Israel’s plan to deport thousands of African asylum seekers could cost it critical support in the American-Jewish community, a leading advocate for refugee rights has warned, adding that African-American House members are also poised to register their protest at the government’s policy.
“In the eyes of the American-Jewish community – particularly the younger generation – this is very upsetting and it’s just going to cause further alienation from Israel,” Mark Hetfield, the president and CEO of HIAS (founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), told Haaretz.
“I mean, Israel is supposed to be a light onto the nations on these kinds of issues, so those who are already skeptical about Israel are going to be even more skeptical,” he added.
He described the planned deportations as “a very cynical, dark way of dealing with a problem that could be dealt with constructively.”
Hetfield, visiting Israel with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he had conveyed this message in various meetings he held during his stay in the country with Israeli lawmakers.
Not only does Israel stand to lose the support of American Jews, he said, but also of African-Americans, who are monitoring the issue closely. The Congressional Black Caucus is now preparing a letter to protest the Israeli policy, he revealed.
Hetfield said he could not recall another instance in which this particular caucus had intervened in internal Israeli policy.
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Earlier this month, Israel began sending out deportation notices to thousands of asylum seekers, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan. The asylum seekers are being asked to choose between leaving Israel or sitting in prison. The deportations, which at this stage will only affect single men, are scheduled to start in early April, around the time of the Passover holiday.
An estimated 20,000 Israelis and asylum seekers participated in a demonstration in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, protesting the planned deportations.
In recent weeks Hetfield has been active in mobilizing leaders of Jewish-American organizations against the deportation policy.
His organization, which in its early years focused on assisting and resettling Jewish refugees, now helps asylum seekers and refugees from around the world.
Asked whether he considered Israel a racist society, Hetfield said, “No, but that being said, there are racist elements that are manifesting themselves in these sort of policies.”
The HIAS leader said he had “lost confidence” in the ability of the Israeli government to provide asylum seekers with a fair proceeding. He was heartened, however, by what he perceived as growing sympathy within the Israeli public to the asylum seekers’ plight.
“We lost the narrative on this a long time ago, but we’re finally getting it back,” Hetfield said. “Although we’ve had quite a few victories in court, it felt like we were losing public opinion. The narrative that the prime minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] kept spitting out – that these were illegal work migrants, not asylum seekers – became the prevailing narrative. Finally, though, we’re getting it back. Israelis are beginning to realize these are people with asylum claims, and they should be given a fair asylum hearing.”
Asked what he thought was Israel’s best course of action was at this point, Hetfield said, “If the government is unable to set up a system that is fair, it should give these people social and economic rights until it is safe for them to go back home. We’re not talking about a lot of people anymore. There wasn’t a single entry last year, so Israel can manage this issue in a way that countries like Lebanon and Jordan can’t.”
Hetfield added he is convinced the recent crackdown on immigrants and refugees in the United States emboldened policymakers in Israel. “And it’s not just Israel,” he said. “The United States often sets examples for how refugees and asylum seekers should be treated, and that’s what’s happening now. We either set a good example or a bad example – and right now we’re setting a very bad example.”
Last month, a group of Israeli rabbis launched a campaign to get Israelis to hide asylum seekers facing deportation in their homes. The campaign was dubbed the “Anne Frank Sanctuary Movement.”
“The initiative is wonderful, but it is a poor choice of name,” Hetfield observed. Explaining his reservations, he said, “There are two competing narratives – one is that these are illegal, economic, work-migrant infiltrators; and the other is the Anne Frank analogy. Neither one is valid. The fact is that these are asylum seekers, and they have the right to seek asylum under a fair system. They need to be treated like asylum seekers, which doesn’t mean they’re refugees. It means they should be able to claim asylum and then, in a fair system, have it determined whether they are refugees.”
HIAS runs a special program through its Israel office that trains Israeli lawyers and law students to represent asylum seekers on a pro bono basis. To date, there are more than 120 volunteers in the program.
“We’re seeing a lot of interest in such volunteering in the legal community right now,” said Sivan Carmel, director of the HIAS office in Israel.