Middle East

Israel's Conscience and 35,000 Migrants

Deportation of North Africans has stirred a passionate conversation about the values a Jewish state must stand for.

They have allies.

Photographer: Ben Guez/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this week, the Israeli government officially began notifying thousands of North African immigrants and asylum seekers that they are now going to be forced to leave the country.

These migrants, who came to Israel illegally, are being offered $3,500 plus a plane ticket to depart; those who refuse to leave “voluntarily” will be jailed, the government's Population and Immigration Authority has said. What the government has not told these presumptive deportees, who migrated to Israel via Egypt years ago across a then poorly guarded border, is where they will be sent.

The deportation notices, which were handed out to the migrants as they stood in line at Interior Ministry offices to renew their visas, simply said they would be sent to an African country that has a “stable government” and that “has developed tremendously over the last decade and has absorbed thousands of returning residents as well as migrants from various African countries.”

As reported in this column a few months ago, the road to deportation was cleared by Israel’s usually left-leaning Supreme Court, which ruled that the government could deport the illegal immigrants, few of whom Israel regards as actual asylum seekers, not to Sudan and Eritrea, whence they came, but to Rwanda and Uganda. There, the court argued, they would likely not face grave danger. While the deportation orders did not name the destination, the Israeli press widely assumes that Rwanda and Uganda are, indeed, what is planned. Rwanda and Uganda, however, have explicitly denied that they have reached a deal with Israel to accept the migrants.

It isn't clear how this will play out. Though Israel’s left-leaning daily Haaretz reported not long ago that the prime minister’s plan to deport some 35,000 people was “in shambles,” the government seems determined to press on. While prison authorities have warned that Israel does not have nearly enough cells to hold the thousands who may refuse the ticket and opt instead for imprisonment, the government has given no indication that it plans to relent.

What Benjamin Netanyahu apparently did not expect, however, is the widespread objection to the plan from many walks of Israeli life. What he apparently assumed would be a relatively quiet affair affecting non-Jews from a different continent has exploded into a cause celebre, provoking a passionate conversation about what values a Jewish state must stand for.

Perhaps the most powerful objections have come from Holocaust survivors, who are held in unique regard in a country which has always claimed that had Israel existed, European Jews would have had a place to which to flee and would not have been murdered by the millions. Numerous survivors, some pointing out that they only survived because others helped them, have pledged to hide the African immigrants in their own homes.

The Times of Israel quoted one survivor, Veronika Cohen from Budapest: “I always asked myself what I would have done if, during the Holocaust, I was on the other side -- would I have been strong enough to do what the Righteous Among the Nations did? … I feel that to do this is my humanitarian duty.”

Similarly, a group of El Al pilots announced that they would refuse to participate in transporting the migrants to African countries. (Because of the role Israel’s air force plays in its defense, pilots are revered here.) The refusal was largely symbolic, as El Al would apparently not be the primary mover of the refugees; but it was still a compelling image in a society like this.

As one pilot wrote on Facebook, “I will not be a partner to this barbarism.”

Doctors, nurses and psychologists have also weighed in, saying that those the government is calling illegal immigrants are actually victims “who have come to us in their flight from genocide, torture, violence and rape.” 

While the government blames the unfolding battle on Israel's “softie” left, accusing it of caring more about humanity than about Israel’s security needs, that argument seems to be failing. Even the usually hard-right-leaning Algemeiner approvingly quoted one activist who said, “On other issues, like the IDF or the peace process, there are predictable divides between left and right, between religious and non-religious, between young and old -- but go to a demonstration against the deportations, and it’s not uncommon to see an orthodox rabbi alongside left-wing activists.”

As if to prove the point, Rabbi Benny Lau, a leading Jerusalem Orthodox figure, recently wrote an impassioned column pleading for the government to back down: “How can we continue life as it is while the works of God’s hands are drowning in fear and uncertainty? What will we tell our children and grandchildren when they are old enough to ask us what we did on behalf of the African children who were living in Israel?"

Professor Asa Kasher, author of the Israel Defense Forces code of ethics and commonly cited on moral issues, also minced no words in a Facebook post: "To get rid of the foreigners is to abandon the Israeli goal of being a model society.”

With American and Canadian Jewish leaders also speaking out against the deportation, Prime Minister Netanyahu has a rare opportunity to back down and to unite world Jewry around pride in Israel. To be sure, the immigrant population has its challenges, including a crime problem, but many citizens believe there must be an option other than to summarily throw 35,000 people out of the country.

Rather, many Israelis from across the political spectrum believe that the deportation is an abdication of the vision behind Israel. Whether their call for basic human decency still speaks to their prime minister will soon become readily apparent.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Daniel Gordis at danielgordis@outlook.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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