basis of “freedom, justice and peace… [and to be] faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” Even if Minister Bennett himself has forgotten.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Syrian refugees – actually a lot more than two million.

Last week the world reeled as we learned that the number of Syrian refugees had passed the two million mark.

Which is to say: Two million people—the equivalent of the combined populations of Boston, Detroit, and San Francisco—have fled their homes and country to what can only be called an uncertain fate in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and North Africa, with no idea whatsoever when or if they might ever return. Many refugees actually depend on the kindness of family and friends and never register with humanitarian aid organizations, so it’s likely that “two million” is, in fact, a low estimate.

Yet as horrifying as that is, as heartbreaking as the needs of the people fleeing and the people receiving them are, we must remember that those two million actually represent less than a third of all who have run for their lives in the course of this war.

The European Commission Humanitarian Office reports that an estimated 4.25 million Syrians are internally displaced persons—people forced out of their homes and communities by the violence, but who haven’t yet made it across a border. Thus, a total of 6.25 million Syrians—fully one third of the country’s population of 21 million—are, in fact, wandering.

The implications of this are staggering. As the region’s nations face historic internal turmoil and grapple with the sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of strangers—sometimes at a rate of thousands a day—the social and cultural fabric of Syrian life has been shredded beyond recognition beneath bombs and chemical weapons.

Consider a life: Parents, grandparents, growing children. Income is earned, homes are built, marriages celebrated and babies welcomed. You shop for your daily needs, come home along familiar paths, make holiday plans and hope your aunt makes enough of her signature dish. Your father falls ill, your daughter outgrows her shoes, you bring a present to the neighbors. At every turn, your life is woven tightly into the garment of the lives around you, and whether any given day brings sorrow or joy, you know where to find solace, support, or someone with whom to share your good fortune.

Now it’s gone.

It’s gone, and you don’t know if you’ll ever get it back. It’s gone, not just for you and your family and your community, and not even “just” for the two million people who have (at the very least) found a way out of the country and away from the killing. It’s true for six and a quarter million people—the equivalent of nearly the entire population of Israel.

The Jewish people knows what this chaos looks like. We see it in the eyes of survivors; many can still feel it in their flesh. We are a people that until very recently knew little but the hurriedly packed bag, the abandoned home, the loved one lost forever. Whatever Jews and Arabs may have done to or said about each other in the 20th and 21st centuries, surely when we see a father gather a dead child in his arms, our arms must ache, too.

And as the heart cries out, the mind must also be honest about the horror’s further ramifications. It might be possible to imagine that the strife in Egypt won’t spread beyond its borders; it might be possible to hope that Jordan’s King will work with his opposition toward democracy and stability. It’s possible. But there’s simply no way to see the massive, violent movement of 6.25 million people just beyond and all around Israel’s borders as an event that might leave anyone in the region untouched. At a certain point, likely at many points, chaos tips over in ways that cannot be predicted and whoever is within shouting distance finds themselves in the path of the consequences.

This is the time in the Jewish year in which we straddle the universal and the personal at once: Last week we celebrated harat olam, the world’s creation; this week, we stand before the Divine and weigh our most intimate behavior. We do each while surrounded by our community and all we hold dear. We are reminded, at every holiday table and with every blow of the shofar, that our destiny as individuals and as a community is bound in a spiral of mutuality that turns and returns, endlessly.

The Syrian people are not my people. Some of them have killed some of mine; some of mine have killed some of theirs.

And yet they are my people, because they, too, were created b’tselem Elohim, in God’s image. They are my people because they suffer untold terrors. They are my people because wherever their calamity leads, it will brush against or crash into my people and my home. We cannot yet begin to guess the outcome of the shattering of Syria and its people, but lines drawn on maps will not keep the disaster neat and tidy.

I stand before my Creator this week devastated by what humanity has wrought, and not a little frightened of what is to come—frightened for Israel, frightened for everyone in the region, but mostly frightened for the mothers and fathers grasping little hands in the night, and trembling.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast

Israel deports refugees to Sudan despite threat to their lives.

At an anti-refugee protest in Israel. The sign reads: "To Sudan!"

At an anti-refugee protest in Israel. The sign reads: “To Sudan!”

Haaretz reported on Tuesday that Israel deported at least 1,000 Sudanese refugees to North Sudan via a third county, without informing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees  (UNHCR) and despite the fact that “[Sudan] has vowed to punish any of its citizens who ever set foot in Israel”:

Though Israel claims the people’s return was voluntary, this claim was rejected by UNHCR, which says there is no “free will from inside a prison.”

Under a recent amendment to Israel’s infiltration law, asylum seekers can be jailed for years without trial. Testimony from within prisons indicates that detainees were also denied access to UNHCR, in violation of the UN convention on the status of refugees, which Israel has signed.

