JERUSALEM — On a recent weeknight, about two dozen Israelis, mostly in their 20s, gathered in a Jerusalem basement to hear the story of an Eritrean man who is facing deportation.
Like thousands of Eritreans, Frezgi Ketef Tehehaymanut, 27, fled his country to avoid the draft into slave-like national service, a crime punishable by death. He would return to Eritrea tomorrow, he said, but he feared he would “end up under the ground.”
The meeting was one of many similar events taking place across the country in what has become a particularly Jewish backlash against the government’s tough new deportation policy.
Last month, the Israeli government offered some 38,000 migrants from Eritrea and Sudan a stark choice: $3,500 and a plane ticket to a third country in Africa, or jail.
Petitions opposing the policy poured in from Israeli doctors, pilots, retired diplomats, professors, rabbis, architects and musicians, many arguing that a nation formed by refugees in the aftermath of the Holocaust has a special obligation to treat refugees with more compassion.
In a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 36 Holocaust survivors, many of them refugees from the ghettos and concentration camps of Europe, beseeched him “to learn the lesson” and not to expel Africans seeking asylum in Israel.
“As a country founded by refugees,” said another letter signed by 850 Jewish clergy and delivered to Israeli embassies and consulates in the United States and Canada, “and whose early leaders helped craft the 1951 International Convention on the Status of Refugees, Israel must not deport those seeking asylum within its borders.”
Like much of the Western world, Israel is grappling with how to balance its right to protect its borders and prevent illegal immigration with showing compassion and humanity. But the government’s decision has struck a particular chord here and among Jews abroad since the modern state of Israel has served as a safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution and was largely built by immigrants.
The issue is also testing what it means to be a Jewish state: to preserve its Jewish majority, or to be governed by Jewish values, including the ideal of “tikkun olam,” or repairing the world.
“Every country must guard its borders,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in announcing the policy last month. “It is important that people understand that we are doing something here that is completely legal and completely essential.”
He cited the “plight” of residents of south Tel Aviv, where many of the migrants are concentrated. In the past, he has also said that the influx of Africans threatened Israel’s Jewish majority.
Many of the solidarity events are taking place under the umbrella of a grass-roots movement, “Stop the Deportation,” which was started by students. In addition to the meeting in the basement studio of a Jerusalem yoga teacher, there was a gathering this week in a bar in Kiryat Shemona, a town on Israel’s northern border, and another in the southern city of Beersheba in the Negev desert.
Another initiative, “Miklat Israel,” Hebrew for Israel Sanctuary, and known informally as the Anne Frank Home Sanctuary movement, signed up about 500 Israeli families from scores of towns and communities willing to adopt asylum seekers and, if necessary, hide them in their homes.
First conceived by Susan Silverman, a rabbi and the sister of the American comedian Sarah Silverman, the idea was partly inspired by the story of another Eritrean who was so moved by Anne Frank’s diary that he translated it into Tigrinya while in a camp in Ethiopia, then carried it with him on his journey to Israel, convinced that its people would receive him.
“We are exploding the myth that ordinary Israelis don’t want them,” said Rabbi Nava Hefetz, one of the group’s leaders, adding that the small team of volunteers couldn’t keep up with the flood of phone calls and emails.
“We are talking about the history of the Jewish people,” she said, “from the exodus from Egypt to the terrible tragedy of the Holocaust. Refugeedom is in our DNA. Seeking asylum is in our blood.”
Even secular Israelis have taken to citing biblical verses like Leviticus 19:34: “The stranger who resides among you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
And liberals hark back to the decision of Menachem Begin, the prime minister who brought Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party to power in 1977, to welcome several hundred Vietnamese boat people.
But Israelis are divided, with many others eager to see the departure of the Africans. Officials here routinely refer to them as “infiltrators” because they sneaked across the border from the Egyptian Sinai, and insist that the majority — young men of working age — are economic migrants, not refugees.
“Israel is too small and has its own problems,” Israel’s justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, said in a Facebook post. “It cannot serve as the employment agency for the African continent.”
Many, including the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, David Lau, and his father, Yisrael Meir Lau, a former chief rabbi and child Holocaust survivor, reject the comparisons with the Holocaust. The migrants, they note, are not being sent to extermination camps and their Israeli sympathizers will not be risking their lives by harboring them.
About 60,000 African migrants have surreptitiously crossed into Israel over the once-porous border with Egypt since 2005, most of them Sudanese or Eritreans who cannot be sent back home because of international conventions that prevent the repatriation of asylum seekers to home countries where they could face persecution. The influx stopped in 2012, when Israel constructed a steel barrier along the 150-mile border with Egypt.
Of the thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese who have filed asylum requests in Israel in recent years, only about 10 have received refugee status. Some Sudanese refugees from war-torn Darfur have been given a special humanitarian status but most of the other asylum requests have not been processed.
At least 20,000 African migrants have since left Israel. Mr. Netanyahu said he had made it his mission to deport the rest. He and his ministers have alluded to secret understandings with third countries in Africa, without naming them.
The migrants say the main destination is Rwanda, but the Rwandan government has denied signing any secret deal. It says its policy toward Africans in need of a home is one of “open doors,” but only to those who come voluntarily.
Migrant and human rights organizations say many Africans who left Israel for Rwanda and Uganda did not find work or receive legal status. Many are said to have continued on their journeys, often putting themselves in grave danger.
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri told a parliamentary committee this week that Israel had deported more than 5,000 non-African illegal immigrants since last year, proof that the government policy was not racist; more than 20,000 Ukrainians and Georgians have sought asylum in Israel in recent years.
Under increasing public pressure, he clarified that the new policy would apply only to single African men who had not formally submitted an asylum request by Jan. 1. It would not apply to families or the roughly 5,000 children of asylum-seekers who had been born in Israel. The migrants have until April 1 to accept the cash and flight or face detention.
Yonatan Jakubowicz, director of the Israeli Immigration Policy Center, an organization supportive of the government’s arguments, said he thought that Israel had taken a “very balanced” position in “looking for that middle ground,” and that other countries could learn from it.
In the Jerusalem basement, Mr. Tehehaymanut said he had initially hoped to go to Libya, and from there to Europe. But the Bedouin smugglers dropped his group off in the desert in the middle of the night and told them to walk straight ahead toward the lights of Israel.
Israeli soldiers received them with smiles, food and drink. “We did not come to eat,” Mr. Tehehaymanut said. “Just to live.”
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