Will Netanyahu ever see asylum seekers as human beings with human rights?

On September 29, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu kvelled as he addressed the UN General Assembly on Israel being the one true democracy in the Middle East: "…Where issues are openly debated in a boisterous parliament, where human rights are protected by independent courts, and where women, gays and minorities live in a genuinely free society."

The following day, a few blocks away from the UN, I had the privilege of being in the room as Mr. Netanyahu addressed leaders of the American Jewish community. He spoke about the issues that concern Israel and should concern us, as supporters of Israel.

I told Mr. Netanyahu that his speech to the General Assembly, particularly his remarks about the Israeli Court protecting human rights, made us proud to be supporters of Israel. I pointed out that the High Court recently struck down much of the most recent amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law, finding the State's detention of asylum seekers in the Negev desert to be a violation of the basic laws of Israel. I asked Mr. Netanyahu if he plans to change his approach toward African asylum seekers, now that his border fence has virtually eliminated unauthorized crossings.

His response was a lengthy one but, in essence, he said, "There is no asylum seeker problem in Israel - they are illegal job immigrants. We don't have to open our doors to be swamped by the way other people run their economies."

The conference ended. Many hands were shaken and the crowd dispersed. Mr. Netanyahu's words were immediately reported in the press. I feel an obligation to respond.

For the past five years, HIAS, together with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has worked with the Israeli government to develop an asylum system. The goal, as in other countries, was for Israel to fairly and effectively distinguish between refugees fleeing persecution and economic migrants.

There are currently about 48,000 African migrants in Israel. The majority are Sudanese and Eritreans. True, the economies of those countries, as Mr. Netanyahu says, are weak relative to that of Israel. But we know from our work on the ground that many fled the genocide in Darfur and an oppressive dictatorship in Eritrea. This is why Israel does not forcibly deport then.

Knowing this, it is hard to understand Netanyahu's statement that "all but a fraction of a fraction are illegal work migrants."

Worldwide, the refugee recognition rates for Eritreans and Sudanese reach 70-80 percent. In Israel, it is less than one percent or, as the Prime Minister says, a “fraction of a fraction.” This seems to reflect wishful thinking on the part of the government more so than a fair system.

Following the High Court ruling, some Israeli leaders are advocating to amend the Basic Law of Human Dignity and Liberty to permit the Knesset to legislate limits on basic human rights. Other suggestions include restricting the High Court’s authority to annul laws it finds to be unconstitutional - the very same Court that Mr. Netanyahu praised for protecting human rights in his UN speech.

In his last comment to us regarding the High Court ruling, the Prime Minister assured us: “Don’t worry about it, the government will respect the rule of law.”

In so doing, I hope the Prime Minister will embrace this opportunity to treat the 48,000 asylum seekers in a way that honors the Jewish traditions of celebrating freedom, welcoming the stranger, and defending human dignity. Netanyahu is right to be concerned about the Israeli economy, but only because of the high price tag of the government’s detention policy. The court observed that the half billion shekels already spent on tracing, isolating and detaining asylum seekers could have been allocated to strengthening the welfare of all residents of south Tel Aviv (where the asylum seekers are concentrated).

"We must lift the veil from that "mass" of infiltrators and look into each one of them in their eyes," wrote Justice Amit in the court's ruling. "This is the true meaning and the essence of humanity - realizing that what seems at distance as a blurry image of a crowd is a group of human beings, and that everyone has a name, and every name has a face and a language and a way of his own to fulfill his human dignity".

The Prime Minister in his remarks noted that the asylum seekers also posed a threat to the “democratic and Jewish character of the state of Israel.” Truth be told, the real threat to the Jewish and democratic character of Israel is posed not by the asylum seekers themselves, but by the way his government has treated them.