Convention Israel

Strangers in a Strange Land – Asylum Seekers and Migrant Workers in Israel

So often when we travel to Israel we expect to see ‘the best’ of what the country has to offer. We see beautiful landscapes and architecture and eat at our favorite falafel stand. We stock up on kippot and other Judaica and we feel good about contributing to the Israeli economy. We feel good about being ‘b’aretz‘ in the land.

One of the special aspects of a CCAR Convention in Israel is the opportunity to do all of that but also go much deeper into the psyche of this modern state. My love for Israel is consistent and true and I am always wanting to understand the nuances of her character. Like a beloved friend, I am not afraid to unearth flaws. Rather, I desire to know this country for all that it is: a miraculous Nation State trying to figure out how ‘to be’ in this world.

While the world is focused on the Syrian refugee crisis, not a tremendous amount of attention is being paid to the almost 65,000 African Asylum seekers who have crossed into Israel in the last 10 years. They are mostly from Sudan and Eritrea and are part of a population of about 230,000 foreign laborers in Israel who mostly work in agriculture, home care and construction.

The laws concerning foreign laborers and asylum seekers have been uneven and inconsistent. International migrant workers, or Foreign workers as they were called, were originally recruited during the intifada of the 1990s when Palestinians were not permitted to work in Israel. But importing workers from other countries is different than having workers who go home at night and the strain on the societal infrastructure became noticeable as numbers of workers increased. While there have been deportations over the years and an ebb and flow in numbers, at this time, Israel faces a humanitarian and legal crisis as it tries to figure it how to deal with the fact that there are people in the world who seek to live and work in this country who are not Jewish and who are not Palestinian.

While the Israeli government does not now deport foreign workers, it also does not grant them refugee status. Instead they receive Group Temporary Protection. This does not include work visas. The laws and systems are confusing and many people live in abject poverty, overwhelmed by the bureaucratic system that envelopes them.

Yet over the course of our program on Migrant Workers and Asylum seekers today, we got a sense of what is being done on the ground to help them. Most inspiring was a visit to Bialik Rogozin School where Eli Nechama and his staff transform the lives of their at risk students. Children from fifty one countries and many faiths are educated, and inculcated with a sense of excellence, pride and hope. An academy award winning film about this school, “No Strangers Here” tells their story. As a group of young students sang to us of peace in sweet clear voices, we could not help but be moved by the amazing impact their school has had on them and their future. Another hopeful encounter was with the staff of Hotline for Refugee and Migrants. Through client services, detention monitoring and legal action the Hotline works to create a just asylum system and a rights based approach to migration law and policy. A staff worker showed us around South Tel Aviv and shared some of the challenges of the migrant populations.

When it was all over, the question was whether we were angry or hopeful or maybe something else. It’s hard to think of the State of Israel treating innocent people who have left dangerous homelands in search of safety and freedom in ways that are harsh and in many ways in humane. After all have we as a people not also been in such a situation too many times in our history? I acknowledge this challenge, and yet, as is often the case on these programs, I walk away sobered but also inspired by the individuals, NGOS and communities that are creatively and passionately working on the ground to solve these societal problems. Teachers and volunteers dedicate enormous energy to help migrant kids, some of whom have never received any formal schooling prepare for bagrut. Staff and volunteers at places like Hotline passionately intervene with the State to protect the well being and future of total strangers. People who cook food or donate clothing and supplies, who teach Hebrew and English and who befriend those who are ‘strangers in a strange land’ feel a sense of obligation as Jews and as human beings.

Israelis never cease to be inspiring to me, and so too despite her flaws is Israel as well.

Rabbi Mara S. Nathan serves Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, Texas. Mara serves on the CCAR Board of Trustees.