The first official act taken by Menachem Begin after he was elected prime minister of Israel in 1977 was to welcome 66 Vietnamese “boat people” who had been rescued at sea. Begin was widely praised at home and around the world on granting them citizenship, comparing their plight to that of Jewish refugees seeking safe haven during the Holocaust.
Times have changed. This is a moment when Western countries are responding with more resistance than empathy to the highest levels of refugees since World War II, estimated at 66 million worldwide. A moment when the leader of the free world is perceived as holding racist attitudes toward people of color, and expressing them in shocking language, giving license to more open expressions of bias. Meanwhile, Israel’s government has moved sharply to the right. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Jerusalem is cracking down on African migrants who entered illegally through the Sinai desert in the last decade — though virtually none have done so since Israel built a wall in the Sinai in late 2012.
Two weeks ago, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel would soon begin deporting thousands of Africans, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, who had come to Israel to escape war and government repression, he had the full support of his government and, no doubt, most Israelis.
Though the 37,885 souls in question living in Israel (as of Oct. 31, according to government statistics) make up about one-half of 1 percent of the Israeli population, they are widely perceived as a security and demographic threat, and labeled by the government and much of the media as “illegal infiltrators.”
(Advocates refer to them as “asylum seekers,” asserting that they are refugees seeking basic human rights and freedom in Israel.)
On Feb. 1, the government in Jerusalem will send out orders of deportation to single men from the African population between the ages of 18 and 60. They will be sent to a so-called “third country” since Jerusalem acknowledges it is too dangerous to return them to their native lands. Israel has not disclosed the destination but press reports say it is Rwanda, and that the government of Rwanda will be paid $5,000 per person; if the migrants refuse, they will be sent to detention centers for an indefinite period.
The Israeli government says the Africans are economic refugees in part, not just fleeing genocide. It defends its plan with a degree of pride, asserting that they are handling the issue in a more benevolent way than have European countries. Israel will give each person who leaves $3,500 and a plane ticket, offering them a new life in a thriving African country, officials say.
But a coalition of social justice groups in Israel oppose the deportation on moral and legal grounds. Michal Tadjer, an attorney with Kav LaOved, an Israeli NGO advocating for workers’ rights, told me this week that Israel’s immigration policy violates human rights. She and other advocates note that while the great majority of Africans are approved when applying for refugee status in Western countries, less than 1 percent are approved in Israel.
“Israel can handle these migrants,” Tadjer said. “There is no justification” for deporting them. “It’s racism.”
She is involved in a prolonged legal case that has reached the Supreme Court dealing with the “deposit law,” enacted in 2014 but only applied six months ago. It calls for setting aside 20 percent of the African workers’ earnings— they are not permitted to work but most do — and giving it to them only when they leave the country. In addition, employers of the African workers, most of whom toil in the hospitality industry (as waiters, maids and kitchen staff in hotels and restaurants), must put a sum equal to 16 percent of the wages into the same fund. The purpose is to provide a negative incentive for the Africans to stay in Israel and for employers to hire them.
Some offer as proof of racism the fact that hotels and restaurants facing severe labor shortages are bringing in Jordanian workers and illegal Georgians in expectation of the deportation of African migrant workers, more than 12,000 of whom are believed to be employed in the industry. Only the Africans are required to pay the deposit tax.
In brief, the pressure is on the African migrants to leave.
“No other group of foreign workers has that type of onerous conditions levied on them,” said Joey Low, a New York businessman and philanthropist who may be the most outspoken and active American critic of Israel’s treatment of the African migrants. He told me he has spent more than $ 1million in the last year in efforts to help the migrants and ease restrictions against them.
“This is an attack by the Netanyahu government on core Jewish values,” said Low, whose parents came to the U.S. as refugees during the Holocaust.
He created a nonprofit, Israel At Heart, a few years ago, one of whose projects was to bring young Israelis in the IDF to speak on campuses around the U.S. and enhance understanding of the Jewish state and improve its image. In recent years, he has focused on aiding Ethiopian Jews and, most recently, the African migrants, 20 of whom he has provided with full tuition to attend universities in Israel.
‘A Cancer’ That Must Be Removed
How did this crisis begin?
In 2007, when almost 500 Sudanese seekers of asylum made their way to Israel, Ehud Olmert, then prime minister, gave them temporary residency permits. But as the numbers increased dramatically, Israeli society became increasingly agitated, especially since many of the newcomers landed in south Tel Aviv, which was already a poor and crime-ridden neighborhood. But rather than disperse the newcomers to other parts of the country and provide basic health and other social services, little was done to counter the problem. Residents of the neighborhood held protests against the newcomers, and some government officials described the African migrants as “a cancer” that needed to be removed.
