Israel has placed its African migrants and asylum seekers with an unsolvable dilemma: Either leave the country by the end of March in exchange for $3,500 and a plane ticket to an unspecified country; or be imprisoned indefinitely.
Since the Knesset's approval last December of the amendment to the so-called “Infiltrator’s Law,” which has paved the way to the deportation and imprisonment of thousands of Africans migrants, many sectors of Israeli society have demonstrated their disapproval of the government’s policies, and given their time and energy to protest the deportation in the streets, or from their homes.
Last Wednesday night, I was invited into the house of people I didn’t know for an informal meeting about refugees. Over 40 concerned citizens packed into a living room in Baka to hear the story of Abel, a young Eritrean asylum-seeker. Abel came to Israel as a young boy fleeing forced enrollment in a life-long military service. Now in his early 20s, he narrates — in fluent Hebrew — his family’s past ordeal in Eritrea and his now relatively peaceful life in Jerusalem where he lives and works.
But the event was designed to accomplish more than simply sharing Abel’s harrowing journey out of dictatorship. The organizers aspire to provide young adults such as Abel with a complete support network — from Friday night hospitality to judicial services. The panel also featured Jean-Marc Liling, an attorney and the director of the Center for International Migration and Integration (CIMI). Liling is one of the many voices calling Israel to remember its own history. “Israel is a state built by refugees for refugees,” he said.
Rabbis like Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, Aaron Leibowitz , and Nava Efez, from the NGO Rabbis for Humans Rights, have denounced the deportation, claiming that it violates Jewish ethics.
As stand up-comedian Israel Campbell — also on Saturday night’s panel — sardonically asks: “The commandment to ‘Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ appears 36 times in the Bible. What could God possibly mean by that?!”
Indeed, the signs made by protestors for recent demonstrations, many of which feature Biblical quotes/injunctions, illustrate the deep connection in the minds of Israelis between Jewish values and the fight against the ill-treatment of foreigners.
While many ground their position in holy texts, others turn to the past where they are struck by the parallel between their own families’ history of persecution and search for refuge and that of the African asylum-seekers.
Colette Avital, a Holocaust survivor, a former Israeli diplomat, and MK, has been appointed to lead Israel’s umbrella organization of Holocaust survivors. She does not shy from referring to her past as the root for her commitment to the refugees’ cause.
Additionally, one should not forget to mention the Israeli pilots who were among the first groups to speak up against the law. Yossi Shav from the Israeli pilots association declared: “We will not put ourselves in the situation of having to transport refugees to a place where their lives are under threat.”
The pilots were quickly followed by 400 medical personnel who signed a petition letter to the director general of the Population and Immigration Authority, protesting the deportation.
The letter reads: “As those who are charged with the command to ‘save from all evil and injustice,’ we are horrified by the thought that instead of absorbing those victims who came to us fleeing genocide, torture, violence and rape, we are discussing condemning them to further harm.”
The government reaction to this outburst of criticism is best encapsulated by Benyamin Netanyahu’s comments on the campaign against the deportations. The Prime Minister referred to the campaign as “baseless and absurd.” insuring that “genuine refugees and their families will remain in Israel.”
However, one wonders how Netanyahu defines a “genuine refugee,” since Israel has only recognized 11 “genuine refugees” among the 15,000 applicants — the lowest recognition rate in the West.
It is important to pay tribute to the many Israelis and concerned citizens around the globe, who — through their words, actions, protest and donations, have contributed to raising awareness about the asylum-seekers’ situation and have denounced the deportation.