As has become customary in Israel, the High Court of Justice remains the last bastion of the country’s conscience and serves as its moral compass. Last week, it temporarily halted the deportation of African asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda.
The judges were not satisfied that the rights of these Sudanese and Eritrean refugees would be guaranteed in either of the countries to which they were being involuntarily forced to return. They were appalled when they discovered that both Rwanda and Uganda denied having any agreement to accept the asylum seekers. These refugees are people who turned to Israel in their time of desperate need, hoping to be greeted with kindness and compassion. Instead they found an Israeli government that has been not only indifferent to their plight, but openly hostile.
It is telling that the state of Israel insists on referring to the approximately 38,000 African migrants and asylum seekers (of whom 72 percent are Eritrean and 20 percent Sudanese) as “infiltrators.” The Israeli government adopted a dual approach of prevention and intimidation to exclude African refugees from the country. The vast majority arrived between 2006 and 2012, crossing the Sinai border between Israel and Egypt. However, since Israel erected 150 miles of electric fencing along this border, just 11 people crossed in 2016 and not even one in 2017.
Israel’s approach is even more inexcusable if one takes into account the relatively small number of asylum seekers — they represent less than half a percent of the country’s total population, and their numbers are no longer increasing. To freely accept them would have given Israel a chance to demonstrate its humanity and justify its claim to belong to the free, democratic, liberal world.
Refugees looked to Tel Aviv in their time of desperate need, hoping to be greeted with kindness and compassion, but instead they found a government that has been openly hostile to their plight.
Not only has this government not taken responsibility for the situation, but some politicians have cynically made political capital out of it, attempting to gain support by inflaming the situation instead of alleviating it. The notoriously vitriolic Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev referred to the refugees as “a cancer in our body,” an insult for which she was later forced to apologise.
Worse, the state has embarked on a concerted campaign of intimidating and bribing the asylum seekers to return to their home countries, or, more recently, to a third country, with sheer disregard for the fate awaiting them there. It is not only that the Israeli government is morally in the wrong, it is also acting in contravention of its obligations under the UN’s 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which it acceded in 1954.
In 2015, Israel’s Supreme Court judges were the saviors of human rights and decency when they ordered the release of 1,200 asylum seekers being held at an “open detention center” in the Negev. Previously, they had struck down a law that allowed for the jailing of African migrants for three years without trial.
For those Israelis who harbor a conscience, the treatment of asylum seekers epitomizes the moral bankruptcy of the current government. A group of 35 prominent writers and intellectuals in January wrote to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, urging him to stop the deportations. This was followed by a similar petition by nearly 500 academics, and later by many more Israeli citizens from different walks of life. Leaders of American Jewry added their voices, urging the Israeli government to rethink its asylum policy.
Those interventions should have come earlier and more forcefully, but they are better late than never. It is not surprising that many Israelis and Jews feel deeply ashamed that a country founded in part to provide shelter for those who survived racism and genocide could be so insensitive to the plight of others in harrowing circumstances. The situation is made worse because it smacks of racism. There are currently an estimated 100,000 other illegal workers in Israel, most of them from Eastern Europe, who are not facing legal proceedings to expel them. It is hard to believe that the color of the skin of those who come from Africa is not playing a role in their rejection.
It is not too late for the people of Israel, from its leaders down to every last one of its citizens, to consider their own past and adopt an approach that would demonstrate they have learned a universal lesson from their own extreme suffering, in both their distant and more recent history.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg