Israel was established as a haven for survivors of genocide. But it is now confronting a problem that puts that historical legacy to the test, and the results so far are dismaying.
Immigration authorities rounded up hundreds of refugees from South Sudan over the past few months and sent them back to their home country, where they could face death due to the ongoing conflict with Sudan, in the north. The last flight of returnees were sent back without any of their belongings, including the mosquito nets and medication kits humanitarian aid organizations had given them before the flight.
One of those still at risk of being deported is a soft-spoken young man named William, who told me how he was abducted by militias and sold into slavery as a child. After he escaped, he lived in a cardboard tent in Cairo before making the risky trek across the Sinai peninsula into what he hoped would be a compassionate refuge in Israel.
“People don’t understand us,” he said. “They don’t know us. I didn’t come here for work. I came here for protection.”
The 60,000 Africans who have made their way to Israel, mostly coming from Eritrea, Sudan, and South Sudan, are a tiny minority of the entire population of refugees from the region beset by harsh dictatorships, fights over oil, and systematic genocide. But their presence in Israel has created a growing African homeless problem in Tel Aviv and other major cities.
Tensions boiled over in May after three Eritrean men were charged with the attempted rape of a local woman and some Israelis, many of them young, responded in vigilante fashion with violence and by trashing African settlements and businesses.
Right-leaning Israeli politicians have also entered the fracas. And Minister of Interior Eli Yishai has been an outspoken advocate against the refugees – illegal migrants in the eyes of the government – claiming that he will make sure they are all deported.
“The threat from infiltrators is no less severe than the Iranian threat,” he said after two Eritrean suspects were arrested for another rape Aug. 15.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s solution is to build a gigantic detention facility isolated in the Negev Desert, where 12,000 “infiltrators” will be housed. Now, Mr. Yishai is pushing for all 60,000 Africans to be jailed. These facilities will be run by the Israeli Prison Services, and those detained in them will be held for indefinite periods of time, as they are effectively prevented from applying for refugee status in Israel due to the government’s lack of a proper immigration policy for non-Jews.
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.
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.