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Why is Israel refusing to teach African asylum seekers Hebrew?

Israel’s ‘Holot’ detention facility for asylum seekers, which is intended to rob them of so much hope that they’ll leave the country, refuses to provide Hebrew lessons as part of its education program for detainees. The result is empty classrooms and a parallel, asylum seeker-run program.

By Omri Du-Nour

African asylum seekers jailed in the Holot detention center protest behind the prison's fence, February 17, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

African asylum seekers jailed in the Holot detention center protest behind the prison’s fence, February 17, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Israel’s desert detention facility for asylum seekers, “Holot,” has been controversial ever since it was first opened four years ago. The primary aim of the facility, as declared by then-Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who initiated its construction, was to drive African asylum seekers to a state of despair, so that they will choose to leave Israel voluntarily. Since then, Israel’s High Court of Justice ordered the facility to provide for the basic needs of those detained there, which includes the right to education.

Educational services at Holot are operated by the Israeli Education Ministry (through its department for adult education) but the programs it offers are rather limited and do not meet the most substantive needs of the detainees. The state is spending hundreds of thousands of shekels a year on educational and enrichment programs but it ignores the asylum seekers’ biggest and most critical need: Hebrew language studies. What’s so objectionable about a few thousand detainees learning Hebrew each year?

The answer is wrapped up in the policies Israel adopted ever since it began addressing the issue of African asylum seekers in a coherent manner: trying to get them to leave the country any way possible. The Holot detention facility is part of that effort. Israeli authorities believe that in order to advance that goal they should provide detainees with tools to help them “make it” in other countries — not in Israel. Therefore, the state opposes providing them with Hebrew lessons as part of the educational programs it runs at Holot. Instead, it provides them with English and mathematics courses — important fields of study, but not ones that meet the demands and basic needs of the detainees there.

The absurdity of the situation, which I have experienced over the past couple of years as a teacher in Holot, is that on the one hand Israel wants and expects the detainees to come to classes and participate in the educational programs it organizes for them. On the other hand, Israeli authorities systematically ignore the detainees’ desire to improve their Hebrew while at Holot, something that comes up over and over again in conversations and meetings between those running the facility and those forced to live there.

Israel is making great efforts at understanding the detainees’ needs (or at least it says that’s what it is doing), but in practice it ignores their basic needs. At the same time, it acts surprised by the small number of detainees (a small percentage, by my rough estimate) who actually attend the classes it provides. It’s like a company that refuses to recognize its customers aren’t interested in buying its faulty or unattractive products, instead stubbornly insisting that the customers themselves are the problem.

The double absurdity is that most of the detainees at Holot (based on my personal acquaintance with them) have been in Israel for many years. They arrived in Israel without knowing any Hebrew but in order to survive and make a living they had to attain at least a basic command of the language. The longer they are here, the better their Hebrew gets. Being held at Holot itself improves their Hebrew even further because most of the guards and staff speak only Hebrew. Paradoxically, just being held in the detention facility is providing the detainees with the thing Israeli authorities least want to provide: strengthening the ability of asylum seekers to remain in and integrate into Israeli society by improving their Hebrew-language skills.

At the same time, the detainees understand the situation for what it is and have organized independent Hebrew learning groups for themselves — they built a parallel education system. The disconnect and distrust that the detainees feel vis-à-vis Israeli authorities is only growing, and the programs the state provides them with are completely ineffective.

As somebody who has become familiar with the system from the inside over the past two years, I have to say that it’s basically a fraud: Israel does indeed invest massive sums in educational programs at Holot but the intended beneficiary isn’t the detainees themselves or their actual needs. The programs are intended as a PR fix for the bad reputation Holot has recived since it first opened four years ago.  Israeli authorities’ desire to improve conditions there has more to do with mitigating criticism of Holot’s very existence — and the thin line it occupies with regards to international law, the 1951 Refugee Convention, and Israel’s own Basic Laws.

