From Shnat to Holot

By Ben Reiff.

My relationship with Israel is dynamic. The more I learn, the more it changes, and the more I want to find out; and so the opportunity to spend my gap year in Israel was one I couldn’t miss. I’m currently 3 months into Shnat Netzer, a gap year program for Reform Jews around the world. Having spent the last 6 years of my life in the framework of RSY, one of Netzer’s two British branches, I have been constantly exposed to issues relating to reform Judaism, reform Zionism and, more recently, the conflict. But this past Saturday I encountered an issue I knew very little about: African refugees in Israel.

Along with three other shnatties I visited Holot, the government’s “Open Residency Centre” for Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel. They say that its purpose is to disincentivise “infiltration” (seeking asylum in Israel), however the volunteers organizing the trip tell us that in reality it is a prison which serves to break the spirits of the asylum seekers and coerce them into “willingly” leaving the country. We met and heard from several of the 3,360 asylum seekers currently being held at Holot (those from Eritrea having fled from a totalitarian dictatorship; the Sudanese from genocide in Darfur), each one describing the unlawfulness with which they were summoned to and detained in the so called “open” facility in addition to the dreadful living conditions inside.

I was shocked by what I witnessed there and by what I heard from the detainees. But what shocked me the most was the manner in which the government has approached the matter over the last decade. Above and beyond Holot, this issue has been characterised by an endless power struggle between the Israeli government (proudly right of centre at present) and the Supreme Court – the organism tasked with, amongst other things, censoring the government’s actions when they (invariably) stray from the moral promises inscribed in the Declaration of Independence.

Were it not for the interventions of the Supreme Court, the situation for African asylum seekers in Israel would be even worse than it is today; but that is not to say we should be celebrating a victory. The asylum seekers who desire nothing more than freedom have been denied that in the country which calls itself “the only democracy in the Middle East”. As diaspora Jews it is vital that we don’t let our love for Israel cloud our judgement, and we should all be striving for Israel to return to the morals upon which she was founded: equality, justice and freedom for all.

I’m grateful that my youth movement education has shown me that it is indeed possible to love Israel whilst also criticising the government’s actions, and I will continue doing so beyond my five remaining months here when criticism is necessary. Going forward, we will endeavour to do whatever we can to raise awareness around this issue, through the framework that RSY Netzer provides. We aspire to share what we learn this year on Shnat with the rest of the movement, and hopefully in this way we can inspire more future activists and keep the movement moving.

To read more about Ben’s trip to Holot follow this link to his blog.

Ben Reiff is currently on Shnat Netzer, RSY-Netzer’s gap year programme and he writes in an individual capacity.