Washington — In mid-March, a group of Jewish leaders locked hands with human rights activists and with Hollywood star George Clooney in a protest outside the Sudanese Embassy. Some were arrested, as they called on the United States to increase pressure on Sudan to stop what they and many others charge is a policy of ethnic cleansing and intentional starvation directed at ethnic minorities and at the newly formed nation of South Sudan.
Now, the same Jewish activists are confronting the problem of Sudan from another angle: Israel’s decision to launch a mass deportation campaign of illegal African immigrants to South Sudan, the place where they warned just months ago, people were dying of malnutrition and wars.
“These people being deported to South Sudan have a legitimate concern that their life is in danger,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Saperstein was among those arrested outside the embassy. While the South Sudanese in Israel may not meet the legal standard to be recognized as refugees, Saperstein said, the argument against deporting at this time “does meet the standard of morality.”
On June 17, Israel sent the first planeload of immigrants back to South Sudan during a highly publicized media event at Ben Gurion International Airport. Eli Yishai, Israel’s minister of Internal affairs, told the press gathered at the departures terminal that he was faced with a choice “between the interests of Israel and the interests of the Sudanese,” and in that case, the minister added, “I will choose Israel.”
Most of those being deported to South Sudan are Christians. But on June 3, Yishai told the Israeli daily newspaper Maa’riv, “Most of the people arriving here are Muslims who think the country doesn’t belong to us, the white man.”
According to government estimates, there are currently 60,000 undocumented African immigrants in Israel, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea. Israel has granted nearly 50,000 of them a temporary protective status, which allows them to stay in the country for the time being but limits their ability to work and to get medical and social services. Once their status expires, they will join thousands of other African immigrants who face deportation if caught by Israeli authorities. The only option open for these immigrants is to seek recognition as refugees, but Israel has thus far limited access to panels determining refugee status and has a 0% approval rate of refugee claims.
For many American Jewish groups — whose members trace their own roots to the mass immigration to America in the early 20th century — the xenophobic rhetoric coming from parts of the Israeli public, not to mention recent riots against the immigrants in South Tel Aviv, is cause for concern. The government’s actions to curb the migration of asylum seekers are a source of conflict.
“Israel deserves our defense on many issues, but not when it comes to its behavior toward migrants from Africa and especially not for the rhetoric it uses,” said Mark Hetfield, interim president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. He pointed to the government’s blanket use of the term “infiltrators” to describe African asylum seekers as an example of the offensive language and dehumanizing incitement being deployed against them.
HIAS, through its office in Israel, is in fact helping African immigrants as they fight the government attempts to deport them back to their countries of origin. The group is training 55 Israeli lawyers to set up a pro bono legal defense program for asylum seekers and is working with other nongovernmental organizations to develop systems for interviewing immigrants who are claiming refugee status. At the same time, the group is working with Israel’s Interior Ministry to create refugee panels, though the government has yet to use these panels to judge African refugee claims. HIAS will also soon launch a think tank devoted to coming up with suggestions for solving Israel’s immigration problems.