Photo: The entrance to Holot immigration detention centre, Negev desert, Israel. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. - Photo: 2018

Decision to Deport African Immigrants Sparks a Debate in Israel

By Lisa Vives, Global Information Network

NEW YORK (IDN) – Under a so-called “infiltrator’s law”, more than 1,000 African asylum seekers in Israel face deportation from Israeli detention centres starting in March.

Speaking at a recent Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the harsh enforcement policy. “We are not acting against refugees,” he said. “We are acting against illegal migrants who come here not as refugees but for work needs. Israel will continue to offer asylum for genuine refugees and will remove illegal migrants from its midst.”

Netanyahu stressed that Israel has made arrangements with a third country that “assures the personal security of those who leave here.”

But the enforcement action has met with fierce opposition from 35 prominent Israeli authors and 500 Israeli academics.

In a letter addressed to the Prime Minister, the college and university faculty wrote: “We have a duty to remember that we were persecuted foreigners and refugees… We must welcome the asylum seekers who fled from their homes and their homelands in order to save their own lives and the lives of their family members.”

The letter, also addressed to members of the cabinet and President Reuven Rivlin, added: “The history of our nation requires Israel to serve as a model for the treatment of children and adults who seek refuge from ethnic cleansing, persecution and political violence, from human trafficking, from rape and from torture. Israel is large and strong enough to provide temporary shelter and refuge to tens of thousands of asylum seekers from eastern Africa until such a time as they can return to their homes, freely and in security.”

A similar letter was signed by 50 rabbis associated with the Orthodox, pluralistic association Torat Chayim. They called on the state to uphold Jewish law and follow the biblical prohibition from Deuteronomy 23:16: “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master a bondman that is escaped from his master unto thee.”

The rabbis noted that the estimated 35,000 African asylum seekers living in Israel represent less than one-half of one percent of the population of the state – a number too small to significantly change Israel’s demographic balance, they say.

The letter called on Netanyahu “to act morally, humanely and with compassion worthy of the Jewish people, and to stop the deportation of refugees to the hell from which they fled before it starts. Otherwise, we will have no reason to exist.”

Opposition to forcibly deporting asylum seekers and to imprison indefinitely anyone who refuses to leave has been growing in Israel. Rabbi Susan Silverman, sister of U.S. comedian Sarah, is among those who called on Israelis to shelter the asylum seekers in their homes.

“People risked their lives to save Jews, and we as a country are now saying we don’t want to risk the tiniest demographic shift?” she asked. Silverman hopes to enlist support from American Jews in the campaign to stop the planned expulsions.

In a related development, a group of Israeli airline pilots have vowed not to fly deported African asylum seekers and refugees back to war-stricken countries in their home continent, Israeli media has reported.

“Throughout the world, citizens are fighting cruel expulsion decrees and standing alongside refugees and asylum-seekers,” Raluca Gena, head of an Israeli NGO, Zizim, said. “This is a test for the Israeli public to determine the fate of tens of thousands of people.”

As Emma Green reported in The Atlantic, Israel isn’t alone among Western nations struggling with large-scale migration – and the backlash against it. “At the height of the European migrant crisis in 2015, more than a million people applied for asylum on the continent, and the issue empowered far-right political parties in places like Germany and France. While some countries have expanded their resettlement efforts, others, including Sweden and the United States, have stepped up deportations or restrictions.”

Yet, the The Atlantic report adds, Israel’s situation is also distinctive. Its proportion of migrants is relatively small compared to Germany’s, for example, which saw 722,400 asylum applications in 2016 alone – equivalent to nearly 1 percent of the German population. And unlike European countries, Israel shares a land border with Africa; many migrants attempting to reach Israel faced brutal encounters with traffickers and Egyptian security forces as they crossed the Sinai.

Now, as Israel prepares to send them back to Africa, it is no surprise that the country is facing challenging questions about the meaning and purpose of the Jewish state, itself created as a harbour for Jews fleeing anti-Semitic persecution in Europe and the Middle East. “The situation lays bare a central tension for Israel, which has both a particular obligation to protect Jews and, some Jews believe, a general responsibility to represent Jewish values to the world.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 01 February 2018]

Photo: The entrance to Holot immigration detention centre, Negev desert, Israel. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate –

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