African Deportations Are Creating a Religious Controversy in Israel

Thousands of vulnerable migrants may soon be deported, which many Jews see as inconsistent with their faith.

A migrant from Eritrea gestures during a protest in Israel.
A migrant from Eritrea gestures during a protest in Israel. (Baz Ratner / Reuters)

TEL AVIV—Around 9:30 p.m. on a recent weekday night, four men sat waiting on the sidewalk outside Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority office. In a broken mix of Hebrew, English, and Arabic, they told me they were waiting for it to open so they could turn in their applications for refugee status—the next morning. According to local activists, the office only processes a handful of these forms each day, so asylum seekers arrive the night before to ensure their place in line.

These men are among the roughly 40,000 African migrants who have been stuck in limbo in Israel for years. Many crossed into Israel through the Sinai desert between 2006 and 2012, according to Israel’s African Refugee Development Center, fleeing the harsh political conditions in Eritrea or genocide and war in Sudan. The Israeli government has argued that these migrants are simply in Israel looking for work. Human-rights organizations, however, claim that most or all are here out of fear of persecution in their home countries. Of more than 13,000 people who had applied for asylum as of last summer, only 10 have been recognized as refugees, according to the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an Israeli human-rights organization.

Israel isn’t alone among Western nations struggling with large-scale migration—and the backlash against it. At the height of the European migrant crisis in 2015, more than a million people applied for asylum on the continent, and the issue empowered far-right political parties in places like Germany and France. While some countries have expanded their resettlement efforts, others, including Sweden and the United States, have stepped up deportations or restrictions.

Yet, Israel’s situation is also distinctive. Its proportion of migrants is relatively small compared to Germany’s, for example, which saw 722,400 asylum applications in 2016 alone—equivalent to nearly 1 percent of the German population. And unlike European countries, Israel shares a land border with Africa; many migrants attempting to reach Israel faced brutal encounters with traffickers and Egyptian security forces as they crossed the Sinai.

Now, as Israel prepares to send them back to Africa, the country is facing challenging questions about the meaning and purpose of the Jewish state, itself created as a harbor for Jews fleeing anti-Semitic persecution in Europe and the Middle East. The situation lays bare a central tension for Israel, which has both a particular obligation to protect Jews and, some Jews believe, a general responsibility to represent Jewish values to the world.

The Israeli government has been promising mass deportations of African migrants for years. But at the beginning of January, it set a timeline. “Last year, we deported approximately 4,000 and the major effort is to deport most of those who remain, who have infiltrated and are present in Israel illegally,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The government would offer these migrants a choice, he added: a plane ticket out, or jail. The Israeli government reportedly struck a deal with Rwanda to accept the returning migrants, although the African country has denied this.

Because most migrants from Eritrea and Sudan are given short-term visas that must be renewed every one to three months, many of them may lose their right to be in the country within weeks. “The fear, the concern, the panic, among the refugee community is more significant than it was before,” said Sivan Carmel, the director of HIAS Israel, a Jewish organization that works with the migrants. “It does feel more urgent.”

Last week, Susan Silverman, a Jerusalem rabbi (and sister of the comedian Sarah Silverman), started a campaign to get Israelis to hide African asylum seekers facing deportation in their homes, comparing their situation to that of Anne Frank. More than 2,000 people surrounded the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya to protest its participation in the deportations. Pilots for El Al, the Israeli airline, have called for a boycott of deportation flights, although the company said it has not been required to fly refugees, according to Haaretz. And more than 850 rabbis and cantors, mostly outside of Israel, have signed a petition opposing the removals.

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.

Frustrated, Michael threw himself into activism, showing up at anti-deportation rallies and advising fellow Eritreans through the refugee process. Like many other African asylum seekers, he works in a restaurant, Pasta Basta, for a few hours each week.

Teklit Michael, an Eritrean asylum seeker, works in a Tel Aviv restaurant. (Amir Cohen / Reuters)

He’s only 29, but Michael spoke to other asylum seekers with a combination of knowing humor and confident wisdom. The night I visited, he slowly recited another man’s asylum application in English and Tigrigna, one of Eritreans’ native languages, into a recorder so that the man could practice before his interview with the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees the next day. “For me, everything is the same. I choose to be a prisoner rather than go to Africa,” Michael told me. “But I am afraid about others.”

