Tel Aviv — The group of about 50 Israelis crammed into a small storefront office in southern Tel Aviv one evening this week. Invited on Facebook by an activist group opposing an Israeli government plan to deport African asylum seekers, the group came to tour a neighborhood that’s home to thousands of migrant workers and working-class Israelis.
“My opinions are the opposite, but I wanted to come here to see the side in favor of the Africans,’’ said Tomer Alma, a 28-year-old data scientist who works at a nearby bank. “Maybe some are refugees, but I think that most of them aren’t. There’s a lot of emotion and demagoguery on both sides.”
Alma’s curiosity suggests a crescendo in a years-long debate in Israel over the status of tens of thousands of Africans who say they fled homes in Eritrea and Sudan because of government persecution and violence. A government plan to force out thousands of Africans who came into Israel illegally over the Sinai border is now prompting a rare outcry among civilian groups.
“There’s a lot of emotion and demagoguery on both sides.”
Independent groups of former diplomats, social workers, teachers and El Al pilots this month have taken public stands against the government policy. Some signed online petitions, while others like a group of El Al pilots, warned that they would refuse to fly African migrants to “third-party” countries like Rwanda.
“I will not fly refugees who have been deported against their will,’’ wrote El Al pilot Yoel Piterbarg in a recent Facebook post. Piterbarg quoted a remark by Martin Luther King Jr. that bad historical events are often carried out by good people. “Refugees who are already living among us should not be thrown out like stray dogs back to their country of origin.”
Campaigns on behalf of the Africans have also been initiated by high school students, progressive Israeli rabbis and Holocaust survivors.
Yonatan Fuld, 81, who spent several months in the Budapest ghetto and then illegally left Hungary following the war, said in a phone interview that Africans in Israel face xenophobia like Jews did in Europe — even if the Nazi Holocaust remains in a class by itself.
“[The deportation] is an act of evil. It’s against all human and Jewish morals to expel refugees that they know are in danger of death.”
“[The deportation] is an act of evil. It’s against all human and Jewish morals to expel refugees that they know are in danger of death,’’ said Fuld in a telephone interview. “I felt like I had to do something.”
Invoking the efforts of non-Jewish Europeans to hide Jews during World War II, many of the Israelis opposed to the planned deportation have vowed to host Africans facing deportation in their homes.
In recent days, Rabbi Susan Silverman and Rabbis for Human Rights unveiled the “Anne Frank Home Sanctuary Movement to protect refugees. This week, at least 850 diaspora rabbis signed a petition sponsored by the New Israel Fund to protest of the deportation.
“It looks as if the government went one step too far,’’ said Sigal Rozen, founder and public policy coordinator of Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. “People that were quiet all these years when asylum seekers were abused, now when we are talking about full deportation to third-party countries, then suddenly the Israeli public feels that they can’t shut up. And I’m happy about it.”
Many Africans received notice last month that they had 30 days to decide whether to accept deportation to Rwanda or face open-ended imprisonment. Muluebrhan Gherihiwet, a 27-year-old asylum seeker who fled an indefinite service in the Eritrean army, has been in Israel since 2011.
He was given a choice between being deported in two weeks or going to jail. But after a childhood friend died in the desert trying to reach Europe after accepting deportation to Rwanda, Gherihiwet decided he would remain in Israel in jail rather than taking a gamble going back to Africa.
“Please grant us asylum, we are refugees.”
“I told them I’m not going; I need asylum,’’ said Gherihiwet, who is currently at the Holot detention center, which houses many of the migrants. “Please grant us asylum, we are refugees.”
The use of Israel’s collective memory of the Holocaust in the service of the asylum seekers has triggered criticism from defenders of the government that the Nazi genocide is being exploited for political purposes by activists for the asylum seekers.
For years, the government has insisted that the Africans are migrant workers rather than refugees. Right-wing politicians have argued that they must leave the country because they are taking the jobs of Israelis, contributing to crime and diluting the country’s Jewish character. At a demonstration in South Tel Aviv several years ago, Israeli culture minister Miri Regev called the Africans a “cancer.’’
Government detention policies for the migrants have been struck down by the Israeli High Court several times. A new petition, this time challenging the current deportation policy, was submitted to the court in January.
The escalating public debate is putting some Israeli officials on the defensive. Conceding that the new deportation policy will be difficult to implement, the director Israel’s population and immigration authority, Shlomo Mor Yosef, told Israel Radio on Monday, “On one hand, this is a humanitarian issue. On the other hand, my ministry has an obligation to preserve the identity of the state of Israel according to government policy.”
Mor Yosef said that the government would not forcibly deport women, children or married men.
According to statistics cited in the Knesset this week by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who referred to the Africans as “infiltrators,” some 64,000 migrants entered the country illegally in the last 10 years. Nearly 38,000 Africans currently reside in Israel, and 20,000 have left the country under a “voluntary” repatriation program to third-party countries. Just 11 Africans have been recognized as refugees. Trying to counter allegations that the focus on African migrants is racist, Deri asserted that Israel repatriated more Ukrainian migrants last year than Africans.
Despite criticism that European countries have been recognizing the overwhelming majority of asylum claims of Eritreans, Mor Yosef insisted that Israel’s policy recognizing such a small number of the migrants conforms with international standards. Mor Yosef’s population authority recently said it planned to hire additional inspectors to carry out the deportation over the next two years.
But Alon Liel, a former director general of the Israeli foreign ministry who signed a petition against the policy along with other former Israeli ambassadors, argued that such a deportation would tarnish the image of Israel — an image that already suffers from international criticism for its policies toward the Palestinians. When all of the developed wealthy countries are being asked to make an effort to take in refugees, Israel should do its part, he said.
“The percent of our asylum-seeker population relative to the overall population is much lower. We should make an effort. We are a wealthy country,’’ he said.
“People feel that we are a country of refugees. And a country of refugees can’t kick out asylum seekers.”
“All retired ambassadors have parents who were refugees,’’ Liel said. “People feel that we are a country of refugees. And a country of refugees can’t kick out asylum seekers.”
David Lau, Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi, came out in support of the government policy, saying in an interview with the Ynet website that Israel needed to take care of its own needy first and that most of the Africans aren’t refugees.
The public protests by the public figures and citizen groups may have raised the profile of the Africans’ plight, but public opinion surveys suggest that broad public sentiment is unsympathetic.
A Channel 10 poll released Sunday and cited in a Times of Israel story indicated that a majority of Israelis support expelling African migrants from the country. Asked if they support the government’s decision to deport the migrants, 56 percent said yes, 32 percent said no and another 12 percent said they did not know.
Despite a majority supporting deportation, only 44 percent said they would be in favor of forcibly removing the migrants, as compared to 46 percent who said they opposed doing so.
Back at the South Tel Aviv tour, Shula Keshet, an activist who opposes the deportation, accused the government of stoking conflict by concentrating the Africans in a neighborhood that has always been impoverished and crime-ridden.
Hagar Lipkin, a 73-year-old human resources professional, said she came all the way from the city’s affluent northern edge to participate in the tour.
“I decided that if it comes to it, I will hide people. I’ve also been checking with friends,’’ she said. “I don’t care what the police say. They can put me in jail.”