Why Israeli plan to deport Africans is facing growing Jewish opposition

Netanyahu refers to the nearly 40,000 Africans as 'illegal labor infiltrators.' But Jews in the Diaspora and Israel, including Holocaust survivors, say deportation would be a violation of Jewish values and history, citing the commandment to 'Love the stranger.'

Oded Balilty/AP
Eritrean migrants wear chains to mimic slavery outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on Jan. 17 in a demonstration protesting the Israeli government's policy to forcibly deport African refugees and asylum-seekers from Israel, most likely to Uganda and Rwanda.

When Jean Marc Liling immigrated to Israel from France, he was a young man shaped by the knowledge that his Swiss parents were hidden as children during the Holocaust.

So for him, fighting against the Israeli government’s plan for the mass deportation of African asylum-seekers feels deeply personal.

Mr. Liling is among a growing number of activists here opposing the plan, which would present the country’s population of some 38,000 African asylum-seekers with the stark choice: deportation or prison.

Resistance to the government plan, scheduled to begin in April, has come from pilots refusing to fly planes used in the deportations and from authors, playwrights, lawyers, doctors, and Holocaust survivors. All are united in their call to the government to see these people as refugees in need of shelter today, just as Jews have been in past generations.

Hundreds have even volunteered to hide asylum-seekers, if it comes to that.

That prospect hits home for Liling, executive director of the non-profit Center for International Migration and Integration.

“For me, coming to Israel was really about not having to hide, being able to be completely myself as a Jew, and the thought that anyone would have to be hidden in Israel is something that is deeply disturbing and in complete dissonance to what I think Israel is supposed to be,” he says.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, echoing the stance of other anti-immigration leaders facing the world’s largest flood of refugees since World War II, this week referred to those who would be deported as “illegal labor infiltrators” and called the campaign against the deportations “absurd.”

Most of the Africans fled to Israel in a long overland journey from war-torn Sudan or from the dictatorship in Eritrea, with the first immigrants crossing the Sinai Desert from Egypt in 2005.

Jewish state's moral dilemma

The Israeli government’s stance, say commentators, speaks to a nation on the eve of its 70th birthday that has been shaped by its struggle for survival in a hostile neighborhood – a struggle that has fostered a suspicion of the “other” – and that sees itself as a refuge for Jews who are fleeing persecution, but not for others who might be.

It’s a moral dilemma for a country that in its earliest days, informed by the then-recent horrors of World War II, played a key role in formulating the 1951 Refugee Convention, the first time the international community came together to state what countries’ responsibilities were in protecting refugees.

Amid the debate over the plan, reports have surfaced that unnamed “third party” countries the Africans would be sent to (Rwanda, unofficially, and possibly Uganda) have proven to be dangerous and even life-threatening destinations. And alongside Israel’s nascent but swelling grassroots opposition to the plan, an alarm has been sounded among some Diaspora Jews who say deportation would be an egregious move that violates Jewish values and the history of a people that knows what it is to flee persecution.

They see in these African asylum-seekers a reflection of their own families’ histories as refugees and as victims of persecution, whether it was in the Holocaust or a century ago taking flight from the pogroms in the Russian Empire. They also note that Jewish tradition advocates for the protection of refugees, citing the 36 Biblical references to the commandment to “Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

'Whiff of racism'

Nevertheless, the government is holding firm to its plans. Cabinet ministers and officials refer to the Africans officially as “infiltrators” for entering the country without authorization, and say most are economic migrants.

Most live either in South Tel Aviv, where they work mostly in restaurants, or in the southern resort town of Eilat, where they work in the hotel industry. The government has said they would bring in Palestinian workers to replace them.

They also have used the words “demographic threat” to describe the asylum-seekers, even though they number less than 1 percent of the population and their ranks are unlikely to grow – in part because of the border fence with Egypt that Israel built in response to the migration.

The deportation policy has also brought with it accusations of racism, that the urgency to kick them out of the country has more to do with the color of their skin. Even longtime Israel advocate Alan Dershowitz, the lawyer, constitutional scholar, and commentator, said in an interview with an Israeli cable television station that it was impossible to avoid the “whiff of racism” that came with deporting nearly 40,000 people of color without properly checking their refugee status first.

Israel has granted refugee status to less than 1 percent of those who have applied. By contrast, Canada has granted such status to 97 percent of the Eritreans who have reached its shores.

A Diaspora vs. Israel schism

Irwin Cotler, the former justice minister in Canada and a past president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, has been in Israel meeting with officials about the plight of the asylum-seekers.

He explains the different perspectives of Israeli and Diaspora Jews this way: “North American Jews live in a different political and cultural moment. They don’t have geopolitical and security considerations, and don’t have government coalition considerations or the urgencies of the moment living in Israel…. They come to it as people who feel genuinely concerned, if not anguished, by what is happening.”

The dichotomy is not just an Israeli phenomenon, but reflects the divergent perspectives in other countries as well, between those who identify with refugees and believe in diversity, and those who feel threatened by it.

“Israel was founded with a very deep awareness of what happens to a people when they have no place of refuge,” says Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen, a senior director at the New Israel Fund, an American non-profit which advocates for social justice and equality in Israel. “For those of us who are connected to Judaism through the Torah and Jewish religious law, we are very aware of those religious tenets that forbid standing by when someone is at risk of death and in a place of danger.” 

Rabbi Cohen was referring to testimonials collected from asylum-seekers who had already been voluntarily deported (the government has offered a $3,500 grant to those who agreed to leave) to Rwanda or Uganda. Many reportedly have been robbed, others raped, and others sold to human-trafficking rings, even facing death as they continued toward Europe on the dangerous journey through Libya.

Protections for minors

Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, who leads a non-denominational synagogue in Jerusalem, has become active, together with Liling and others, in trying to get special protective status for those who came to Israel as unaccompanied minors a decade ago (an estimated 200 people) and were educated in Israeli schools.

They speak fluent Hebrew, are rooted here with friends and support networks, and some have even tried to enlist in the Israeli army – and when they were rebuffed, instead signed up to do national service.

She and others are working with synagogues and individuals across Jerusalem to help provide a network of support for them.

Rabbi Elad-Appelbaum says Israel has a lot to learn from Diaspora Jews, but she appeals for empathy in understanding where Israel’s official stance comes from.

“There are two points of view in our history. Jews in America have a talent for being able to look at the world and see ourselves as part of a proactive vanguard, and we in Israel for the past 70 years have been looking through the perspective of how do we make a home for Jews. Both are significant,” she says, “and we need to braid both of them together.”

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