Instead of being surprised time and again by the asylum seekers’ lack of motivation to attain an education while held at Holot, Israel needs to change its policies: either allow Hebrew-language studies, investing the necessary resources and massively increasing the number of students at the detention facility or acknowledge the ineffectiveness of its educational programs and admit to its failures.

Israel’s stubborn refusal to provide Hebrew lessons to the asylum seekers at Holot is not what is stopping the detainees from integrating into Israeli society. That’s not what is standing in their way. It is also not what will convince them to leave Israel. Let’s call a spade a spade.

Omri Du-Nour is an educator and for the past two years has taught English at the Holot detention facility. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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    1. David Gerald Fincham

      There are two objections to the idea of Israeli as the nation state of the Jewish people. First, a modern state belongs to all its citizens. Imagine the outcry from the Scots and Welsh if Britain defined itself as an English state. By defining Israel as a Jewish state, you are saying to the non-Jewish inhabitants that they do not really belong there. And they are indeed treated as second class citizens, with around 50 laws that discriminate against non-Jews.

      Second, there are more Jews in the world outside Israel than there are inside Israel. They may consider themselves to be part of a Jewish nation; they may welcome the existence of Israel as a place of refuge; but if they really thought that Israel was their nation state, they would go and live there. They think their nation-state to be the one where they were born and brought up, and give it their first loyalty.

      Reply to Comment
      • Lewis from Afula

        Muslim Countries – No Problem
        Christian Countries- No problem
        Jewish Country – A problem for David Gerald Fincham

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          This is false and falsifying—dishonest to the core. No European country today is Christian or discriminatorily Christian in anything like the way Israel is Jewish and discriminatorily Jewish today—socially, politically, legally, governmentally. All comparisons and analogies I’ve ever seen on this, and I’ve seen many, are phony. What you are upset about is that the writer does not recognize an unspoken assumption that Israel should be given a special exemption, a special entitlement to discriminate against non-Jews.

          Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Crescent shape symbol on flag – No problem
            Cross shape symbol on flag – No problem
            Star of David symbol on flag – Big Problem for Ben

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            This is a phony, trivializing diversion from the real problem.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            No Ben,
            That was the problem in 1948 and is so today.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            A strikingly false and impoverished argument. It’s not even an argument. It’s just confusion. You’re trying to tell me Switzerland and Denmark are White Christian ethnotheocratic “popular democracies” (see Tomer Persico on Feiglin) that discriminate against non-Christians in the way Israel discriminates against non-Jews. It’s a preposterous claim.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Yes, I am.
            The exception being that there is nobody next to Switzerland or Denmark denying their right to exist.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Firentis

      The overwhelming majority of Israelis want these illegal migrants to leave. There is no reason to teach them Hebrew because they are only temporarily in Israel and will be leaving sooner or later. The illegal migrants aren’t “customers” of the system. They are beggars that claim they can’t go back to their home countries and are pleading to stay in Israel. They should be grateful they have safety and shelter in Israel as opposed to complaining about how the education program or the food or whatever aren’t to their liking.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        What simply comes across here, Firentis, is the cold racism and contempt and insularity of the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews you claim to speak for. We know Firentis, we know that you don’t want these refugees, aka “migrants” and “infiltrators,” that you want them to leave, and are dead set on making their lives as miserable as you can and still get away with it. That’s the point of the article. You don’t have to tell us. They’re black, and they’re not Jews. So they’re subhuman to you. Everything you say and do bespeaks your attitude: they are subhuman to you. Another nation’s people might have moral scruples about this but not you guys. Not the “overwhelming majority” of you. (There are blessed exceptions, of course, such as the Mothers Against Holot:
        Another nation’s people, with both your history of being refugees and having the Torah’s commands regarding how you should treat the stranger, which Torah your religious nationalists are so fond of selectively quoting nationalistically, might be ashamed. Not you. No. So stoked are you on your narcissism of being exempt from the rules (such as international law and common standards of decency and human rights at the most basic level) others play by, all the while assuming you are the peers of those others in every other way. You come across loud and clear.

