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March 2, 2018 3:28 pm

Israeli Ouster of African Migrants Proves Complex

avatar by Alissa Kaplan Michaels

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African migrants hold placards during a protest outside Israel’s Supreme Court in Jerusalem, Jan. 26, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun.

Policy decisions in Israel, particularly those touching on human rights, usually prove more complicated than the accompanying rhetoric of those involved would have one believe.

The plan to deport thousands of African migrants from the Jewish state is no exception.

Any talk of deportations is prickly territory for Israel, given the Jewish people’s long history of persecution and exile, Israel’s role as a “light unto the nations,” and the fact that the nation was founded for those seeking refuge.

Yet the situation as presented in “Many of Israel’s African Migrants Are Not Seeking Asylum — and Should Not Be Treated as Such,” by Eytan Meir, distorts some of the facts on the ground, rather than illuminates the complexities of the recent policy decision.  

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Israeli officials backed a plan in early 2018 to oust migrants primarily from Eritrea and Sudan, specifying that they must return to their own countries or to a third nation — Rwanda and Uganda are rumored destinations — or go to jail until deportation. Many of the potential deportees, for now limited to adult males without families, had entered Israel via the Sinai Desert illegally in search of better lives. Under the new policy, these individuals also would receive a small amount of compensation for leaving Israel.

Some 40,000 Eritrean and Sudanese migrants currently reside in Israel, including 5,000 children.

Meir, in his piece, argues that most of those scheduled to depart Israel have not filed for asylum.

The reality is more nuanced, however.

First, the Israeli government itself has created an obstacle for any would-be asylum-seekers by defining the bulk of the migrants instead as “infiltrators” looking for work. It is widely accepted that both Eritrea and Sudan have questionable human-rights records and harsh political conditions. Those from Eritrea have reported that serving in that nation’s army can result in torture or death.

Second, prior to the publication of Meir’s piece, an appeals court ruled against the Israeli authority responsible for the deportations, overturning a policy that Eritrean army defectors are not entitled to political asylum. Meir conveniently did not mention this development. “The court’s decision could mean thousands of asylum-seekers whose claim was rejected can now demand to have their cases re-examined,” The Jewish Chronicle of London reported.

And third, diverse populations have opposed the policy, including El Al pilots, Holocaust survivors, Israeli physicians, and ordinary Israeli citizens. Meir would have readers believe otherwise. He states, “Opponents of the plan — which include among them left-wing critics of Israel led by the US-based New Israel Fund — view the impending deportation as cruel and inhumane, believing that sending the migrants back to their continent of origin means sending them to their deaths.”

Other US groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, have openly contacted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to register their criticism. Notably, this week, the board of the Jewish Agency for Israel called for granting legal status to more than 500 young African migrants who arrived in Israel several years ago as unaccompanied minors and were integrated into Israeli society through youth villages operated by the Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Education.

“These youngsters have grown up in an Israeli educational environment, speak fluent Hebrew, are imbued with Israeli culture, and are loyal to the State of Israel,” according to a statement by the board, whose members certainly represent a range of backgrounds and viewpoints.

Other factors influencing the ongoing debate deserve more attention: the procedural difficulties in filing for asylum in Israel; whether a direct causal link exists between the influx of migrants into South Tel Aviv and an uptick in crime (the area already has a strained infrastructure); the safety and security of the migrants once deported; Israel’s role as a signatory to the Refugee Convention; and the voice, if any, of Diaspora Jewry in shaping Israeli policy.

For his part, though, Meir raises one point worth further exploration: “Opponents of the deportation have downplayed the ramifications of what legalizing the migrants would mean for Israel” and that the migrants “present a significant demographic challenge to the Jewish state.”

Those who favor deportation also may have minimized any such ramifications, though Netanyahu in the past has stated that the influx of Africans threatened Israel’s Jewish majority.

Israel is at a demographic crossroads for several reasons, including how and whether to pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace, not just because of the presence of African migrants.

Still, both those in Israel and the Diaspora will watch Israel’s next steps with the African migrants, for reasons elucidated by Orthodox Rabbi Donniel Hartman, of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. “As a Jew, I come from a tradition where you love the stranger, for you were a stranger; that you learn from your past on how you treat others,” he said. “If we’re failing here, it’s an indication of a much bigger problem with our commitment to human rights.”

Alissa Kaplan Michaels is a former hard-news journalist who has worked for ABC News, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Omaha World-Herald, The Des Moines Register and The New York Times, among other outlets. She is the founder of a strategic communications consultancy.

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