…Michael Bavli, UNHCR’s representative in Israel, warned the Population, Immigration and Border Authority that “deporting Sudanese to Sudan would be the gravest violation possible of the convention that Israel has signed – a crime never before committed.” [emphasis mine]

The U.N. refugee convention holds that even if an immigrant was not a refugee when he or she immigrated, he or she becomes such if being repatriated constitutes a threat to life and limb. As Haaretz notes, this understanding of international law has been upheld by Israel’s Supreme Court. Former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak wrote in one verdict that:

This is the great principle of non-refoulement, under which a person cannot be deported to a place where his life or liberty would be in danger. This principle is enshrined in Article 33 of the refugee convention.… It applies in Israel to every governmental authority that deals with deporting someone from Israel.

Many of the Sudanese who fled to Israel did so from Darfur, where American Jewish social activists have been deeply involved in the struggle against the Sudanese government’s genocidal policies; the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant against President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes and genocide in Darfur. Refugees coming from other parts of Sudan

have also been subjected to brutal attack by the Sudanese government – including aerial bombing, the destruction of entire villages and mass arrests of hundreds of thousands of people – in an effort to suppress what the government terms rebellions.

Israel’s decision to send defenseless human beings back to this reality is disturbingly of a piece with the treatment it has long afforded African refugees: As mentioned above illegal immigrants may be detained for years without trial; the legal status of refugees has been manipulated so that they may not legally seek work; Minister of the Interior Eli Yishai and other coalition members have incited racial violence against the refugees; the police have distorted crime statistics; and in one horrific case, a group of 21 refugees was literally left to starve on the border before three were imprisoned and the rest forced to return to the Sinai, where human traffickers routinely torture and rape whoever falls in their hands.

This story has gone largely under-covered by the American press (though not, as some have suggested, entirely unreported, with the New York TimesLos Angeles TimesWashington Post all publishing articles just in the past year, to name three outlets), and I have some thoughts as to why: the story doesn’t fit into the usual Israeli-Arab conflict tropes; the American press continues to face enormous financial struggles and has been slashing foreign coverage for years; the world is a huge place with major disasters and human tragedies playing out every day; and finally, while the African refugees in Israel number in the tens of thousands, there are frankly much bigger refugee stories out there, with much less complicated narratives. These are not excuses, they are only possible explanations, and the fact is: the information is out there, should we care to look for it.

But mostly, American and Israeli Jews have not cared to look for it—and if we have, we’ve supported the Israeli government in what can only be described as shocking and unconscionable actions. We can agree that a country has a right to protect its borders and spend its budget on its own citizens, without agreeing to this. Virtually every Jewish family alive today has a story burned into its collective memory of pogroms, ethnic discrimination, official scapegoating, privation, starvation, rape, and murder.

Is this the Jewish State we dreamed of?

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Strangers in a strange land.

Eritrean refugees on Israel’s border.

After a week of living beneath scraps of fabric on a scrap of land between two metal fences, hoping to be given asylum in a country established by refugees, 21 Eritrean refugees have gotten their answer from the Jewish State:

Israel has granted entry to two Eritrean women and a 14-year-old boy who were stuck on the Israel-Egypt border for eight days. The remaining 18 men were ordered to return to Egypt. The three Eritreans who were granted entry into Israel were immediately transferred to the Saharonim detention facility.

Lest we be tempted to believe that the decision to allow in three of these poor souls is an act deserving of praise, however,

Israeli experts on international law warn that stopping asylum seekers from entering the country and making their claim for asylum is a breach of binding treaties to which Israel is a signatory.

Moreover, according to William Tall, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel,

The most worrying thing to me is the discussion of pushing them back into Egypt, which is highly irresponsible, because if they go back to Egypt there is a high risk these people will fall in the hands of human smugglers, and it is well known, it is all documented, that many of these people have been abused, there are cases of torture or rape, and if you send them back you are sending them to a situation with a very high degree of insecurity.

Furthermore, while the refugees were awaiting this extraordinarily hard-hearted response from Israel’s authorities, those same authorities instructed the soldiers standing guard over them to provide the Eritreans with as little water as possible. The soldiers also acted to prevent human rights activists from bringing them food, and doctors from examining them. One of the women in question is reported to have miscarried over the course of the week.

Why didn’t the refugees give up and leave? Well, as my colleague Raphael Magarikwrote yesterday, refugees from Eritrea are often so desperate that

they will jump off trucks, to their deaths, rather than face repatriation….[and] Eritreans who go back report imprisonment, torture, and abuse. That’s why the United States, Canada, and Western Europe don’t deport Eritreans.

Indeed, according to +972 magazine, fully 93% of Eritreans seeking asylum elsewhere are granted official refugee status.

So, in short: Israel’s decision to ignore international treaties in order to send three people to a detention center and 18 to the gentle mercies of human traffickers and/or a government happy to whip them is hardly a grand compromise.

It’s more along the lines of a shanda—and forget fur die goyim. This is a shame for the Jews. To the extent that we identify with and support the Jewish state, to the extent that we choose to share in the collective experience of Jewish peoplehood, the treatment these human beings have received at Jewish hands should shame us to our very core.

There is simply no excuse for this. None. Not security, not the logic of borders, not the fact of laws recently passed. Nothing.

One more quote:

[The LORD] upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Deut 10:18-19

If we can sit idly by as the Jewish State behaves in this fashion, I’m forced to ask: What, exactly, do we want the words “Jewish state” to mean?

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.