Since its founding, Israel has had to negotiate its dual identity as a democracy and as the world’s only Jewish-majority state. Netanyahu has long referred to the migrants as “infiltrators,” claiming that they pose a threat to the state. And many of the migrants’ neighbors in South Tel Aviv complain that the area has become overcrowded and crime-ridden since the newcomers arrived. Yet, advocates argue, Jewish identity should be built on values and ethics, not just membership in a tribe. What, they say, could be more Jewish—and more faithful to the history of Israel—than welcoming the stranger?
“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,” said Donniel Hartman, the Orthodox rabbi who runs the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. “If we’re failing here, it’s an indication of a much bigger problem with our commitment to human rights.”
“This is a turning point—a fork in the road for Israel, not only dealing with these refugees, but what kind of country does Israel want to be?” said Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg, an American activist who has worked extensively with the African asylum-seekers in Israel. “I personally will never be able to forgive Israel and the Jewish people if we let this happen.”
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The Eritrean Women’s Community Center in South Tel Aviv is nearly impossible to find, tucked away in a back alley up several flights of stairs. But the center is a pillar of this migrant-dominated neighborhood, with a waiting list for its refugee services in the many hundreds. Many Eritreans and Sudanese people ended up here because it is central to downtown Tel Aviv, close to the central bus station, and cheap.
At least twice a week, volunteers come by to help asylum-seekers fill out their Refugee Status Determination forms, a step that’s important for their cases, even though the vast majority of applicants never hear back and their attempts to be recognized may be ignored under the new deportation policy. On a recent Wednesday night, toddlers played with a Mickey Mouse toy as their parents waited in line to be seen by one of the 20-something-year-old volunteers, mostly American women in sweatpants. Each migrant carried his or her life story in paperwork, often tucked carefully in plastic binders or page protectors. Together with the volunteers, they improvised their way through pages riddled with errors made by the officials who processed their entry applications, from incorrect birthdates to misspelled names.
“It’s an asylum case,” said Teklit Michael, the center’s advocacy and community coordinator, who is himself an Eritrean asylum seeker. “Nobody [in government] gives a shit about the numbers.”
Michael came to Israel a decade ago, and he has been trying unsuccessfully to win refugee status for years. “For the last 10 years, I had lots of rage,” he said. “In the beginning, you cannot imagine that you would get this kind of treatment in Israel. In time, you … understand this basic rationale of discrimination based on skin color.” Like many migrants in Israel, Michael sees the treatment he’s received as a form of racism. The Israeli government and residents of South Tel Aviv have repeatedly denied this, however, pointing to the economic burden allegedly created by those who crossed the border illegally.