WASHINGTON – Leading Jewish American groups congratulated the Israeli government on Monday for reaching a new agreement on asylum seekers with the UN's refugee agency. According to the new plan, half of the African asylum seekers will be resettled in Western countries while half will eventually receive residency in Israel.
"We applaud all those who demonstrated and raised their voices to promote a just solution for those seeking asylum in Israel," Rabbi Rick Jacobs, of the Union for Reform Judaism, said.
"How fitting that during the Passover holidays, Israel has shone a light unto the nations of the world for treating those who are escaping harm in their homelands to find sanctuary among the righteous," he added. "May other nations in the world, including the U.S., look righteously upon those among us who seek refuge, safety, and better lives."
Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, which played a leading role in the struggle against the original deportation scheme, said that the decision to change has shown that "our power as a civil society – the power of each of us standing up for what is right, and join together to press for change – is stronger than the power of the cruel and fearful few. We have proven that when we refuse to be afraid of one another, when we refuse to be pitted against one another, we can shape a better future for all of us."
"We congratulate every Israeli and every person around the world who held a sign, sent a letter, called an elected representative, and gave of themselves," Sokatch said. "We will celebrate this victory during our festival of liberation."
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In January, signatories from American and Israeli organizations such as HIAS, the National Council of Jewish Women, J Street, the New Israel Fund, JSpaceCanada, Truah, Hashomer Hatzair, ARZA, and Ameinu, as well as rabbis from across the denominational spectrum cosigned a letter begging Netanyahu not to deport the asylum seekers.
"As a people who were once refugees, and were once strangers in a strange land, we believe we have a special obligation toward refugees, whatever their religion or race," they wrote.
Speaking at a news conference earlier on Monday, Netanyahu said the plan to deport asylum seekers to "a third country" was scrapped when "it became clear that the third country did not meet the [required] conditions," adding that this country "did not withstand the pressure."
Interior Minister Arye Dery added that following tough negotiations with the UNHCR, Israel had agreed to resettle one asylum seeker in a Western country for every asylum seeker awarded temporary residency status in Israel.
In a statement, the Prime Minister's Office gave these numbers as 16,250 each. Currently more than 39,000 asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea live in Israel, so the fate of the remaining 6,500 is unclear.