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AFRICAN DETAINEES at the Holot detention center in the Negev celebrate a pre-Passover Seder on Friday initiated by Rabbis for Human Rights and Right Now: Advocates for Asylum Seekers in Israel.(Photo by: RABBIS FOR HUMAN RIGHTS‏)
Delegitimizing African asylum seekers
Israel’s government has been conducting a harsh BDS (Ban, Deport and Sanction) campaign against African asylum seekers.
The BDS campaign in Europe and America spreads lies and portrays Israel as an evil and racist country to delegitimize Israel and deny its right to exist. Its success depends upon propaganda, slanted and inadequate media coverage of Israel, and the public’s woeful ignorance of the history, geography, and politics of the Middle East.

We Israelis overwhelmingly support efforts to fight the BDS movement against Israel abroad. It is now time for Israeli citizens to learn more about and fight Israel’s own brand of BDS movement. Over 90% of Africans seeking freedom and protection in Israel came from Eritrea' Darfur, and other predominantly Muslim non-African areas of Sudan.

The BDS campaign abroad demonizes Israel as an oppressive apartheid state and threat to world peace. In its worst moments, Israel’s Ban, Deport and Sanction campaign has labeled African asylum seekers as illegal infiltrators, criminals, a cancer on society, and a threat to security and Jewish identity.

The government has implemented the Ban part of its BDS campaign quite efficiently.

The fence on Israel’s Sinai border with Egypt completed at the end of 2012 has stemmed the tide of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees entering Israel. During the first six months of 2016, not a single African asylum seeker managed to get into the country through the Sinai.

The government makes the point that African asylum seekers have entered the country illegally. It declines to explain that African asylum seekers seeking refugee status have no way to enter the country legally. Israel has no formal mechanisms to process claims for refugee status outside of Israel and an ongoing policy to accept only Jewish refugees.

While the government has stopped much of its verbal incitement against Eritrean and Sudanese African asylum seekers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the last four interior ministers have insisted that African asylum seekers are economic migrants coming here to improve their living standards.

This position has been accepted by most Israelis, the mass media that rarely provides in-depth coverage of events in Africa, and the Israeli Democracy Institute, which in a 2012 survey on public opinion attitudes toward foreign workers labeled Eritrean and Sudanese as economic migrants rather than asylum seekers.

Those following contemporary events in Sudan know that the Bachir regime has not stopped its genocidal ethnic cleansing campaign begun in 2003 in Darfur and other predominantly African Muslim regions in Sudan. These regions continue to suffer from bombing, burning of villages, mass rape, and even use of chemical warfare to crush political opposition and resistance movements.

There is little or no media coverage, no more cries of “Save Darfur.”

Although not engaged in ethnic cleansing and genocidal campaigns, the Afwerki regime in Eritrea has not changed its policy of indefinite national service, a form of endless involuntary servitude. Nor has it stopped threatening, torturing, jailing and murdering anyone daring to criticize the president. Though very attached to their country, each month thousands of Eritreans risk their lives to escape.

While the media has drawn attention to Aleppo and generated widespread calls to Save Aleppo, the carnage continues. The flood of Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe and the inability to absorb such large numbers has unleashed a backlash against refugees and non-European economic migrants.

To justify banning and deporting asylum seekers, European countries are now claiming that political conditions in Sudan and Eritrea are not that bad. They, too, assert that most of those fleeing to Europe are economic migrants, despite evidence to the contrary.

Europe and America have “expressed their concern” about Sudan’s rigged elections, arrests of journalists and civil society activists, and the ongoing campaign against the civilian populations of Darfur. But instead of pressuring the Bachir regime to stop the slaughter and repression, America increasingly sees Sudan as cooperating in the fight against ISIS. The European Union sees Sudan and Eritrea as partners in keeping Africans out of Europe and offers the Bachir and Afwerki regimes hundreds of millions of dollars to do the job.

In Israel, “voluntary deportation” has led to a sharp reduction in African asylum seekers, whose numbers declined from over 60,000 in 2012 to fewer than 40,000 by December 2016. Although the government offers those accepting voluntary deportation $3,500 and a plane ticket to Uganda and Rwanda, the main motivation for leaving are sanctions that place African asylum seekers in Saharonim Prison and the Holot “open” detention center where they are deprived of their freedom and opportunities to earn a livelihood and contribute to Israeli society.

Israel’s BDS campaign targeting African asylum seekers is based on ignorance of African realities, popular prejudices and stereotyping and a culture of denial that permits the government to spread untruths that deny that most of the Eritreans and Sudanese who risked their lives to seek freedom and protection in Israel are in fact refugees and not illegal infiltrators and economic job seekers.

It is time for Israel to adopt a different BDS campaign reflecting the Zionist ideals of Israel’s founders and Jewish experiences highlighting solidarity with the oppressed. The new BDS campaign would focus on Befriending Deserving Survivors of tyranny and oppression. It would recognize that most Sudanese and African asylum seekers share our preference for freedom and democracy, support opposition and resistance to the regimes that forced them to leave, and want to return to their countries when conditions improve.

Our revised BDS program would recognize that African asylum seekers can contribute to our understanding of Africa and will become ambassadors and allies of Israel in Africa if treated fairly and with dignity. Instead of Banning, Deporting and Sanctioning, let’s treat our refugees as welcome guests, and help prepare them to build democracy and equitable development in their countries and on the African continent. In return, they will help Israel to become a major and positive economic force in Africa and refute BDS campaigns designed to delegitimize Israel.
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