Stand up for asylum seekers in Israel

Naomi Lightman, A. Daniel Roth and Leora Smith with members of Right Now

Special to The CJN


Many of us gathered in our homes on Dec. 6 to light the menorah in honour of Chanukah. In Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park, a different sort of Chanukah gathering took place.

There, hundreds of Jewish Israelis joined prominent politicians to light the menorah amid picket signs reading, “Sudanese, go back to Sudan.” Looking on were non-Jewish African asylum seekers, many of whom are homeless and living in Levinsky Park. While significant segments of Israeli public opinion have turned violently against African asylum seekers, very little has been heard about this in North America. We’d like to start that conversation.

We are a group of young Canadian Jews, taught from childhood that the core values of Judaism include fighting injustice, seeking truth and building peace. Many of us came of age as the Canadian Jewish community took a leading role in the Save Darfur movement.

We planned rallies, started national coalitions and spoke alongside members of Parliament and Holocaust survivors against Sudan’s genocidal regime. Canadian Jewish Congress, UJA and many others joined as allies, invoking the legacy of the Shoah and proudly reminding us of Israel’s role in sheltering Darfuri refugees.

Today, some Jewish Israelis and members of Knesset (MKs) are mistreating these very refugees. While others, brave Israeli citizens and journalists, have spoken out against their actions, our North American community has remained unacceptably silent. We understand that Israeli society faces numerous domestic challenges, and that there is a hesitancy to be seen as meddling in internal Israeli politics. But, when it comes to the treatment of refugees, a topic so personal to so many of us, we must face this unfortunate reality head on – and we must face it together as a community.

Approximately 60,000 non-Jewish African refugees and asylum seekers live in Israel, and around 85 per cent of them come from Eritrea and Sudan. Most asylum seekers from these countries are not permitted to work, to access health services, or even to apply for refugee status.

The Coalition Against Racism in Israel reported that recorded racist incidents in Israel doubled between 2010 and 2011. Much of this racism has been incited by radical government officials and directed toward non-Jewish Africans.

Eli Yishai, Israel’s interior minister, publicly stated that asylum seekers make Tel Aviv a “garbage can.” Last May, MK Miri Regev spoke to a large crowd, calling African migrants a “cancer in our body.” Following her speech, some in the crowd attacked African people and destroyed and looted African-owned stores. A month earlier, Molotov cocktails were thrown at apartments housing African migrants, including one that housed a daycare.

African asylum seekers repeatedly speak of the dangers they face at home and their desire for a fair process to seek refuge in Israel. Yet, many Israeli officials refuse to hear these refugees, instead branding them “economic migrants.” The gross human rights violations perpetrated by the Sudanese and Eritrean governments are internationally known. Canada accepts 96 per cent of Eritrean refugee claimants and 95 per cent of those from Sudan.

Israel is a small country, and there are real challenges to accepting and accommodating refugees. En route, many refugees pass through Egypt, where they are extorted by human smugglers, held for ransom and tortured. Egypt must do better, but Israel also must do its part.

Sweden, with a population comparable to Israel’s, has a quota to accept 1,900 refugees each year as citizens. Since 1948, Israel has accepted fewer than 200. Prisons with a capacity for over 10,000 people are being built in the Negev to detain African asylum seekers, and some MKs have publicly stated their intention to “round up” Africans – including children, and genocide survivors – and detain them until they leave.

These are not “fringe” ideas, but actions supported by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself.

As a state established by the Jewish People, who profoundly understand what it means to be refugees and to be rejected with the words “none is too many,” we must speak out against Israel’s unethical actions. We must take a stand against this racism by supporting the various dissenting voices within the media, the political sphere and relief organizations on the ground. Rather than making excuses for the street violence and official mistreatment faced by many African asylum seekers in Israel, we must uphold the core values that bind us together as Jews. Now is the time to say with a united voice that we support an Israel that acts righteously to save lives and provide protection for vulnerable peoples.

Right Now is a coalition of North Americans advocating for asylum seekers in Israel. Learn more by visiting the websites of Israeli organizations Hotline for Migrant Workers and the African Refugee Development Centre. Please consider signing Right Now’s petition at

A. Daniel Roth was born and raised in Toronto and is currently a Tel Aviv-based writer, photographer and educator.

Naomi Lightman is a PhD Candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

Leora Smith lives in Toronto and works in the fields of human rights and civic engagement.