        Israel lives with this constant tension between pretending to be a modern liberal democracy while in reality being an awkwardly anachronistic, hypernationalist, ethno-theocracy, a Feiglinist “popular democracy” where one zealously defined ethno-religious group is the superior caste–socially, politically and legally.

        Reply to Comment
        • Firentis

          They were uninvited. They are not refugees. They have temporary shelter which they sought in Israel and which they found in Israel. They are here temporarily and they will be leaving. We have neither the duty nor the obligation to provide them with anything more.

          I know people like you would like to see Israel be flooded by millions of foreigners until it drowns. This will not be allowed to happen regardless of how much nonsensical sanctimonious garbage you spew. Keep stewing in your hate.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            –No refugees are ever “invited.”
            –Yes, they are refugees. If they were Jews you would be appalled at anyone pretending that they are not refugees.
            –“They will be leaving” has that unmistakable jackboot ring to it. Always has. It’s your signature style. And apparently it’s the Israeli state’s style.
            –Yes you do. You do have the obligation as do all other countries—this is true regardless of how much sanctimonious special exception arrogating you entitle yourself to. Israel gets a pass nobody else gets:
            –Anyone who stands up for the most basic standards of human decency and human rights is not “trying to flood Israel until it drowns.” Do you have a phobia of water puddles? You approach a puddle and fear you’re drowning?
            –Anyone who stands up for the most basic standards of human decency and human rights and makes any criticism of Israel is not “stewing” and is not “stewing” in “hate” (and this from the guy who is so obviously stewing in his own hate of non-Jews and blacks!)—this is such a hackneyed anti-Semitizing device, so predictable, and so self-deluding and hypocritical, that I’d have thought you’d be embarrassed to use it by now. Apparently not.

            Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Herzl foresaw with clarity people like you and the masses of your “overwhelming majority”:

        ‘…the villain in “Altneuland” is a rabbi called Geyer, a clear reference to a carrion-eating bird, geier in German. Herzl has his protagonists calling Geyer a fanatic zealot, an inciter who misleads people and mocks God, a scoundrel who tries to spread intolerance.
        “Now he is the patriot, the nationalist Jew. And we — we are the friends of the alien. If we listened to him, he would make us out to be bad Jews or even strangers in his Palestine…. Therefore, the instincts of the masses must be flattered. A theory for the immediate advantage of the masses must be found, or at least for what the masses imagine to be to their immediate advantage. Therefore, an anti-alien slogan is proclaimed: “A non-Jew must not be accepted by the New Society.” . . .
        In 1902 Herzl presented his vision to Lord Nathaniel Rothschild in London. He received a blunt and worried reaction: “I tell you very frankly that I should view with horror the establishment of a Jewish colony pure and simple …it would be a Ghetto with the prejudices of a Ghetto; it would be a small petty Jewish state, orthodox and illiberal, excluding the Gentile and the Christian.”Herzl’s vision has remained a vision. Lord Rothschild’s nightmare is playing out daily, in no small part due to “Rabbi” Regev, who with photogenic alacrity pays homage to the graves of “Geyers” and their ilk.”‘


        Reply to Comment
        • duh

          Ben, here’s an extended passage from Herzl’s diary (can be found on archive.org):

          “When we occupy the land, we shall bring immediate benefits to the state that receives us. We must expropriate gently the private property on the estates assigned to us. We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our own country. The property-owners will come over to our side. Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly. Let the owners of immovable property believe that they are cheating us, selling us things for more than they are worth.
          But we are not going to sell them anything back.

          “It goes without saying that we shall respectfully tolerate per-
          sons of other faiths and protect their property, their honor, and
          their freedom with the harshest means of coercion. This is an-
          other area in which we shall set the entire old world a wonderful
          example. At first, incidentally, people will avoid us. We are in bad odor. By the time the reshaping of world opinion in our favor has
          been completed, we shall be firmly established in our country,
          no longer fearing the influx of foreigners, and receiving our visi-
          tors with aristocratic benevolence and proud amiability.

