Israeli Rabbis Call on Government to Halt 'Brutal Policy' of Deporting African Asylum Seekers

Over 90 rabbis from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform streams invoke the teachings of the Torah in support of treating the foreigner with kindness

Demonstrators for and against expulsion of asylum seekers at a Tel Aviv protest, January 9, 2018. The sign says: "The rehabilitation of south Tel Aviv begins with the expulsion of the infiltrators."
Moti Milrod

A group of 91 rabbis is demanding that Israel reverse what they call its "brutal policy" of deporting African asylum seekers. Invoking the teachings of the Torah that foreigners should be treated with kindness, the rabbis claim that asylum seekers' safety and even their lives may be at risk when they are deported to nations such as Rwanda

We believe that the Jewish people are expected to show greater responsibility for the suffering of people without a homeland, said the rabbis in a letter issued by Tag Meir, an anti-racism organization. The signatories represent Orthodox, Conservative and Reform streams of Judaism.

The State of Israel was established in part by refugees from Europe and from Arab countries, Tag Meir chairman Gadi Gvaryahu noted in a statement to Haaretz. Gvaryahu said he was proud of the rabbis who signed the letter, in which they cited fears that asylum seekers would be deported to countries where their lives will be accompanied by agony, rape and robbery.

Asylum seekers arriving to Rwanda after agreeing to be voluntarily deported from Israel in exchange for a payout from the government have testified to harrowing journeys which sometimes involve robbery, human trafficking and torture. Our human and Jewish responsibility for the people here is to integrate them with fairness and compassion, the rabbis letter said.

The letter was prompted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's directive to his national security adviser last week to draft a plan for the expulsion of tens of thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers who entered Israel illegally. This month Israel said that migrants would be given the choice of receiving a one-time grant of $3,500 to be deported to an African country or be sent to a detention facility. The government said this policy reinforced efforts to safeguard the countrys borders.

Tens of thousands of Africans crossed into Israel before it erected a fence along its border with Egypt. Many of the migrants claim that they fled conflict and persecution and seek refugee status. For the most part, the Israeli authorities have called them economic migrants. In November, the United Nations refugee agency said about 27,500 Eritreans and 7,800 Sudanese remain in Israel. Only eight Eritreans and two Sudanese have been recognized as refugees.

The rabbis cited the International Convention on the Status of Refugees, to which Israel is a signatory, and noted that the document was in large part a response to the plight of Jewish refugees trying to flee Nazi Europe. We call upon the government of Israel to conduct the examination of asylum applications from Eritrea and Sudan in an effective, fair, transparent and impartial manner, according to international standards, the letter stated.

They also noted the concerns of residents of south Tel Aviv, where the bulk of the asylum seekers live, saying that solutions also need to be found for them as well. Some years earlier, allegations spread that south Tel Aviv neighborhoods experienced more crime since the asylum seekers started living there in large numbers. That claim, however, was rebutted recently by Netanyahu himself.

With reporting by The Associated Press.