Three years ago I led a congregational tour of Israel and we spent a morning walking around South Tel Aviv near the old bus station to see how 53,000 Eritrean and Sudanese Asylum seekers were living. These mostly male Africans had fled on foot from two of the most violent and brutal dictatorships and entered Israel through the open frontier with Egypt. Since then, Israel has built a fence to stop the flow of refugees and few have come since.

Today, 45,000 remain in Israel without having been granted asylum. Israeli government policy has granted asylum only to a handful of people, and built a detention center in the Negev. The place is called Holot (meaning “sand” in Hebrew) and though “open,” inmates must sign in every evening, cannot work and because of its remote location, have nowhere to go. Israel has done everything it can to encourage these people to leave the country, and 8000 complied. Those who returned to Sudan were likely arrested,  interrogated and/or killed. None returned to Eretria where they faced certain execution. Most fled on rafts to Europe, and their fates are unclear.

The Israeli government claims that most came to Israel for jobs, but all evidence suggests that this is not accurate.

Today in Jerusalem, ARZENU, the worldwide Reform Zionist organization, met with four individuals deeply involved in efforts to assist political asylum seekers.

Mutasim Ali came to Israel from Darfur in 2009 after his village was attacked. He spent 18 months in Holot, is an intelligent natural born leader and has served as the Executive Director of the African Refugee Development Center. Though Mutasim loves Israel, his deepest desire is to return to Sudan to help his people once a new government takes over there.

Sivan Carmel, an accomplished Israeli attorney, is the Director of the Israel office of HIAS, the international Jewish nonprofit organization that protects refugees.

Elliot Glassenberg is the Director of International Communication at the BINA Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture in Tel Aviv and is a teacher at the BINA Secular Yeshiva.

Steve Israel is an activist member of Jerusalem’s largest Reform synagogue, Kol Haneshama, who has helped organize his congregation to assist refugees.

The three Israelis of the group said that they have taken such a strong interest in Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers because they are the most vulnerable people in Israel and it is a Jewish ethical mandate to protect the vulnerable. As Jews who have long experienced the suffering of the refugee, and as a Jewish state that has vast experience in absorbing refugees, they say that we Jews ought to be taking care of this relatively small number of Africans and helping them until they are able to return safely to their home countries.

ARZENU has drafted a resolution to be brought to the World Zionist Congress this week to address this human tragedy. The resolution includes the following:

“The World Zionist Organization calls upon the State of Israel to change its policy towards asylum seekers and refugees seeking protection in Israel so as to adhere to relevant international law and particularly the refugee convention that ‘No contracting State shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his/her life or freedom would be threatened.’

The World Zionist Organization calls on the Government of the State of Israel to allow asylum seekers living in Israel  to contribute to the Israeli economy and society until their status is appropriately adjudicated, rather than forcing them to be housed in the Negev at significant government expense or pressuring them to relocate to unfamiliar and unsafe third countries.

The World Zionist Organization calls on the Government of the State of Israel to cease the inhumane and degrading treatment of asylum seekers in the Holot center and to allow asylum seekers to be released in accordance with the Supreme Court decision of this summer…”

None of the speakers wished to embarrass Israel over this issue, but Israel’s government policy of not granting asylum to legitimate asylum seekers is not only counter to international law, but is immoral and “un-Jewish” and ought to be changed.

I asked our speakers why the government opposition has not gone on record about this issue, and they responded that African refugees it is not a high priority issue when considering all the others issues of security, terror, Iran, international relations, and the economy that Israel faces.

Nevertheless, it is a fundamental Jewish ethical principle L’hagen al hapalit – To defend the refugee” and it is time that Israel change its policies and do so.

Those wishing to support these asylum seekers may write directly to Prime Minister Netanyahu and other members of the Knesset.