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Xenophobia and exclusion — Israel-style

Hounding asylum-seekers may be politically expedient, but it contradicts the democratic values of equality, pluralism, and the quest for justice
Illustrative. Residents of south Tel Aviv protest the government's failure to remove tens of thousands of African refugees and asylum seekers from the area's impoverished neighborhoods, on August 30, 2018. (AFP/Jack Guez)
Illustrative. Residents of south Tel Aviv protest the government's failure to remove tens of thousands of African refugees and asylum seekers from the area's impoverished neighborhoods, on August 30, 2018. (AFP/Jack Guez)

The heinous massacre of 11 Jewish worshipers in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh has magnified the connection between bigotry, fear of foreigners, and the rising wave of anti-Semitism today. Yet official Israel’s response to the worst attack in American Jewish history has sown immense discord and confusion, sidestepping the central issue of the impact of the prevailing political climate on the increasing xenophobia and racism in the United States and elsewhere in recent years. At precisely the same time that the debate over the sources of contemporary anti-Semitism rages and as the rift between large segments of Diaspora Jewry and the present Israeli government grows, Israel is quietly and systematically expediting the expulsion of the dwindling number of African asylum-seekers in its midst. Below the radar, a decision has been made to step-up the return of the bulk of those seeking refuge in Israel from Eritrea, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to their countries of origin. Nothing says more about the widening gap between the present Israeli leadership and the Jewish history and values which should be guiding its policies.

The stream of Africans seeking refuge in Israel ceased entirely after the Netanyahu government completed the construction of a physical barrier along its border with Egypt to prevent African asylum-seekers from gaining entry into the country in December 2013. Since then, Israel has made numerous efforts to cajole the over 60,000 illegal migrants from the continent to leave the country, through “voluntary” repatriation to third countries, indefinite incarceration in transit camps, or sheer immiseration (including limiting employment opportunities, legislating the withholding of 20 percent of earnings, and denying access to medical and welfare services).

Many diverse Israelis, uncomfortable with these moves for moral, religious and historical reasons, stepped into the breach — offering advice, legal support and essentials to the African communities heavily concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods of Tel Aviv and its environs. Through a handful of migrant and civil rights organizations, they successfully petitioned the High Court of Justice first against the policy of prolonged detention of asylum-seekers, and then against the intention to forcibly expel them to third countries in Africa.

Inevitably these judicial decisions not only engendered increased social friction — heavily fueled during the past year by right-wing politicians from the prime minister down — but also limited the options open to a coalition bent on decreasing the number of African asylum-seekers in the country.

According to the Immigration Authority of the Ministry of Interior, as of January 2018 there were 36,630 African asylum-seekers in the country — the vast majority (92%) from Eritrea and the Sudan, and under collective protection from deportation to their home countries. Benjamin Netanyahu has made every effort to keep his promise to his constituency to rid the country of these — in his terms — “infiltrators.” In April, he reached an agreement with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, whereby Israel would grant refugee status to half the African migrants, while the UNHCR would arrange for the other half to be relocated to other countries under its auspices. Vehement opposition in coalition circles and in portions of his public forced him to instantaneously renege on the deal. But he has not stopped to look for alternatives.

By far the most attractive option has been to bypass the High Court ruling by appending a specific override clause into the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, allowing the government to reintroduce legislation enabling the deportation of the remaining asylum-seekers. This initiative — strongly backed by Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party — has met growing criticism, not only from within the coalition (from the Kulanu party and also from portions of the Likud, including Member of Knesset Benny Begin), but also from the attorney general. Under these circumstances, it is unlikely to be adopted at this juncture.

The government has therefore sought recourse elsewhere. Banking on broad public support (a comparative PEW survey published in September of this year showed that 57% of Israelis oppose absorbing refugees from conflict zones and only 37% supported such policies — second only to Hungary in the Western world), it has therefore concentrated on stealthily elaborating an alternative deportation policy. In the past month alone, Netanyahu, together with Minister of the Interior Aryeh Deri, has set in motion steps to strip key groups of their collective status, thus opening the door for their return to their home countries.

The first — and largest — target is the Eritrean community in Israel. Government officials have indicated that in the wake of the signing of the peace accord between Ethiopia and Eritrea the key cause for refugee claims — indefinite military service — may no longer pertain. Emissaries were sent to Asmara to discuss possibilities of repatriation with the local government — despite the fact that all international agencies and experts agree that the appalling human rights record of the government has yet to change. In the interim, instructions have been issued to review requests for refugee status on a case by case basis (to date, only 11 of the thousands of petitions submitted have been accepted), effectively undoing collective protections heretofore in place.

The status of the second community now under reexamination — the Sudanese — is very similar. The approximately 3,500 refugees from this country hail from areas that have experienced untold atrocities and even genocide — Darfur, the Nuba country, and the Blue Nile region. Until 10 days ago, they benefited from special humanitarian status in Israel and were awarded work visas. These rights have now been withdrawn and the standing of these asylum-seekers will, like their Eritrean counterparts, be reviewed on an individual basis. Those applicants found wanting will be summarily expelled. The High Court of Justice instructed the government to present a precise timetable for this review within thirty days.

The fate of the handful of refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DCR) is even more disturbing. Three weeks ago, the Ministry of Interior stripped them of all protections and gave the 400 plus members of the community — mostly refugees who fled the country during the height of the prolonged civil wars over 15 years ago — three months to put their affairs in order and leave the country. There is no rhyme or reason either for the substance or the timing of this dictate: Congo is still fraught with violence and discord, hundreds of thousands have been killed and millions sent into refuge or displaced. The impending elections (set for December) make the situation on the ground even more precarious. Yet Israel is now actively seeking the expulsion of this small and deeply entrenched community.

Many of these moves are being conducted almost clandestinely, while public attention is preoccupied with other matters — from the situation along the Gaza border to the horror in Pittsburgh and its aftermath. Still a stalwart group of Israelis has continued to demand the just and humane treatment of these migrants. These include residents of south Tel Aviv who oppose the deportations and whose leader — Shula Keshet — has just succeeded in gaining a seat in the municipal council in last week’s local elections; member of tens of kibbutzim who have opened their homes to refugee families; refugee rights activists who continue their public and legal advocacy on behalf of African asylum-seekers; and many, many decent Israelis who simply cannot fathom how Israel, a country built almost entirely by refugees, is turning its back on those who, like their forbearers, seek a haven on its shores. They, much as the majority of Jews abroad, see in the welcoming of immigrants fleeing persecution both a human right and a profoundly Jewish duty.

The hounding of immigrants and asylum-seekers may be politically expedient for Netanyahu and his fellow-travelers — although even that notion is subject to contention. It is not, however, reflective of the traditions and mores of most Jews; nor does it promote the basic values of equality, pluralism, tolerance, respect for the other and the quest for justice which underlie the democratic ethos. Support of Israel cannot come at the expense of condoning xenophobia and intolerance which prop up much of contemporary racism and anti-Semitism.

The attack on immigrant-welcoming Jews in Pittsburgh is also a wake-up call for Israel: an Israel which cannot find a way to show compassion to others at home can hardly protect Jewish minorities elsewhere and principles. It thereby does a disservice to itself and, simultaneously, to the heritage and values that bind it to its brothers and sisters throughout the world.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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