Netanyahu’s latest campaign against African asylum seekers is based on one fat lie; and it must be stopped
“They’re not refugees.”
It’s Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s most favorite, repeated, recited, requoted line about Israel’s 35,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers.
“They’re not refugees.”
And it’s a big fat lie.
Whenever Bibi is asked about the Eritreans and Sudanese who came to Israel seeking asylum, his answer always begins (and sometimes ends with): “They’re not refugees.” It’s also the same line that virtually all government representatives, spokespeople and diplomats repeat when asked about the topic. I assume they are instructed to do so. It’s short. It’s sweet. It’s convenient. And it’s completely untrue.
Let me tell you how I know.
When I moved to Israel in 2011, it was at the height of the arrival of the African asylum seekers. At the time I was participating in a volunteer Masa program called “Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa” – a joint program of BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change and the Daniel Centers for Progressive Judaism. Through the program I learned about the many diverse communities of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, including the newly arrived asylum seekers, who were mostly from Darfur and Eritrea. I knew about Darfur. Seven years earlier I had taken part in the “Save Darfur” campaign – writing letters and participating in marches in Washington to protest the genocide in Darfur. The fact that thousands of survivors had made their way to the Jewish State beckoned my attention and my Jewish soul. Eritrea I could hardly find on a map. But I soon learned about the cruel dictatorship in power there, known as “The North Korea of Africa”, which persecutes religious minorities and all who dare speak out, and drafts young men and women into a lifetime of slavery.
At the time, in 2011, there was an urgent need for volunteer English and Hebrew teachers. As an experienced American Jewish Hebrew educator, I felt it would be selfish for me not to answer the call. And so I taught. I taught Hebrew and English once a week to asylum seekers inside Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station. I taught them Hebrew letters, words, songs and stories. And they told me their stories.
There was the story of Jacob (not his real name). His village in Darfur was burned and he saw his father and brother murdered before his own eyes at the age of 13. By miracle or by grace of God, he, his mother and sisters managed to escape and make their way to a refugee camp. By the time he turned 15 he knew he was again at risk – when young Darfuri boys were being kidnapped from the camps and forced to fight against their own people, or killed. So he fled from the camp to Khartoum, and from Khartoum to Cairo. And in Cairo when he learned that Darfuris were being rounded up and deported back to Sudan, he knew again he had to flee. By chance on Egyptian television, in Arabic, he happened to see a documentary program about the history of the Jewish people, about the Holocaust, about the establishment of Israel. “I have to go there,” he said to himself. “They will understand me. They will know what it’s like to be a refugee. They will protect me.” And so he made his way to a group of Bedouin smugglers, who brought him to Israel.
There was the story of Isaac (not his real name). He was a member of the Eritrean Pentecostal Church. Pentecostalism was proclaimed illegal in Eritrea, yet he and his community continued to practiced in secret. One day his church was discovered by the authorities, all the worshippers arrested and sent to prison without trial. After serving his prison sentence he was drafted into the Eritrean National Service (also known as “slavery to the regime”). When caught continuing to practice his religion, he was again arrested. But this time he managed to flee. From Eritrea to Sudan and from Sudan to Egypt and from Egypt to the Sinai, where he paid Bedouin smugglers to bring him to Israel. But in the middle of the Sinai he was kidnapped by his smugglers and held for ransom. For three months, every single day, he was tortured until his family abroad managed to raise the ransom for his release. He was dumped on the border with Israel.
And there were many more stories just like them. Inspiring, harrowing, horrifying stories. The fact that so many of these people were refugees was to me a clear and undeniable truth.
You can imagine my confusion, my concern and my frustration then, in 2011, when Netanyahu and the Government of Israel stopped referring to Eritreans and Sudanese as refugees and began systematically calling them “illegal infiltrators.” “They’re not refugees”, Netanyahu said. “They came here to work.”
Did he not know? I wondered. Did Netanyahu not know that there is genocide in Darfur, that there is persecution in Eritrea?
Many Israelis that I met indeed did not know, or did not want to know. They did not know about Darfur or about “Save Darfur.” They did not know about Eritrea or where it was on a map. And when their Prime Minister told them “they’re not refugees” it was very easy and convenient to believe. If they are not refugees, then we have no obligation towards them. If they are not refugees then we can kick them out. If they are not refugees, we don’t have to think about what it really means to be “a Jewish state” – a state for Jews or a state based on Jewish values, and if we were to apply our Jewish values to non-Jewish refugees, what would that mean? Too difficult to think about. Too challenging. Much easier to believe “they’re not refugees.”
But does Bibi believe it?
No, Bibi must know. Bibi must know that there is a genocide in Darfur and that Israel was one of the first countries to recognize it. Bibi must know that Eritrea is one of the most brutal regimes in the world, and even Israel’s own Foreign Ministry (of which he is head) admits that the humanitarian situation there is intolerable. Bibi must know that in the rest of the world roughly 56% of Sudanese and 84% of Eritrean asylum seekers are recognized as refugees, while in Israel fewer than 1% have been accepted. Bibi must know.
For his unknowing constituents “They’re not refugees” is a very convenient untruth, which they may or may not believe. But Bibi knows better. Bibi knows that they are refugees, or at least, that many of them are. And Bibi is lying through his teeth when he says they are not.
So why does he lie?
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps because it is a convenient lie. As long as Israelis believe they are not refugees, Bibi has no obligation toward them. As long as Israelis believe they are not refugees, Israelis will continue to fear them, and vote for Bibi, who they think will protect them. Whatever the reason, it is a lie and Bibi knows it.
And as any 10-year-old knows, one lie eventually leads to more lies.
“They are a threat to the Jewish and democratic character of Israel.” Another Bibi lie. 35,000 non-Jewish refugees in a country with over 6 million Jews are not a threat to its Jewish character. And no more have arrived since Bibi finished building his wall. The imprisonment and deportation of refugees is the true threat to the Jewish character of Israel.
“We will deport them to Rwanda.” “We can guarantee their safety in Rwanda.” Another lie. Dozens of reports have shown that upon arrival in Rwanda, Eritreans and Sudanese arriving from Israel have all their documents taken away and are handed almost immediately into the hands of human smugglers, who traffic them to Uganda, and then to South Sudan, Sudan and Libya where they face extortion, slavery, or even death.
“They’re not refugees” is therefore a lie.
It is also a lie that was told by the Prime Minister’s Office last month to the 25 North American Jewish leaders who told Israel “Don’t deport refugees, let us help.” But the Jewish leaders did not relent. “We know many of them are indeed refugees,” they told Bibi, and persisted in calling on Israel to protect its refugees, and to let Jews around the world help. Will Bibi listen to their truth, or will he continue to lie?
“They are refugees,” or at least “many of them are refugees” is the truth. It may be an inconvenient truth. It may require challenges and sacrifices, actions and obligations under international, Jewish and moral law. It may require us to ask deep questions about what it means for Israel to be a Jewish State in the 21st century, and what are our obligations as global Jews to that State and those who seek refuge in it. But one thing is clear, it is the truth and it cannot be ignored. Dozens – if not hundreds – of lives have already been lost because of Bibi’s lie. And if we continue to believe it or to ignore, thousands more will now be at risk. And we will not be able to say “we did not know.”
It is the truth.
They are refugees.
Join us in telling Bibi: Don’t deport refugees, let us help. To learn more: www.asylumseekers.org/no-deportation.html