Heads of Major U.S. Jewish Organizations Beg Netanyahu Not to Deport Asylum Seekers

More than two dozen North American groups ask prime minister to reverse plan to forcibly deport tens of thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese migrants

Asylum seekers demonstrating in Jerusalem against their forced deportation from Israel, January 2017.
Emil Salman

Leaders of more than two dozen North American Jewish organizations sent an urgent letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, pleading with him not to deport thousands of African asylum seekers from Israel.

We are concerned that if you move forward with these plans, the lives of thousands of individuals will be put in jeopardy, and the name of the Jewish State and the Jewish People will be irreparably stained, they wrote.

As a people who were once refugees, and were once strangers in a strange land, we believe we have a special obligation toward refugees, whatever their religion or race.

The signatories included the heads of HIAS, the National Council of Jewish Women, J Street, the New Israel Fund, JSpaceCanada, Truah, Hashomer Hatzair, ARZA, Ameinu, several organizations that advocate for asylum seekers in Israel, as well as rabbis from across the denominational spectrum.

Last week, Netanyahu instructed National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat to draft a plan for the nonvoluntary expulsion of thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers.

In their letter, the Jewish heads noted that in other Western countries, between 56 percent and 84 percent of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers are ultimately awarded refugee status, whereas in Israel fewer than 1 percent are.

They also expressed concerns over reports that many asylum seekers who were persuaded to leave Israel voluntarily have suffered terribly in the countries where they ended up – whether it was their place of birth, Rwanda and Uganda (which reportedly have a financial arrangement with Israel to accept deported asylum seekers, though they deny it). We know that many such individuals are no longer among the living, they wrote.

Promising to extend help to Israel if it reverses its decision, the signatories urged Netanyahu to respect the rights of asylum seekers and refugees as enshrined in the International Refugee Convention and in Jewish law and values, and to allow those asylum seekers already residing in Israel to live in dignity until it is truly safe for them to return.