At a New Israel Fund event on Monday, two speakers, Hagai El-Ad and Libby Lenkinski from the Association for Civil Rights in Israeli (ACRI), discussed “an unfolding crisis in Israel.” These days, it’s not uncommon to hear the words “crisis” and “Israel” used in the same sentence, but when I think of a crisis in Israel, I instantly think about threats to Israel’s existence. Rarely, do I consider African refugees and asylum seekers.
El-Ad began by explaining that over the past few years, 50,000 African refugees have crossed the border into Israel. El-Ad insisted, however, that we put this figure in a proper context. 50,000 refugees would unlikely shift the demographics in Israel. The country has a total population of 7 million citizens and, 1 million of these citizens Asylum seekers absorbed from the Soviet Union. Suddenly, the number of refugees seems smaller.
So where is the crisis here?
First of all, the number of refugees in Israel will only increase. The pair explained that despite Netanyahu’s efforts to keep African immigrants out of the country, his deportation laws and anti-immigration publicity campaigns will have little noticeable impact. Netanyahu cannot deport refugees from Sudan and Eritrea given the unsafe political climate, nor can he discourage immigrants via media because all media in both countries is government regulated. These two nationalities comprise over 80% of the total immigrants. Yet, ultimately, Netanyahu can do little to keep them out of Israel. According to international law, all nations must welcome asylum seekers who were victims of human rights violations in their home country, and whose life would be in danger if returned.
Still, compared to the Israeli government, El-Ad and Lenkinski were not overly concerned with the quantity of refugees. They briefly mentioned that Israel should assemble a better vetting system for sorting through refugee applications, if numbers are such a concern. According to the Israeli Interior Ministry, of the “refugees” documented thus far only .002% have been approved as legitimate victims. This reveals first, that a better system could be quite effective but also, that the Israel definition of a “refugee” be too narrow. The Israeli government clearly wants to inhibit asylum seekers in any way that they can, even though the number of refugees in question would not drastically alter Israeli demographics.
In contrast, the El-Ad and Lenkinski’s main focus was to ensure that these immigrants are accepted into society with basic human rights. El-Ad described the struggles for the asylum seekers. Refugees are picked up at the border and dropped off at a bus station in an area of South Tel Aviv that already lacks proper infrastructure. Strict labor laws and the threat of deportation create an abusive employer-employee relationship for the immigrants. Likewise, they are not eligible for basic social services like health care and education. Right now, the government withholds such services less due to racism, and more in hopes of discouraging immigration and avoiding the issue. Lenkinski says it is time for Israel to address this population: “withholding civil services is not the way to fight this battle.”
While at first glance, this crisis might remind us of US immigration debates along the Mexico border, the situation in Israel is much more severe. It boils down to a crisis beyond national identity and population control – how do we address civil rights in a nation that, by definition, was created for only a specific sector of people? Further, there is a moral crisis here. Israel is a homeland for a people who have been discriminated against time and time again; how can we close our hearts and subject African refugees to discrimination?
Lenkinski ended by expressing her disappointment when she recently read a news article comparing violence against asylum seekers and their property in Tel Aviv to Kristallnacht. We said never again. That statement applies to discrimination of any peoples and now, it is Israel’s turn act on it.
Prepared by Rebecca Jacobson, Summer Intern