Doctors, Pilots and Rabbis: Opposition Grows to Israel’s Plan to Deport Asylum Seekers

Hundreds of professionals including flight crews, school principals and psychologists have called on Israel to halt deportations of asylum seekers or announced they would not cooperate with expulsions

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Asylum seekers from Eritrea protest outside the Rwandan Embassy in Israel, January 22, 2018.
Asylum seekers from Eritrea protest outside the Rwandan Embassy in Israel, January 22, 2018.Credit: Meged Gozani

Psychologists have joined the growing ranks of professionals, academics and religious figures urging the Israeli government to nix a plan to expel tens of thousands of asylum seekers or announcing they would actively work to foil forced deportations.

Over the last week, demonstrations have been staged and protests have mounted after reports emerged that the government was planning to begin deporting refugees in the next weeks, having signed agreements with Rwanda and Uganda to take in some 35,000 refugees who have reached Israel over the last few years, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan.

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In their letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 530 psychologists wrote that the plan "will add the State of Israel to the cycle of harm done to the refugees," the Israeli news site Walla reported on Wednesday. “A large proportion of asylum seekers have already gone through difficult experiences, including persecution in their countries of origin under repressive and authoritarian regimes.”

A separate group of 350 doctors have signed letters demanding that the government halt the deportations.

A mock slave auction staged in Tel Aviv as part of a protest against the Israeli government's decision to forcibly deport African asylum seekers.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

In their letter to Shlomo Mor-Yosef, the director general of the Population and Immigration Authority, the doctors demanded a halt to the expulsions, writing that they “cannot stand by” while the fate of their patients “hangs in the balance,” and adding that their silence would be tantamount to consent to do “harm among the most severe known to humanity.”

The signatories to the letter included dozens of senior hospital managers, department heads and other medical professionals, including nurses and social workers. They wrote that they recoil from the idea that, instead of taking the asylum seekers in with the view that they are victims “who have come to us in their flight from genocide, torture, violence and rape,” the country was “sentencing them to continued harm.” They also criticized the government’s plans for allegedly not providing an exception for the sick, the weak and the most vulnerable.

But it’s not only health professionals who have come out against the government’s plans.

A group of El Al pilots declared on Facebook they would not fly African asylum seekers if they were being forcefully deported. El Al does not fly to Rwanda and Uganda, so their refusal would not affect the expulsions, which are usually conducted through foreign airlines from Jordan or Tukey.

However, the initial handful of pilots who came out against the plan were joined on Wednesday by nearly 150 flight crew members who took out a front-page ad in Haaretz, condemning the forced transfers and calling on all airlines not to cooperate with them.

African asylum seekers protesting in front of the Rwandan embassy in HerzliyaCredit: Meged Gozani

Many of the refugees have had children in Israel, and some 50 school principals from across the country have written to Netanyahu and the education minister demanding they halt the deportations.

“We teach tens of thousands of students about our past as refugees, persecuted people and asylum seekers during the darkest periods of human history, out of a personal and professional commitment to ensure ‘never again,’” the principals wrote. “We believe that asylum seekers, like all people, are entitled to have their natural rights protected, by virtue of their being human beings, by virtue of conventions that Israel has signed, and by virtue of the Declaration of Independence and Israel’s Jewish and human values.”

A petition has also been signed by more than 400 film and television personalities, including three Israel Prize laureates: filmmakers Ram Loevy and Yehuda Ne’eman, and cinematographer David Gurfinkel.

Refugees “want to live here and to live in dignity. Their number is very small, less than half of one percent of the Israeli population,” the artists wrote. “Israel has no financial difficulty in absorbing them and giving them a life of honor. There’s no problem with turning them from invisible people with no identity into residents with a name and an identity – and, along with the identity, responsibility and a contribution to Israeli society.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by some 470 academics, who wrote to Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, recalling how most countries shut their doors to Jewish refugees before World War II.

"We must remember that we too were once persecuted and victimized,” they wrote. “We too were once aliens and we should happily embrace refugees who have fled their homeland in order to save their and their families’ lives."

A group of rabbis has taken a more active approach, launching an activist program calling on Israelis to emulate the Dutch civilians who helped Anne Frank and her family by hiding asylum seekers in their homes.

The initiative - led by Rabbi Susan Silverman, the sister of comedian Sarah Silverman - has raised some eyebrows even among supporters of the refugees for comparing the fate of asylum seekers to that of the teenage Jew who was ultimately captured and sent to die in a concentration camp.

However, Silverman, a Jerusalem-based Reform rabbi, says that hundreds of people have already committed to host refugees as part of the Anne Frank Home Sanctuary movement.

“We pray that we won’t get to this point, but we are making arrangements in case we do. We hope the government will change course, and we’re getting a lot of support,” she said Monday. “If they want to raid citizens’ homes, that’s what they’ll have to do. We won’t make it easy for them to take people and deport them to their deaths. That’s the minimum [requirement] of being a Jewish state.”

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