Maayan Ravid with asylum seekers Aman, Dejen, Shishay and Sammy in Tel Aviv
Maayan Ravid with asylum seekers Aman, Dejen, Shishay and Sammy in Tel Aviv

She’s fighting for Israel’s asylum seekers in the field and in the classroom

UPDATE: The Israeli government said in court yesterday it has set aside plans to expel tens of thousands of African asylum seekers. Instead, migrants with temporary resident permits will be allowed to renew their visas.

In recent years, Maayan Ravid has divided her time between being a graduate student focused on border criminology, and an activist focused on the fate of 37,000 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan living in Israel.

The former Bay Area resident traces her activism to her time as an undergraduate at UC Davis, where she joined a coalition of Jewish students called STAND (Students Take Action Now for Darfur), speaking out about how Jews had a special responsibility to do something and raising funds through American Jewish World Service.

“It was my first year there, in 2004, and it was that time when you get to go out and be an activist and be passionate about something,” she said via Skype from Israel.

Ravid is the daughter of Shlomi Ravid, founding director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Israel Center. He and his wife, San Mateo native Linda Gattman-Ravid, lived on the Peninsula from 1996 to 1999, and again from 2001 to 2004, with Shlomi working as an Israeli emissary. Maayan was only 11 when she first came to live here, attending Camps Swig, Newman and Tawonga. The Bay Area has always felt like her second home.

Now 31, Ravid is about halfway through with coursework to obtain a Ph.D. at Oxford University in England. She is currently spending six months of the year in Israel doing fieldwork.

Her field of study is very specific. Border criminology “looks at the growing convergence between criminal and immigration law and the way we choose to criminalize or penalize migrants by using punishment or incarceration,” Ravid explained.

While her master’s was focused on the laws surrounding this population in Israel, her Ph.D. thesis is about Holot, a detention center in the Negev Desert that operated from 2013 to 2017. Housing around 3,300 people in its last incarnation, the center was open during the day, allowing the migrants (most of them men) to work. That feature made it accessible to Ravid, who would travel to Holot with foods she bought in South Tel Aviv, like injera bread and other food familiar to the detainees from home, giving her an opening to talk to them about their lives and experiences.

Dejen at home in Kibbutz Glil Yam with a T-shirt from Northern California’s own Camp Tawonga

The genocide in Sudan was in the headlines for a time, but the Eritreans, who make up the large majority of the migrant population, have ended up in Israel for lesser-known reasons. Many fled a military dictatorship that drafts citizens into the army indefinitely and uses them for slave labor. When those on foot found their way to Egypt, smugglers or human traffickers often helped them slip past unsecured border crossings with Israel.

Some chose Israel as their destination. Some were kidnapped or taken there by traffickers against their will. “A tremendous amount of them have gone through extreme trauma, and at least 5,000 have died on the way,” Ravid said. “The Sinai Desert is comparable to the Mediterranean Sea, in that people go through extreme danger to seek asylum.”

At the beginning, around 2005, asylum seekers were often held in jail indefinitely. But once human rights organizations realized this, things began to change. Detainees were released to live in a kind of limbo status, allowed to work but not granted asylum or full rights.

Ravid said that about five years ago, the government amended a law created in 1954 to protect the borders of the newly established state, which allowed infiltrating Palestinians to be held in indefinite administrative detention. With a few amendments, the law has been applied to the African asylum seekers, who are now also considered infiltrators and labeled as such by the government.

“They may have entered illegally, but then they sought asylum,” said Ravid. “International law says that those seeking asylum should not be penalized. Israel is the only country to have such a category of people. They have a residence permit but cannot be deported back home due to fear for their lives and safety, but the government doesn’t want them to be normalized here.”

Since 2012, when then-Minister of the Interior Eli Yishai vowed on television that “I will make these migrants’ lives miserable until they leave,” there’s been great discord as to what to do about them. Meanwhile, their lives hang in the balance.

“This is a man-made crisis,” said Ravid. “I think it has become a tragic situation because the government chose to concentrate people around Tel Aviv and not give them status or rights. The government could have fixed the problem if it chose to disperse people around the country and gave them basic rights that would enable them to support themselves. It chooses instead to exclude them, to make them miserable and incite against them.”

Maayan Ravid and her parents, Linda and Shlomi Ravid, at Holot facility with Eritrean detainees

The issue made more headlines recently when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he had come to a decision on the asylum seekers and agreed to absorb about half of them, but then changed his mind only hours later.

Now, the government is encouraging the migrants to leave for Rwanda or Uganda, but Ravid says that is not a compassionate solution. Many who agreed to go have died, been taken by ISIS or ended up in camps in Libya.

“Every country has the right to guard its borders and have an immigration policy, but it needs to be informed by international human rights law and one that respects people who are already here,” Ravid said. “A Jewish state should act out of a sense of Jewish morals and values of tikkun olam and social justice and loving the stranger in your midst. We know what it’s like to be a persecuted people and what it’s like to not be welcome and accepted.”

Ravid has “adopted” several of the men to whom she has grown particularly close, and some of them recently stayed in her parents’ home on Kibbutz Glil Yam while they were on a visit to the U.S. Her parents and siblings have accompanied her to Holot and have been active on this issue, too, following their daughter’s lead.

“We are her assistants,” says her father.

As for the “what can we do?” question, Ravid said, “American Jews should stand up and say this is a cruel and inhumane policy, and they don’t want to see the Jewish state acting in this way — not in our name, not with our money.”

She also recommends supporting the Levinsky Garden, a community garden in South Tel Aviv that benefits the poor Jews who live there as well as foreign residents of the most impoverished area of the city, who can interact with each other there.

“These people can be a blessing for Israel, making us a more accepting, humane, compassionate country,” she said. “They’ve made me a better person, and I wish everyone could know them, recognize their humanity and be touched by them as I have.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."