Opinion

Israel's Asylum Seeker Crisis: Quick Fix Can’t Mask Racism Problem

After Israel signed deal with UN on African asylum seekers, the only two bright spots in this shameful affair are that the Israeli media finally flexed its muscles and the Diaspora community and some Israelis found common cause

Asylum seekers march during a protest outside Israeli Prison Saharonim, in Negev desert, southern Israel, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018
Tsafrir Abayov/AP

>> BREAKING (Apr 3, 12:42 PM) Netanyahu Nixes Deal With UN on African Asylum Seekers Following Right-wing Pushback

Politicians, human rights and civil society organizations, and Jewish Diaspora activists are now rushing to take credit for the cancellation of the Netanyahu government’s deportation plan. Many of them do indeed deserve that credit, but the truth is we don’t know the real reason why the governments of Rwanda and Uganda pulled out of the agreements reached with Israel to accept thousands of deportees.

Was it the adverse publicity, legal issues or financial demands? Quite likely all three, but since the agreements themselves were never presented to the public, and the governments in Kigali and Kampala supplied only evasive answers, we may never know for sure.

>> Israel's asylum seeker deal with the UN is great news. But don't call it a victory | Mutasim Ali, Opinion

From the start, the plans to deport what was initially over 30,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees were rushed, incompetent and failed to take into account a whole range of legal and logistical issues.

Even if the agreements with Rwanda and Uganda had held, the plan in its entirety may well have proven unfeasible.

One thing is certain: More than the government ever cared about solving the social problems in the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv, which were dilapidated and neglected long before the wave of African asylum seekers began arriving some 12 years ago, it wanted its base to know it was doing something to get rid of these “infiltrators.”

This has been a vicious and lie-ridden campaign of spin against a migrant community fleeing repression and war in their homelands, risking their lives to reach a safe haven.

As Israelis, we should feel deep shame that the governments of Uganda and Rwanda did not want to be seen cooperating with the deportation plan, while in the Netanyahu governing coalition there was not one minister or Knesset member who spoke out against it. Not one.

It would be churlish to try and detract from the work of all those who campaigned to reach this moment. But it would be remiss not to state the truth – that this is nothing more than a very rare and temporary victory.

The campaigners didn’t manage to convince most Israelis. The overwhelming majority of the Israeli public remained in favor of the deportation plan. If the Rwandan and Ugandan governments had not backed out of the agreements to accept the deportees for money, or whatever else they were promised by the Netanyahu government, the deportations could well have gone ahead.

Now, instead of having a serious conversation about the nature of citizenship in 21st century Israel, and on how Israel’s prosperous society and its successful Jewish communities can find a place for the less fortunate, the suggested solution is a quick fix.

The Western countries that may take in the 16,250 refugees, in coordination with the UN’s refugee agency, will not just “be helping out.” They’re basically recognizing the fact that Israel is still incapable of dealing with its issues of racism and xenophobia.

The 20,000 or so refugees who might remain will be being given temporary status for the next five years, not a long-term future in Israel. What will happen in 2023? And are all the refugees and asylum seekers not among the 16,250 deportees included?

But at least the cruel deportation plan to “third countries” has finally been removed from the agenda, some three years after it was first revealed in this paper by Ilan Lior. That is reason to rejoice, and to congratulate all those involved in raising awareness in Israel and abroad.

There are lessons that will need to be learned here for future campaigns. This shouldn’t have taken so long. The lies at the heart of the deportation plan, and the secret dealings with Rwanda and Uganda, should have been exposed and put on display much earlier – and not just in Haaretz, which has proudly led the campaign throughout.

The two brightest points of light in this saga have been how, gradually, the Israeli media flexed its muscles – defying an often hostile public – and began telling the truth about the government’s intentions. Not all news organizations and not all journalists, but in recent months a critical mass was achieved.

The other has been how, for perhaps the first time in Israel-Diaspora Jewry relations, Jews abroad – both organizations and thousands of individuals – were true partners in this campaign, inspired by and inspiring the work of Israelis.

It will never be simple or straightforward for those who choose not to live in Israel to try to influence its policies. But this campaign allowed many Jews in Israel and the Diaspora to feel they were fighting for the same shared values. Let’s hope this was not a one-off but a precedent for the future.