Israel built a detention center in the Negev Desert that became a virtual prison for thousands of migrants when they sought to renew their visas. The government began making secret deals with countries like Rwanda and Uganda to take in the migrants, whose fate is contested. Officials say those who left Israel are doing well; critics describe reports of those who were robbed, arrested, even murdered, and many others who have no work or legal protection.
Now comes the forced deportation plan, along with closing the desert detention center. And most recently, a report in Business Insider said the government is offering bonuses of up to $8,700 to citizens to join a new unit enforcing “tasks against illegal aliens and their employers.”
‘Fear And Anxiety’
“A line has been crossed,” according to Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, which advocates for refugees around the world. He noted that forcing the African migrants to choose between “imprisonment and self-deportation violates the international protections Israel helped create after the Holocaust to ensure that individuals fleeing war and genocide have the opportunity to find safety.”
This week, Hetfield and the ADL’s national director and CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, sent an open letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu “strongly” urging his government not to carry out the plan. “The sweeping nature of this deportation scheme, coupled with extreme difficulty to access the Israeli asylum system, is having a devastating impact on the refugee community in Israel and betrays the core value that we, as Jews, share,” they wrote.
On Tuesday, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs also called on Israel to suspend its plan.
To date, other prominent groups like AJC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations have not addressed the issue publicly.
One senses a hesitation to add to Israel’s image problem at a time when millennials and other American Jews are expressing dissatisfaction with Israel’s attitude toward non-Orthodox denominations (on conversion and prayer at the Western Wall) and its policies regarding the Palestinians. But for those Jews who champion human rights and oppose harsh immigration policies, Israel’s move to deport African migrants could drive them further away from identifying with the Jewish state.
Has Israel become so isolated that it is not concerned about how it is viewed by fellow Jews and others?
Tamara Newman, who works for the Hotline For Refugees and Migrants in Tel Aviv, described the “huge line” of African migrants outside the office “waiting for advice” on Sunday. It’s like that every day lately, she said. “There is a lot of fear and anxiety since this aggressive deportation plan” was announced by Netanyahu.
She noted that while the government does not view the African migrants as refugees, the fact that it does not plan to deport them to their countries of origins — for fear of how they will be treated on return — is, in effect, an acknowledgment that they should qualify for temporary refugee status (until it is safe for them to return to their native lands) under international law.
Newman believes the government should offer the African migrants “proper refugee status so that they could live in dignity in Israel with basic rights.”
Irwin Cotler, a former minister of justice and attorney general in Canada who has dealt with issues of African migrants for more than a decade, has been in Israel for several weeks lobbying against deportation. Cotler, who chairs the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights in Montreal, told me that Israel’s refugee determination process is “regrettably, not effective.”
He noted that under the Canadian process, 97 percent of those applying from countries like Sudan and Eritrea received refugee status, compared to Israel’s less than one percent. Speaking of the African migrants, he maintains that “you can’t predetermine their status until they are allowed to apply and have their status determined. That has not been done.
“Unfortunately, and most disturbing, the issue is not resonating in Israel other than support for deportation.”
Cotler attributes the problem to “group think” in Israel, where the African migrants are seen as a threat, though he believes unfairly, and their unpopularity has been leveraged by politicians against them.
Cotler intends to seek a return to temporary protective status for the African migrants, and hopes it is not too late.
It should be noted that world Jewry took great pride when, in the 1980s and ’90s, Israel boldly rescued tens of thousands of Ethiopians who claimed a Jewish heritage, a proof that mitzvot are color-blind. But Asaf Weitzen of the refugee hotline says that Israel has become a less liberal and more intolerant society in recent years. “I know that American Jews care about immigration and asylum. They and their families came as refugees, some from the Holocaust,” he said. “I want to believe that Menachem Begin would have accepted these people, because of his heritage and his Holocaust experience.”
I want to believe that, too — and that all of us, here and in Israel, recognize the moral as well as legal responsibility to speak up for those asylum seekers who have no voice of their own. More than Israel’s image is at stake; it’s about following our prophetic teachings and responding, in an increasingly merciless world, with compassion.
“There’s no way a Jewish nation should even consider deporting anyone,” said activist Joey Low, “let alone people who are running from genocide. It’s not too late, but this is the time.”