Rabbis launch movement to protect African migrants from deportation

Nearly 500 college professors sent an open letter condemning the government’s refugee plan

A RALLY in Jerusalem for African migrants in 2014. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A RALLY in Jerusalem for African migrants in 2014.
As government rhetoric regarding mass deportation continues to unnerve Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers – as well as many Israelis – Rabbis for Human Rights launched an Anne Frank-inspired campaign last week to protect them.
And on Saturday, 470 university professors from across the nation wrote an open letter to President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of Knesset, also demanding deportation efforts cease immediately.
“We, academic staff at universities and colleges in Israel, call upon the prime minister, the president and the members of Knesset to take a courageous moral stand on the issue of asylum-seekers from Sudan and Eritrea,” the letter states.
“We urge you to reverse the government’s decision to arrest and forcibly expel asylum-seekers who are in Israel.”
The letter and the Rabbis for Human Rights campaign come amid reports that Netanyahu’s coalition intends to either incarcerate or deport the majority of the nation’s 38,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers to a third country, believed to be Rwanda, beginning on April 1.
Although the Interior Ministry has not confirmed the reports, the government is offering African migrants $3,500 each to leave the country voluntarily. Those who refuse to self-deport will reportedly be imprisoned indefinitely, or sent to Rwanda, whose government will reportedly be paid $5,000 a head to accept them.
The Israeli rabbis behind the movement to protect the migrants include Susan Silverman, the sister of US comedienne Sarah Silverman, Haaretz reported.
“Who here would be willing to house [asylum-seekers]?” Silverman asked last week during a gathering of rabbis and educators in Jerusalem upon announcing the campaign, the newspaper reported.
“Anne Frank is the most well-known hidden person, and she was hidden so she would not be sent to her death, and we have documentation that these people are facing possible death,” she said.
Indeed, several human rights NGOs and refugees have called deportation to Rwanda effectively a death sentence, saying its government is autocratic and has a record of torture.
The professors in their letter noted that Jewish history has been plagued by persecution necessitating refugee status, and said the government must remember and honor the past by showing the humanity Jews were denied.
“The history of our people obligates the State of Israel to serve as a model for children and adults seeking refuge from ethnic cleansing, persecution and political violence, human trafficking, rape and torture,” the letter continues.
“The State of Israel is large and strong enough to provide temporary shelter for tens of thousands of asylum-seekers from East Africa, up until the time they will be able to return home freely and safely.”
Citing the government’s refusal to review thousands of pending asylum applications – despite Israel’s signing of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees – the professors demanded five steps be taken before incarceration or deportations are approved.
“I. We must discuss all requests for asylum submitted to the authorities fairly and with compassion,” the letter states.
“II. We must not forcibly expel asylum-seekers to Africa, Rwanda or any other country.
“III. We must immediately cease the detention policy of asylum-seekers.
“IV. We must immediately desist from the separate taxation policy and the economic damage focused on the income of asylum-seekers.
“V. We must grant asylum-seekers their rights... in accordance with international law.”
In the interim, the signatories demanded that all refugees be given access to housing, food, health- and mental healthcare services, kindergartens, schools, daycare centers, education and employment.
The letter concludes by asking the government how it will explain its current deportation policy to future generations.
“Prime minister, president, members of Knesset: What will we tell our children and grandchildren when they ask us, ‘What have you done to the asylum-seekers from Sudan and Eritrea? How did you protect them? Have you done the right thing? What was their fate?” the letter asks. “Do the right thing. Do what the world had to do for us.”
THE CALLS to action also follow a recent letter from prominent leaders of the North American Jewish community to Netanyahu urging him not to follow through on threats of imprisonment and deportation.
The leaders, who sent an initial letter regarding the issue to the prime minister in November, urged him to allow North American Jews to help resolve the matter humanely.
“The government of Israel recently announced its plans to imprison or potentially deport tens of thousands of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum-seekers unless they leave voluntarily before April,” the recent letter states.
“The ultimatum follows a mounting campaign of escalation on the part of the Israeli government to pressure the roughly 38,000 African asylum-seekers remaining in Israel to self-deport.
“While Israeli authorities contend that the population in question – most of whom entered Israel between 2007 and 2012 – are economic migrants, HIAS and other rights groups argue that they are asylum-seekers and refugees deserving of protection.”
Signatory Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees, added that a “line has been crossed.”
“Forcing asylum-seekers to choose between imprisonment and self-deportation violates the international protections Israel helped create after the Holocaust to ensure that individuals fleeing war and genocide have the opportunity to find safety,” he said.
“In the United States, Israel and around the world, HIAS and our supporters remain committed to addressing the global refugee crisis in a compassionate, humane and legal way,” Hetfield continued.
Outside of Israel, an average of 84% of Eritrean asylum-seekers and 56% of Sudanese nationals are granted legal status, the US Jewish leaders noted – adding that in Israel, less than 1% of asylum claims have been accepted.
Since 2013, only 11 Africans – 10 Eritreans and one Sudanese national – have been granted asylum, despite thousands of applications.
“Israel has both a responsibility and a capacity to do the right thing and not put refugees’ lives in jeopardy,” the letter continued.
“They came to us to seek protection, and we cannot turn our backs on them. We cannot turn our backs on our own heritage.”