U.S. Jewish Leaders Admonish Netanyahu for Scrapping Asylum Seeker Deal

After praising him the previous day, U.S. groups urge Netanyahu to reconsider his decision: 'It goes to the heart of our shared values as Jews'

 In this Feb. 24, 2018 file photo, asylum seekers protest against deportation in Tel Aviv, Israel
Ariel Schalit/AP

WASHINGTON – Jewish groups in the United States expressed anger and disappointment Tuesday over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to cancel the agreement between Israel and the United Nations to resettle African asylum seekers.

A number of mainstream Jewish organizations in the U.S. had expressed their strong support for the agreement, which Netanyahu announced on Monday morning. These organizations were shocked by the quick reversal, which he made under right-wing pressure.

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"We are disappointed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pulled back on implementing the deal on African asylum seekers," said the Anti-Defamation League, which was one of the first groups to congratulate the premier on Monday when the short-lived deal was declared. A spokesman for the organization added: "We urge [Netanyahu] to move ahead and implement the original UN plan. There’s no other alternative but to find an ethical and humane approach to resettle the tens of thousands of refugees whose lives hang in the balance."

The American Jewish Committee was another leading organization that congratulated Netanyahu on Monday when he unveiled the agreement. The veteran Jewish group wrote: "Bravo! In a historic move, Israel announces it has reached a deal to resettle thousands of African migrants in the Jewish state and among Western nations." 

Only a few hours later, however, the organization had to change its position in light of Netanyahu's flip-flop. "We are disappointed to see PM Netanyahu announcing a freeze in the just proposed African migrant deal," the AJC wrote. "We urge the Prime Minister to move swiftly to implement this plan or a comparable one that will continue to be good for the migrants and the citizens of Israel." 

AJC CEO David Harris said that while Israel faces complex challenges regarding the migrants, Netanyahu's "summary cancellation of the proposed migrant deal, a positive step towards resolving the matter, is unfortunate."

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The Union for Reform Judaism had a similar reaction. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the largest Jewish movement in North America, told Haaretz that he felt "happy, relieved and proud" when Netanyahu announced the agreement on Monday. "I was proud of Israel for raising a moral voice and choosing a positive and smart policy." 

Netanyahu's retraction reminded Jacobs of the prime minister's conduct last summer, when he caved to pressure from the Ultra-Orthodox parties in his cabinet and suspended the an agreement on prayer at the Western Wall. "It was so reminiscent of those events," Jacobs explained. "The difference is that the Western Wall agreement retraction took him months and months, while on this issue, he backtracked within a few hours. But the circumstances are very similar. It's a complete abdication of leadership." 

Jacobs said that the Israeli government's plan to deport thousands of asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda is an issue that has been raised by congregants in many Reform communities across the U.S. in recent months. "People care about this issue," he said. "It goes to the heart of our shared values as Jews." Notably, the board of the Jewish Agency took the unusual step of rebuking the government and called on it to grant legal status to 500 people who arrived to Israel as children. 

One Jewish leader, who represents a group that consistently supports the Israeli government, told Haaretz on condition of anonymity that Netanyahu's about-face is likely to increase criticism of Israel within the Jewish community. "Many people see similarities between his deportation policy and Trump's stance on immigration," said the leader. "There are clear differences between the two cases, but it's very easy for people who don't like Israel to make the connection. The government is making it harder for us to defend Israel."