Israel Rabbis Social Justice

Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘Appoint for yourselves cities of refuge’

Jewish history is peppered by tragic events. These are just a few:

1182 – the expulsion of the Jews of France
1290 – the expulsion of the Jews of England
1306 – the great expulsion from France: tens of thousands of Jews infiltrate into Belgium and Spain
1351 – large numbers of Jews infiltrate into Poland
1492 – the expulsion from Spain: tens of thousands of Jews infiltrate into Central Europe, North Africa, and the Ottoman Empire, including my own family, which is scattered in Austria, Italy, and Crete
1507 – the expulsion of the Jews of Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia
1881-1914 – hundreds of thousands of Jews infiltrate into Europe and the United States
1939 – the SS St. Louis, carrying 939 Jewish refugees, sails from country to country begging for asylum

We are all the children, grandchildren, and descendants of asylum seekers and refugees! Refugee-hood is embedded in the Jewish DNA and accordingly we cannot stand by and remain silent in the face of expulsion.

Israel is currently home to 26,563 asylum seekers from Eritrea, 7,624 from Sudan, and 2,638 from various other African countries. Of these, 7,000 are women; approximately 2,000 are victims of torture in Sinai and of trafficking in women; and approximately 1,500 are single men imprisoned at the Holot detention camp. The population of minors is around 5,000 – 7,000.

The Migration Authority is recruiting immigration inspectors who will be responsible for distributing deportation orders, organizing documents for “voluntary departure” and other administrative functions, and examining the RDC applications that have already been submitted. Since January 1, 2018, the authorities are not accepting any new asylum applications. In the present stage, children, women, and parents responsible for their children’s well-being are not to be deported.

When the authorities wish to foment hatred among the majority against a specific group, they accuse the group of constituting a threat to society at large: They are taking our jobs; they are parasites (or worse – a cancer in the back of the nation); they are criminals who are ruining our neighborhoods; they will take over the country; they are the reason for unemployment/crime/diseases, and so forth. Pharaoh made exactly the same allegations against the Children of Israel:

“And he said to his people: ‘See, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, in the event of war, that they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land.’” (Exodus 1:9-10)

The State of Israel was one of the sponsors of the UN Refugees Convention at a time when Europe was flooded with Jewish refugees in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Israel defines itself as a “Jewish state.” Yet now Israel intends to deport thousands of asylum seekers from Africa who fled for their lives. By so doing, it is violating the Biblical commandment “Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood” (Leviticus 19:16). Israel plans to deport the asylum seekers to countries that are still recovering from bloodbaths and are not capable of absorbing an additional traumatized population.

As we stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai we declared: “We will do and we will understand.” We undertook to observe the constitution that turns us into a nation. At that moment, not knowing that we ourselves would time after time find ourselves strangers in a strange land, we promised that in our own land we would show great love for the stranger.

In Exodus we read: You know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). The word “stranger” appears 92 times in the Bible in various forms, underlining the sensitivity of Jewish tradition to the condition and status of the non-Jew. Now, as a sovereign people in our own land, we have forgotten this!

Some 90 years before Herzl wrote The Old New Land and the Jewish people began to dream of establishing its own state, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch commented: “Therefore beware – so the text warns – of making rights in your own state conditional on anything other than on that pure humanity that dwells in the heart of every human being per se. With any limitation in these human rights, a gate is opened to the whole horror of Egypt.” (Commentary on Exodus 22:20) Violating the rights of asylum seekers and deporting them to the unknown is the “horror of Egypt!”

And so, three Reform rabbis – Rabbi Susan Silverman, Rabbi Nava Hefetz, and Rabbi Tamara Schagas – have launched an initiative called Miklat Israel (“Israel refuge.”) The goal of the initiative is to urge the general public in Israel to defend asylum seekers facing lethal danger.

In just two weeks, 1,000 families and individuals from throughout Israel promised to hide asylum seekers. We also contacted the kibbutz movement and some 1,500 members of kibbutzim across the country have also agreed to help.

We are in regular contact with the leaders of the asylum seekers’ communities and are working in full cooperation with them. Jewish tradition demands that we cherish the sanctity of every human life, created in God’s image – and all the more so the lives of people liable to be deported to uncertainty and danger. We believe that the decision by the Israeli government to deport the asylum seekers is a grossly unlawful one, and that we must struggle to remove this proposal from the agenda of Israeli society.

We urge you, our sisters and brothers in North America and around the world, to join our campaign to defend the asylum seekers in Israel. Make your voices heard loudly and help us avert the evil decree. You can contact us at

“Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness” (Isaiah 1:27)

Rabbi Nava Hefetz serves Miklat Israel, and is the Director of Education at Rabbis for Human Rights