          “The voluntary expropriation will be accomplished through our secret agents. The Company would pay excessive prices. We shall then sell only to Jews, and all real estate will be traded only among Jews. To be sure, we shall not be able to do this by declaring other sales invalid. Even if this did not run counter to the modem world’s sense of justice, our power would not suffice to force it through.”
          (Complete Herzl Diaries vol I p 88-89, 12 Jun 1895)

          So I have a few takeaways from that:

          -Herzl’s remark about “[spiriting] the penniless population across the border” is probably his most oft-quoted by anti-Zionists. And it certainly shows even at that stage a Zionist ideologue having a vested interest in population removal. Here he limits it to poor, most likely non-Jewish people living in the hypothetical “Jewish” state before it’s under a Zionist govt (“the state the receives us”).

          -The rather jumbled train of thought above shows that Herzl’s much ballyhooed “tolerance” would be on display only after Zionists secured control of their state. He wasn’t going to tolerate gentiles repossessing land already held by “The Company.” Given state power, this conduct would be objectively segregationist.

          So Herzl’s claim to being tolerant, both in his private and published writings (i.e. altneuland) is disingenuous. It would in fact be a fig-leaf to sell the Zionist movement to people who recognize that such a movement would lead those who acquire state power to do the persecuting themselves. And Herzl left some other comments behind that indicate he was a wannabe military invader who settled on buying land as a stopgap measure.

          Please don’t allow anyone to sell Herzl as the “good cop” as opposed to the “intolerant” religious Zionists. Herzl’s vision wasn’t corrupted; it was taken to the logical conclusion.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            @‘Duh’: Thank you for pointing me to this passage from Herzl’s diary. It is instructive and I have to correct myself to say that Herzl foresaw the “overwhelming majority” of Israelis only dimly and imperfectly. As might be the case for anyone today trying to foresee events 113 years from now. One shouldn’t sanctify Herzl. But he was writing 120 years ago. Lord Nathaniel Rothschild saw today’s “overwhelming majority” with more clarity than Herzl that’s for sure. As the writer says, Herzl’s [imperfect] vision was just that, a vision, but Rothschild’s nightmare is playing out daily. And maybe, as you say, the “vision” was a fig leaf and maybe, as you say, Herzl’s vision wasn’t corrupted so much as taken to the logical conclusion. Yes, Herzl’s vision was far from perfect—but he was also a creature of his age, and compare him to any other writer of the time writing on colonizing other lands and I don’t think he suffers much by comparison. I resist the temptation to condescend to the past and entirely judge him by our standards today. He was writing in the context of his time and place and in a time and place where Jews were disadvantaged and marginalized, and against a tide of centuries of persecution, and against strong odds. This is not the case today. I do not condescend to Israelis today when I ask them to live up to the standards of today in the conditions they inhabit today, or stop trying to pretend that they do live up. Israelis today seem to think they have a right to act like 19th century colonialists in a biblical theme park and feel cheated and “singled out” when the world denies them that—but they are not being singled out, they are being treated like everyone else, and as Derfner says, the world in fact entertains a blatant double standard in Israel’s favor.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Lewis from Afula

      The African asylum seekers like Asian, European, North American, South American and Australasian asylum seekers have no rights to barge into Eretz Israel. They can stay for a relatively brief period, earn some money and then the state will give them some more money (I think $3500). Then, they can leave.

      They have no right to learn Hebrew or get citizenship here.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Right. All the other countries of the world should shoulder the burden of refugees but not Israel. Because Israel is special. The rules don’t apply to it, it being the selfish little spoiled brat among the nations. And damn proud of it. Screw that “light unto the nations” nonsense. That was just for show. Charity and treating the stranger with kindness is for the goyim. And other freiers. You tell ’em, Lewis. Atta boy. Go to it tiger.

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          What other nations do is other nations business.

          Although many nations in Europe are having 2nd thoughts about bringing Muslim arab populations into their country.

          Reply to Comment