In January, the Anti-Defamation League and HIAS wrote a letter to Netanyahu testifying to the hardships that deported refugees will likely face if they are sent back to Africa. Many of those “who were relocated by Israel to third countries in Africa indicate that they did not find durable protection there and risked their lives by taking dangerous onward journeys through conflict zones in South Sudan, Sudan, and Libya to seek protection elsewhere,” the organizations wrote. “Some have drowned at sea en route to Europe, while others were reportedly detained, tortured and extorted by human traffickers.” The African Refugee Development Center reports that deported migrants have had travel documents confiscated upon arriving in their new countries. “Some faced arbitrary arrest, demands for bribes or encountered problems accessing the asylum process due to lack of documentation,” according to the organization.

Israeli officials, however, maintain that these claims are untrue. “In the last few days, a false campaign [has been used] to harm the government’s efforts to remove infiltrators from Israel,” wrote Ayelet Shaked, the Israeli minister of justice, on Facebook last week. “The state of Israel is too small and has its own problems. It cannot be used as the employment office of the African continent.” “This campaign is baseless and absurd,” Netanyahu added at the start of his cabinet meeting on Sunday.

For years, Israel has played a double game around deportations, said HIAS’s Carmel. Even though the government argues that the Eritrean and Sudanese migrants are not real refugees, it has not sent them back to their country of origin, likely knowing that doing so might violate international conventions around refugee rights. Many migrants spent years in the Saharonim prison in the Negev desert when they first arrived and were later transferred to Holot, a nearby open-air detention center. Some would be released from these facilities and travel to Tel Aviv, only to be sent back again when they went to the Ministry of Interior to renew their visas, according to the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants.

Since Israel constructed a wall along its border with Egypt a few years ago, crossings have dropped significantly—no new African migrants entered the country illegally via the Sinai in 2017, according to the government. Now it is slowly taking steps deport many of the migrants who survived the dangerous passage from Egypt to Israel, including those who have been here for a decade or longer. In November, the Knesset voted to close Holot, and the government may soon begin issuing deportation orders. Directing at-risk migrants to a third country may be a technical way around international laws, but refugee advocates are horrified by the thought that Israel may be sending people to their deaths. As left-wing Orthodox Israeli rabbis in the group Torat Chayim recently wrote in a statement, “Sending them back to bitter fate in Africa will cause the desecration of [God’s] name and stain Israel’s reputation.”

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The migrants issue underscores a deep divide within Judaism over how to think about Jewish identity. One of the major fault lines is the one between American Jews and native Israelis. “Olim—Jewish immigrants to Israel—are far overrepresented, proportionally, as activists on this issue,” said Vaisrub Glassenberg. “For American Jews, what is the number-one thing that it means to be Jewish? Tikkun olam: Working for a more ethical world.” But when you ask Israelis what it means to be Jewish, he said, they answer, “‘Well, I’m Jewish. This is my identity.’”

As a result, pro-migrant activists often get tagged as judgmental outsiders. “If you tell Israelis that you’re volunteering here, you get very negative reactions, usually,” said Kristen Verwey, a 27-year-old from Calgary, Canada, who volunteers at the Eritrean Women’s Community Center. She immigrated to Israel several years ago. “Most of the reactions are that I just came here, and I’m bringing down the state,” she said. “It’s helping people the state has decided not to [help], going against the government.”

Others, including many in the current government, would argue that it’s okay for Israel to prioritize needy Jews over others. Israel is the only country in the world with a Jewish majority—and some would say that this majority is important to preserve. While Israel recognizes far fewer people in “refugee-like situations” as refugees compared to various Western countries, according to UNHCR, it does actively work to relocate vulnerable Jews from places like Ukraine and Russia to the country. In the past, Israel has also taken in massive populations of Jews from unstable African countries, including Egypt, Morocco, and, later, Ethiopia.

For the most part, the arguments made by Netanyahu and other government officials are embraced by native Israelis. One potential reason is that native Israelis may be conditioned to see non-Jews in the state as a threat—whether to their safety or to Israel’s Jewish majority. “It’s really hard for them to distinguish between the refugees and the Palestinians they were taught to be against,” said Rabbi Idit Lev, the social-justice director for Rabbis for Human Rights.

