Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pledge this week to advance steps to deport asylum seekers from African countries may only add fuel to the fires, literally, of those who are harassing the migrants.
A suspected case of arson was reported in Jerusalem on Monday, damaging an apartment where 10 Eritrean immigrants were living. Several were hospitalized with burns as attacks against the newcomers have escalated in recent weeks, underscoring the social tensions between Israelis who want the estimated 60,000 Africans who have arrived in the last several years to be sent away, and those who are sympathetic to their plight as refugees.
About 25,000 Africans have come because of poverty in their native countries, primarily Ghana, Ivory Coast and Ethiopia, and are seeking work in Israel. Another 35,000 people are believed to be from war-torn Sudan and Eritrea and are legitimate refugees, protected by United Nations-granted rights of asylum.
The festering social problem grew uglier last week when African residents in south Tel Aviv, where many of them live, were subjected to beatings, racism and other forms of discrimination from locals who said the newcomers were troublemakers. Though statistics show the crime rate of foreigners in south Tel Aviv to be significantly lower than among Israelis, protests and riots took place in several cities, with activists saying they did not want the refugees living near them.
Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the Shas Party exacerbated the tensions when he referred to south Tel Aviv as “the country’s garbage can” and inferred that many of the Africans are infected with HIV. He said the “infiltrators” — the word commonly used to describe the migrants — should be imprisoned in detention centers and then deported.
Tough words from a religious leader, given the Torah’s repeated instruction to show compassion to the strangers in our midst.
It is comforting to know that organizations like Jewish Heart for Africa and Israel At Heart are doing important work to improve the lives of Africans, in their own countries and in Israel. Joey Low, a New Yorker who founded Israel At Heart, which provides social services, job opportunities and scholarships for African refugees in Israel, notes that Jerusalem has no clear policy on the refugees, and that laws have been passed making it a crime to hire Africans.
“How are the Africans expected to feed themselves and their families and pay for housing if they cannot earn money through working?” Low asks.
While supporting the government’s plan to complete a fence along the Egyptian border to prevent additional refugees from entering Israel, he calls for allowing those already in the country to work and be paid. He also advocates for the Africans to be treated with dignity and offered basic training programs so that those who return home will have useful skills.
Jerusalem should look at these refugees as potential goodwill ambassadors. Having been treated by Muslim governments with discrimination, and sometimes torture, these people should be shown compassion and be able to attest to Israel’s humanitarian concerns when they were “strangers among us” in the Jewish state.