African refugees in Israel who hold low-paying jobs in local restaurants have gone on strike as part of large protests by the refugee community and their supporters against a proposed amendment to Israel's "Prevention of Infiltration Law."
As The New Yorker's Ruth Margalit notes, "Previously, the legislation allowed the government to hold the undocumented—often refugees escaping from countries beset by famine, oppression, and mass murder—for up to three years without a trial, in a detention center in southern Israel. (In September, the Israeli Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.) Under the new amendment, which passed parliament last month, asylum seekers who enter the country illegally can be detained for up to a year. The compensation for those who agree to leave the country has also increased, from fifteen hundred dollars to thirty-five hundred dollars (where they are expected to go remains unclear). But the law also allows Israel to hold asylum seekers who are already in the country in an “open facility” indefinitely."
Despite many Israelis' sentiments toward those seeking asylum, hardline leaders like Benjamin Netanyahu remain undeterred in their opposition to the African refugees. Said Netanyahu via Facebook: “No amount of protests or strikes will help. We are determined to get the illegal infiltrators out of Israel.”
Netanyahu's colleage in the Knesset, Miri Regev likewise called Sudanese refugees “a cancer in our body,” saying, “We will do everything it takes to send them back.”
The irony of this is palpable. Israel is a nation founded entirely as a refugee state!
The sentiments of Netanyahu and other ideologically racist leaders within Israel are, quite simply, unbiblical. No sooner had ancient Israel itself come out of Africa (where they had initially been refugees from famine in Canaan) than God repeatedly emphasized how they were to treat the alien among them when they entered the Land:
"Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt." (Exodus 23:9)
"When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him.
34 The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God."
"You are to have the same law for the alien and the native-born. I am the LORD your God." (Leviticus 24:22)
"The same laws and regulations will apply both to you and to the alien living among you." (Numbers 15:16)
"He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt."
"Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow." Then all the people shall say, "Amen!"" (Deuteronomy 27:19)
Torah is infused with an ethos of protecting and upholding the rights of the most helpless within Israel. It explicitly includes the "alien"/"sojourner" within this category and links their plight intimately with God's compassion.
Yet today, in the name of Zionism and the racial purity of a "Jewish state" (again, the irony is thick, given the treatment of European Jews throughout the centuries), many of Israel's leaders are directly and unapologetically ignoring what should comprise the very DNA of any state claiming to be the heirs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Instead of being a nation to which the gentile peoples stream (as the Prophets envisioned Israel to one day be), current Israeli leadership sees the presence of Africans, Arabs and other non-Jews as a "demographic problem" and a "threat." This is a sadly secular and fear-based response that flies in the face of Torah's call to justice, compassion and trust in the God of Jacob.
There is hope, however. Many Israelis reject their leaders rhetoric and xenophobia. Margalit notes:
“The refugee problem has been used by the government as a red cape that they like to throw around,” Sigal Avivi, a fifty-three-year-old activist from Tel Aviv, told me. “Instead of investing and improving the dismal situation in the southern neighborhoods, the government treats the refugees as scapegoats and says, ‘We’ll get rid of them first.’ ” Avivi added, “The sad reality is that the State of Israel needs them. Even though some of them were academics and many are educated, they represent a cheap labor force. So instead of bringing in other migrant workers on visas, we are telling the government, ‘Let these people work.’ ”
May God use the xenophobia and racism of the current generation of leaders as a catalyst to raise up future leaders within Israel who have a sense of Torah justice and Godly compassion...one which reflects the aspirations of all true heirs of Abraham.