African Migrants

09.18.13

Israeli High Court Judges Let the Oppressed Go Free at Yom Kippur

On Monday, I was extremely heartened to see that upon returning from their Yom Kippur recess, the Israeli High Court of Justice unanimously overturned a draconian law that allowed the government to indefinitely detain all African asylum seekers arriving in Israel for a minimum of three years without even a trial.

The court ruled that the June 2012 amendment to the “Anti-Infiltration Law” violated the Basic Laws of Israel by denying migrants the right to liberty. The judges ordered the state to individually review each person for release within 90 days.

There are nearly 2,000 African migrants held in internment camps in the Negev desert as a result of the Anti-Infiltration Law. The vast majority of these men, women, and children are Sudanese and Eritreans seeking political asylum in Israel.

Sudanese refugees have escaped a repressive regime that has committed genocide and other crimes against humanity in civil war and ethnic violence. Eritreans are seeking refuge from an authoritarian government that has allowed rampant human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, torture, harsh prison conditions, incommunicado detention, and indefinite forced national service.

It seems perhaps not so coincidental that the Israeli High Court issued its ruling during the week of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. 

According to the Medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides, a restoration of balance in one’s relationship with God and with other human beings cannot be granted to “all those who have the potential to rebuke others, whether an individual or a group, and refrain from doing so, leaving them their shortcoming.”

The Israeli High Court of Justice had both a legal and moral responsibility to rebuke the shortcomings of the Law for the Prevention of Infiltration. Justice Edna Arbel made it clear that the prolonged detention of African migrants was inconsistent with Jewish values and impacted migrants’ “bodies and souls.”

“We cannot deprive people of basic rights, using a heavy hand to impact their freedom and dignity, as part of a solution to a problem that demands a suitable, systemic and national solution,” she said. “We cannot forget our basic values, drawn from the Declaration of Independence, as well as our moral duty towards every human being, as inscribed in the country’s basic principles as a Jewish and democratic state.”

It is not only people in positions of power, like judges, that have a responsibility to rebuke; it is incumbent on everyone to speak out against injustices around them. When the state acts wrongly, the yoke of that sin falls upon all who do not protest.

On Yom Kippur, Jewish communities fast, confess their sins in the collective “we,” and beseech God for forgiveness. The Rav Isaac Luria, a 16th century Kabbalist, explained that confession is written in the plural as ‘We have sinned’ because all Israel is considered like one body and every person is a limb of that body. So we confess to all the sins of all the parts of our body.

On Yom Kippur, synagogues also read aloud a portion from the Book of Isaiah that prods congregants to examine the sincerity of their atonement. As if issuing modern-day instructions, Isaiah conveys the word of God saying: “This is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke; to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your fellow in flesh.”

Yom Kippur can teach us that all who observe injustice, as with the case of the mass incarceration of asylum seekers, have a responsibility not only to atone for the collective sin, but to protest the wrongdoing, regardless of whether you are a High Court Justice or an ordinary citizen.

Despite the High Court ruling, African asylum seekers’ freedom from oppression is far from a certainty. Many Knesset members have already promised rapid new “anti-infiltration” measures to deny their freedom and embitter their lives until they consent to leave Israel.

I urge everyone who finds these collective sins to be inconsistent with their values to join with me by breaking off every yoke in protest.