In early March 2005, the High Court of Australia made a unanimous decision to give refugee protection to a Russian Jewish doctor and his son. The Australian court determined that it could not “offload its responsibilities” to protect them by arguing Israel was a ‘safe third country’ on the basis of the so-called law of return or ‘Aliyah’. The decision has important implications as it directly challenges the notion held by Israel and its supporters that there must exist a ‘Jewish state’ for the exclusive protection of Jews.
The Russian doctor and his son arrived in Australia in 1999 claiming they had a well-founded fear of persecution because of the father’s political activities and their Jewish background. Although the men were entitled to refugee status, they were denied visas because the government argued the men could be protected under Israel’s Law of Return, which gives every Jew the right to live in Israel. The Russian Jewish refugees argued they did not want to move to Israel for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the doctor’s wife was not Jewish and this raised concerns about discrimination in relation to mixed marriages. Secondly, the two men declared they were pacifists and foresaw problems with Israel’s compulsory military service.
In addressing this case, Justice Michael Kirby said, “It would be an absurd result if the generosity of other states’ refugee laws meant that Australia was thereby relieved of international obligations that it voluntarily accepted with other nations”.
In past years Canada has granted refugee status to mainly former Soviet Jews on the basis of their experiences of persecution in Israel. They claim that they were harassed, denied jobs and housing, and even beaten if they married non-Jews. They also claimed that their Jewish status was not recognised according to rabbinical law. Israel has been trying to convince Canada that ex-Soviets are taking advantage of the Law of Return to “springboard” into Canada. Israel has always denied that it produces refugees.
In the Netherlands, it is clear from telephone calls to the Ministry of Justice that there is no policy to refer Jewish refugees who flee the republics of the former Soviet Union to Israel as a safe third country. If there is a well-founded fear of persecution the Netherlands will offer protection.
Furthermore, there is no official Dutch policy to turn down requests for asylum by war resisters from Israel. On the other hand, Palestinians seeking protection in the Netherlands are almost routinely refused political asylum, although the Dutch government generally refuses to send them back to Israel or the Occupied Territories.
Notwithstanding systematic discrimination against Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and a wealth of highly misleading propaganda, there are clear — and growing — signs that many Jews themselves do not see Israel as a “safe haven” and therefore seek refuge elsewhere.
Adri Nieuwhof and Jeff Handmaker are human rights advocates based in the Netherlands