'In Eritrea I Was Afraid, Here They Are Afraid of Me'

To Moshe Arens: What threatens the Jewishness of the state is not the African migrants, but Israel's policies towards them – including its refusal to determine who qualifies as a refugee.

Mara Getz Sheftel
Mara Getz Sheftel
Mara Getz Sheftel
Mara Getz Sheftel

To Moshe Arens,

I am writing in response to your recent Haaretz op-ed. Your piece offers a compelling argument about the danger African migrants pose to the State of Israel.

However, you have missed a critical fact that rather complicates the simple story you tell. In your words, the migrants' "attempt to reach Israel has nothing to do with a search for political asylum, it is driven by dire economic need." But Israel has not yet determined the status of African migrants as in fact economic migrants - nor as asylum seekers - as you claim. This is because Israel excludes Eritrean and Sudanese nationals from the Refugee Status Determination Process, set up by Israel's Interior Ministry to determine who qualifies as a refugee. The only way to substantiate your claim – that the majority of African migrants are in fact economic migrants – is to allow Eritrean and Sudanese migrants, who make up 92% of the African migrants in Israel, go through this process.

As a former government minister and professor I am surprised by your willingness to make claims that are impossible to validate with data. Furthermore, your assertions make me suspect that you have never met any of the African migrants you speak so surely about in order to at least collect informal empirical evidence.

If so you might have met my friend 'A' who fled Darfur after his entire family was murdered by the Janjaweed. Struggling to support his young family, he works day and night for sub-minimum wage in the kitchen of a Jerusalem café. Or, you might have met 'G' from Eritrea. Having grown up in one of the harshest dictatorships in the world which has been called “Africa's North Korea,” 'G' suffered nine years of forced labor. At 27, he fled. He knew the future was uncertain but that trekking through the Sinai desert, while incredibly dangerous, was preferable to remaining a captive soldier for the rest of his life. Today, he is a cleaner in a boys' yeshiva in Jerusalem. He told me once: “How ironic – in Eritrea I was afraid, and here they are afraid of me.”

My Eritrean and Sudanese friends don't want to stay and build a life in Israel, as you claim. They dream of returning to their native countries, hoping the reality there would finally improve. But they know this isn't likely to happen in the foreseeable future, and so they ask to be resettled in Europe, North America or Australia. However, because they are not permitted to go through a Refugee Status Determination Process, those who would be deemed refugees and given the opportunity for resettlement under international law cannot leave Israel.

If Israel were to enact these policies, then many of these 'migrants' would be able to find their way to greener pastures, simultaneously alleviating the demographic threat they pose to the Jewish state. Thus, what's threating our country's "Jewishness" is not the influx of migrants in itself, but our own lacking policies for treating the strangers in our midst. You, of all people, should know what it's like to live under oppression and become a refugee. Let’s not let our history repeat itself.

The author is an educator and community organizer. She has a MA in Public Policy from Hebrew University focused on migration. She has been working with African asylum seekers in Jerusalem for over six years.

African migrants at a protest march in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, Jan. 2014.Credit: David Bachar

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