Nearly 800 US Jewish clergymen urge Israel to halt refugee deportations

Rabbis, cantors write to Netanyahu: ‘We Jews know far too well what happens when the world closes its doors to those forced to flee their homes’

Eritrean demonstrators chanted "Refugees, not infiltrators," outside of the Rwandan Embassy in Herzilya on January 22, 2018. (Melanie Lidman/ Times of Israel)
Eritrean demonstrators chanted "Refugees, not infiltrators," outside of the Rwandan Embassy in Herzilya on January 22, 2018. (Melanie Lidman/ Times of Israel)

Nearly 800 American Jewish clergymen have signed an open letter urging the Israeli government to halt deportations of African asylum seekers.

The letter, initiated by Jewish organizations including the New Israel Fund, refugee support group HIAS and rights group T’ruah, states that “Our own experience of slavery and liberation, and our own experience as refugees, compel us to act with mercy and justice toward those seeking refuge among us.”

There are approximately 38,000 African migrants and asylum seekers in Israel, according to the Interior Ministry. About 72 percent are Eritrean and 20% are Sudanese, and the vast majority arrived between 2006 and 2012. Many live in south Tel Aviv, and some residents and activists blame them for rising crime rates and have lobbied the government for their deportation.

Last month, the Knesset approved an amendment to the so-called “Infiltrator’s Law” paving the way for the forced deportations of Eritrean and Sudanese migrants and asylum seekers starting in March, and the indefinite imprisonment of those who refuse to leave “voluntarily.”

In the new letter, rabbis, cantors and students called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “start living up to Israel’s international responsibilities” towards refugees.

“This includes providing asylum seekers a fair chance to file applications for refugee status, and refraining from deporting asylum seekers to countries that cannot guarantee their safety. This also entails that your government begin to examine these applications in an effective, fair, transparent, and impartial manner.”

They asserted that “As a country founded by refugees, and whose early leaders helped to craft the 1951 International Convention on the Status of Refugees, Israel must not deport those seeking asylum within its borders. We Jews know far too well what happens when the world closes its doors to those forced to flee their homes.

“The asylum seekers who have come to Israel are escaping torture, enslavement, and war,” the letter said. “We are angered by reports that many of those who have been deported to Africa have already suffered rape, robbery, torture, and human trafficking.”

The document followed similar letters by North American Jewish leaders, in which they asked Netanyahu “to do the right thing, the Jewish thing, to be a light unto the nations in the way we treat the strangers among us.”

More than 1,000 Eritrean asylum seekers gathered in front of the Rwandan embassy on January 22, 2018 to protest planned deportations. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Heads of groups including HIAS, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; the National Council of Jewish Women, J-Street and T’ruah initially sent a letter to Netanyahu in November urging him not to deport asylum seekers. The Prime Minister’s Office responded weeks later challenging the description of African migrants as refugees or those seeking shelter from persecution or war.

In a rebuttal earlier this month, the groups noted that many migrants from Sudan and Eritrea had applied for refugee status, but were not being treated fairly.

“We know that many of [the migrants] are indeed asylum seekers and refugees deserving of protection, and we are deeply concerned for their welfare,” the letter read.

“We also know that outside of Israel approximately 56 percent of Sudanese and 84% of Eritrean asylum applicants have been accepted as refugees. The fact that fewer than 1% of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum applicants in Israel have received refugee status casts serious doubts on the validity of Israel’s asylum process as it currently stands.”

The letter signatories said reports indicated that migrants forced to leave were not finding safe havens elsewhere.

“Your letter also assures us that you will continue to work ‘with the utmost sensitivity to the welfare and well-being of these migrants.’ These assurances are unfortunately difficult to believe in the face of continued testimonies that those deported from Israel have faced exploitation, human trafficking, and even death,” the letter read.

On Thursday a group of Israeli Holocaust survivors also urged Netanyahu to stop the planned deportations. The 36 survivors called on the prime minister to make a “historic decision” and reverse the controversial deportation plan, according to the Haaretz daily.

“We ask you: Stop this process!” their letter read. “Only you have the authority to take the historic decision, and to show the world that the Jewish state will not allow suffering and torture of people under its protection.”

Netanyahu has announced deals to send migrants to third-party countries in Africa, but has refused to divulge where they are.

In November, Rwandan Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said the country could accept approximately 10,000 asylum seekers from Israel. Israel will reportedly pay $5,000 to the Rwandan government for each deported migrant, plus a $3,500 “leaving grant” directly to the person being deported.

Previously, Rwanda and Uganda accepted about 4,000 migrants and asylum seekers who signed a document saying they had “willingly left” Israel, but until now the countries have not accepted any asylum seekers who were deported against their will.

JTA contributed to this report.

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