HOLOT DETENTION FACILITY, Israel (AP) — Hundreds of African migrants gathered in Israel's Negev desert Friday to eat matzo and recall the Passover story, mere steps away from a detention facility where they are being held.
The symbolic Passover seder, a festive meal to be held by Jews around the world Monday night, was organized to draw attention to the plight of Israel's migrants, who themselves fled persecution and conflict, yet face detention under the country's infiltrators law.
Israel has struggled with how to deal with the African migrants, who number around 50,000 and the government views as illegal economic migrants. It constructed a fence along its 220-kilometer (130-mile) border with Egypt, offered cash to migrants to return home, reached out to other countries to take them in and in many cases detained them.
The migrants' presence has challenged Israel, founded in part as a refuge for Holocaust survivors after World War II. Some believe it has a responsibility to help the downtrodden, while others fear taking in so many Africans will threaten the country's Jewish character.
Outside the Holot detention center, migrants sat with Israeli activists amid the dust of the vast desert and listened to speeches about the lessons of the weeklong Passover holiday: the meaning of freedom and the importance of showing hospitality to strangers. They ate matzo, the unleavened bread meant to commemorate the Jews' hastened flight from Egypt, when they did not have time to wait for their bread to rise. There was no wine, a main fixture of the holiday, out of respect for Muslim migrants who refrain from drinking alcohol.
"(Jews) asked to leave Egypt. We also asked to leave our countries because the situation there is very difficult," said Anwar Suliman, a migrant from Sudan's Darfur region who has been held at Holot for the past month. "We are in the same situation."
Activists at the Passover event saw clear parallels between the migrants' plight and the story of Jewish freedom from slavery in Egypt.
"Every single person in this country who sits down to a Passover seder has to say to themselves, 'Am I taking care of the stranger among us right now?'" said Susan Silverman, a rabbi who delivered a speech to the migrants Friday. "Everyone's got to look around and see what we are doing with the strangers in our own country."
Two other seder meals were held in support of the migrants this week in Tel Aviv and Washington.
Some 1,800 people are held at the Holot detention center, where they can come and go. But they must sign in several times a day and sleep there, making it impossible for them to stray far from the remote facility or hold jobs. Those who violate the rules, or reject what Israel calls "invitations" to report there, can be sent to a nearby prison.
Anat Ovadia, a spokeswoman for the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an advocacy group, said that Israel's policies and tactics do not differ widely from other Western nations that have had to contend with a rush of migrants. But she said the Holot facility stands out because migrants can be held there indefinitely.
Israel does not deport the migrants because they could face danger in their conflict-ridden homelands. But critics charge that Israel's policies are forcing migrants to feel coerced to leave. They also accused Israel of dragging its feet on reviewing the migrants' claims for refugee status.
Recent months have seen migrants stage protests that have drawn thousands to demand greater rights and recognition as refugees. Hundreds of migrants streamed out of Holot in a December protest march to Jerusalem, where police ultimately broke up their demonstration.