On Sunday, it was reported that more than 300 of Israel’s Saharonim Detention Center detainees refused to return to their individual cells in protest, saying that they are being held illegally, against their will, and that they vehemently demand their freedom. An aggregate of 340 prisoners, originating from Sudan and Eritrea, many of whom were caught illegally crossing the Egyptian border, barricaded themselves in the yard of Israel’s Southern Detention facility. Although an outside Prison Service force provided prisoners with the option of voluntarily returning to their quarters, they refused. The squad separated prisoners from one another and took them back to their cells. The detainees refrained from violence and overt hostility — “and as a result, only specific force was used to disperse them…” acknowledged the Prison Service, after the fact.
Saharonim houses approximately 2,000 African migrants, including 30 children. The facility is comprised of a tent camp, temporary structures and permanent buildings that were constructed just over a year ago to accommodate women and children.
Since the passing of Israel’s Prevention of Infiltration Law, anyone found illegally passing through the Israeli-Egyptian border is sent to the detention camp for a sentence of up to three years. The center also houses illegal migrants and alleged criminals who have resided in its custody for much longer than the three-year period.
Many Israeli citizens and activists are critical of the Saharonim detention facility and others that serve similar purposes. Adi Lerner, head of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, states, “These are asylum seekers who have done the best they can to prepare a request for normalizing their status as refugees here in Israel, and the State drags out the time and does not deal with these requests.” She continues, “It does not matter what their identity is: Women, children, men, elderly, and victims of torture — they are all detained under the Prevention of Infiltration Law, and the future is unknown.” Lerner describes her encounters with these imprisoned individuals and notes that many are in need of psychological treatment as a result of prolonged detainment. She also argues that their mental health is unnecessarily jeopardized by the long and unjustifiable incarceration.
On one hand, it is hard to disagree with people like Adi Lerner, who chronicle the incredible hardship that these immigrants, often homeless migrant workers, face. I feel for these individuals who so badly wish to integrate into Israeli society and lead normal lives, something which they have been unable to do in their previous countries of origin. As Jews, we have the obligation to welcome refugees, immigrants, wanderers and asylum-seekers, for we know what it is like to be “strangers” without a land to turn to. On the other hand, I am aware of the challenge of an inability to support an ever-expanding population of foreigners. After all, Israel was founded as a Jewish State. What might happen if she lets in a host of African migrants? Would they not have the potential to overwhelm the existing Jewish community?
While there is a multiplicity of dangers inherent in unrestricted and unregulated immigration, it is my conviction that Israel, embodying as it does the Jewish ideals of social justice, compassion for the oppressed, and Tikun Olam, has no choice but to extend a helping hand to those who reach its shores or who infiltrate its lands. To be sure, many such immigrants will have been abandoned by their families and their countries of origin at early ages. They may well be angry and even vengeful. They may even wish to act out their unresolved tensions upon the citizens of the country that is taking them in.
There have already been all too many illustrative examples of crimes perpetrated by lawless people who have never been taught the boundaries between that which is permitted and that which is impermissible. The remediation for such people, incumbent upon Israeli social service agencies and educational institutions, is enormous. It can be sapping of resources and of energies that might otherwise have been directed to other people and other worthy projects. However, I believe that circumstances allow for no equivocation or wavering from that which God requires of each of us (and no less than of the State of Israel) — to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before the Lord.