More than any other holiday, Shavuot, which we enjoyed at the beginning of last week, celebrates compassion and empathy. Based on the Book of Ruth, it tells the story of Naomi, her husband and two sons, who emigrated from Bethlehem to the nearby country of Moab. Naomi’s husband and sons died in Moab, but not before her sons married local women. Ten years later, Naomi returns to Bethlehem with her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth, and they live in destitution. Ruth gleans Boaz’s field to support Naomi and herself. Eventually, Ruth and Boaz fall in love, marry and birth King David’s grandfather. Everyone lives happily ever after.
But this past Shavuot, as I was reflecting on the Book of Ruth, I was haunted by a feeling of disconnect. American Jews always tell me that they cherish Israel as a place of refuge. Israel will always welcome American Jews with open arms, just like it accepted Naomi and Ruth after 10 years in the diaspora. But while the American Jewish community values Israel as a safe haven, at their core, American Jews believe in universal human rights. I have yet to have an American Jew tell me that Jews have a right to refuge but that we care not about others. Yet Israel, which happily accepts Jews like Naomi, gives a cold shoulder to the Ruths escaping horrendous life-threatening situations.
In a wonderful piece on Local Call, a Hebrew news website, Rabbi Idit Lev of Rabbis for Human Rights writes that if Ruth and Naomi had lived in contemporary Israel, Naomi would not have been able to return with her daughter-in-law. Ruth, after all, would have been considered an illegal immigrant from an enemy state. Israeli politicians would have called her an “infiltrator,” and Miri Regev, the Minister of Culture and Sports, would have said that Ruth and her kind resemble a “cancer” in the nation of Israel. Like other infiltrators from Africa, the Israeli government would not give Ruth legal status and therefore the right to work and the right to receive medical and social services.
But this would only be the beginning of Ruth’s trials in today’s Israel.
In fact, Ruth might have been detained in Holot, the detention center in the Negev home to asylum seekers and refugees. Holot is an “open” facility, that is, inmates are required to check-in during morning and evening hours but are free to leave during the day. Originally detention was indefinite, but the High Court recently limited the maximum detention term to 20 months.
This last month, as Shavuot was approaching, Ruth would have been under additional pressure. She probably would have received a letter from the Ministry of the Interior informing her that she had 30 days to accept Israel’s offer of $3,500 in cash and a one-way ticket home or to an unnamed third country in Africa, or face incarceration at Saharonim prison.
She might have even known or at least seen the video of the three Eritrean asylum seekers who were deported to a third country and executed by Islamic State militants in Libya in mid-April. Ruth would have heard politicians and journalists explaining to the Israeli public that the “infiltrators” are merely opportunists seeking work in Israel and are in no danger in their home countries.
The fact is that today’s Israel lacks the compassion of Hebrew culture in the time of Judges. Though Israel initiated the U.N. Conference on Refugees in 1951, which legally protected refugee status, now Israel refuses to abide by that resolution. Even after building a wall that separates it from its neighbors, and prevents refugees from crossing into Israel, Israel does not check the status of asylum applications, and when it does it quickly denies them rights.
Some 45,000 people from Africa claiming asylum and refugee status currently reside in Israel; 33,500 are from Eritrea, 8,600 are from Sudan, mostly from the Darfur region, and the remainder hail from various other African countries.
According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, 83 percent of Eritrean asylum-seekers worldwide received refugee status in their country of refuge due to the widespread human rights abuses in Eritrea and the threat of persecution upon return. In Israel, however, just 0.4 percent, which in real numbers amounts to a mere two Eritreans, have been granted refugee status. In 2013, 67 percent of Sudanese asylum-seekers worldwide received refugee status. As of March 2014, Israeli immigration officials had interviewed 505 Sudanese applicants and ruled on 25. All rejections.
Needless to say, today’s Ruth would have likely never met Boaz. And even if she did, she would have never been allowed to marry him on Israeli soil. Since secular marriage doesn’t exist in Israel, Ruth, the gentile, and Boaz, the Jew, would have been denied an interfaith nuptial. Think of the biblical ramifications of such a policy. King David, the great grandson of a gentile, would have never been born.
Maya Haber is director of development and programming for Partners for Progressive Israel.