You don’t need Jewish values to denounce Israel’s treatment of asylum seekers

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African asylum seekers protest outside Rwandan embassy in Herzliya. (photo: AFP)

When it comes to both asylum seekers and West Bank Palestinians, we don’t need a higher, Jewish standard. Simply asking Israel to abide by International Law is radical enough.

By Peter Beinart | Forward | Feb 7, 2018


In 2015 . . . less than two percent of Sudanese asylum requests had even received a government response. Not a single one had been approved. Of the more than 2,400 Eritreans who requested asylum, the Israeli government granted it to four.


Last week, Isabel Kershner, The New York Times’ estimable Israel correspondent, wrote an article about the Netanyahu government’s decision to either expel Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers to third countries or indefinitely lock them up. The article ran under the headline, “Israel Moves to Expel Africans. Critics Say That’s Not Jewish.”

“Like much of the Western world, Israel is grappling with how to balance its right to protect its borders and prevent illegal immigration with showing compassion and humanity,” writes Kershner. “But the government’s decision has struck a particular chord here and among Jews abroad since the modern state of Israel has served as a safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution.”

Kershner goes on to say that many Jews believe the government’s decision violates “Jewish values.” She suggests that “Even secular Israelis have taken to citing biblical verses like Leviticus 19:34: ‘The stranger who resides among you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’”

There’s a danger here. It’s understandable that Jews would employ Jewish texts and Jewish tradition to critique the policies of a Jewish state. I do so myself. But the subtext of Kershner’s article is that Jews, because of our ethical tradition and history of persecution, are holding ourselves to a uniquely high standard: That while many countries are “grappling” with “illegal immigration,” in Israel — because Jews have an elevated moral sense — the government’s policy of expulsion and imprisonment “has struck a particular chord.”

Liberal Jews may find this flattering. But it’s a trap. It allows hawkish Jews to insist that Israel, living as it does in a dangerous neighborhood, cannot afford to be uniquely moral. Indeed, for more than a decade now, prominent figures in Israel and the Diaspora have claimed that holding Israel to a standard higher than other nations — a “double standard” — constitutes anti-Semitism.

Which makes it crucial to recognize this simple truth: Israel’s treatment of asylum seekers is not abhorrent according to some abnormally lofty Jewish standard. It’s abhorrent according to the standard that applies to all countries — the standard of international law.

Read the full article here →