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Opinion

In shunning African refugees, Israel ignores Exodus' call not to 'oppress the stranger'

More than 60,000 Africans mostly from Eritrea, Sudan, and South Sudan have come to Israel fleeing harsh dictatorships, oil conflicts, and genocide. Israel must stop the inhumane deportations and unjust detention of these migrants and instead implement a comprehensive refugee policy.

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This is policy born out of paranoia rather than reason. The crime rates among the African asylum seekers are much lower than that of the general Israeli population. While no crime is excusable, it is unacceptable to exaggerate and make erroneous claims about an entire population of people.

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The African affair – and its shameful handling by the leadership – throws light on one of the central tensions of Israeli identity. It yearns to preserve its status as a primarily Jewish state, yet also wants to live by the compassionate and ethical heritage of Jewish teachings.

In this case, I believe, the nation needs to cast fear aside and listen to the latter impulse. The government now provides no real services to the African asylum seekers and goes so far as to print visas denying them permission to work.

Dare I say that kicking out these refugees is in some ways parallel to the refusal of the United States to take in the boats of European Jewish refugees in the 1930s, ultimately sending them back to a country in which they were eventually systematically murdered? So, too, the African refugees coming to Israel today are primarily seeking safety, not jobs.

Israel should instead be assisting those who have suffered so abominably. It can first implement a system that fairly assesses the refugee status for non-Jews, and when appropriate, the government should then grant refugee status and offer services such as work permits for at least a temporary amount of time to those who are refugees.

Rather than simply detaining or deporting these individuals, the Israeli government must create a proper refugee policy with a quota system that permits at least a few thousand refugees to obtain permanent residency each year, while helping others go to safe havens outside the country where they will be treated as refugees with full and equal rights.

Mr. Netanyahu’s government can also stop the inhumane deportations and the unjust detention. Instead, it can lead a real diplomatic effort to investigate the criminal activity – the corruption and violence – in Sinai, Eritrea, and Sudan that drives these refugees into Israel to begin with.

Exodus reminds us: Do not oppress a stranger, for you were once strangers in Egypt. It is time for Israel to reflect, to remember who it is and why it exists, and to make positive moves toward the dream it once aspired to achieve.

Maya Paley is the founder of Right Now: Jewish Americans Advocating for African Asylum Seekers in Israel.

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