But some South Tel Aviv residents argue that activists ignore the reality of how their neighborhood has changed with the influx of migrants. Many of those who live in the area are Mizrachi, or Jews of Middle Eastern or North African descent, who have historically suffered economically and politically in the country. “It’s like a huge refugee camp that came only to this neighborhood,” said Haim Goren, who represents the area on the city council. He cited problems with noise and loitering. “Even old women are very afraid to walk in the streets in the evening and the weekend,” he said. “People stay in their homes.” Thousands of Ukrainian and Georgian asylum seekers have also come to Tel Aviv, further crowding these neighborhoods. This local story has played out in countless communities across Europe and the United States, where debate over migrants is just as often about jobs and living space as it is about fundamental questions of identity.

Not everyone in the area feels this way. Every so often on the blocks near the central bus station in South Tel Aviv, a balcony will be hung with a sign protesting the deportations. Shula Keshet, an activist who runs a feminist organization for Mizrachim, told me she is frustrated by the dynamics of the situation. “I was born here, and I know how it is difficult for the Mizrachi families here,” she said. “The government is using the terrible situation … in order to incite against asylum seekers.”

Israeli officials regularly visit the neighborhood to pledge their support to disgruntled residents. “We are doing what we promised,” said Netanyahu when he announced the new deportation policy. “Restoring quiet, the sense of personal security, and law and order to the residents of South Tel Aviv.” Keshet was skeptical. “This is basically taking the oppressed communities and clashing them, one on [the] other,” she said.

But it’s not enough to simply advocate in favor of the asylum seekers, she added. Other Israelis have to be willing to take on the messiness of welcoming a new population into their communities. “There are activists who come from the outside that support the refugees, and this is fine,” she said. “But what I expect from everybody … is to come and to say to the government, ‘You cannot locate all of them in South Tel Aviv,’ and to open their neighborhoods also to asylum seekers.”

African asylum seekers gather during a protest in Israel. (Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters)

Especially for the Jewish activists who believe that Israel should be built on what they see as Jewish values, the next few weeks will be a crucial test of its identity as a nation—and how it is perceived by the world. “It’s really hard to see what’s happening now by a country that was founded as a safe place to go for Jews who were affected by genocide,” said Hannah Gerson, a 22-year-old from Cardiff, Wales, who volunteers at the Eritrean Women’s Community Center on a grant from the Israeli government. She’s been coming to Israel since she was a little girl, she said, and she’s thinking about moving here. Yet she has mixed feelings about what she’s seen over the past few months in South Tel Aviv. Neighbors ask if she’s scared to walk alone at night, saying they’re wary of “the black faces” near the Central Bus Station. “I was very much aware that Israel wasn’t perfect beforehand,” she said. “I’ve just learned a lot more since being here about the government.”

The stakes are highest of all for the Eritrean and Sudanese migrants who may soon receive deportation notices.

“Politicians say, ‘Oh, you can leave tomorrow and never come back.’ And I say, ‘No, I can’t,’” said Usumain Baraka, an asylum seeker from Darfur who arrived in Israel, alone, just before his 15th birthday. “I became part of this society, part of this country.” He attended high school here; he did a year and a half of voluntary service here; he’s in college in Herzliya. Baraka originally came to Israel because he identified with the story of the Holocaust, he said, and believed that “because of the Shoah, they will give me protection, they will give me education.” Now, he said, he’s more clear-eyed about Israel’s limitations.

Even for the handful of people who have been granted refugee status, the weeks ahead are going to be devastating. “I’m an Israeli resident. I even have the right to participate in the election. But it really doesn’t make me happy,” said Mutasim Ali, the first Sudanese asylum seeker to be granted refugee status in Israel. “It makes me worry all the time. It makes me feel sad. I feel privileged that I’m able to speak and advocate, but there’s no difference between me and many others.”

He remembers watching American Jews protest against the genocide in Darfur in the mid-2000s—his first feeling of connection to Israel. “For me, that was really, really moving, and so emotional to see,” he said. “We do not share a religion, but yet they were supporters.”

When Ali came to Israel, he spent time in prison. After years of fighting the state’s bureaucracy and, eventually, winning his refugee status in court, he no longer has such rosy views about the Jewish state. And yet, he still seems to believe in the project. “Israel should be an example to many other countries,” he said. He wants Israel to be the nation that takes in people like him.