Israel's African Crackdown Draws Fire

American Jewish Groups Worry About Anti-Immigrant Fervor

Youngest Deportees: A South Sudanese boy rolls his family’s luggage at Tel Aviv’s international airport as Israel deports a group of illegal immigrants.
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Youngest Deportees: A South Sudanese boy rolls his family’s luggage at Tel Aviv’s international airport as Israel deports a group of illegal immigrants.

By Nathan Guttman

Published June 21, 2012, issue of June 29, 2012.
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“There is no consistency in what Israel is doing,” said Joel Moss, director of HIAS’s Israel office. He explained that planned return programs were not implemented, except one carried out with HIAS several years ago in which 900 asylum seekers returned to their homes. He also noted that immigrants enjoying temporary protective status are not given the possibility to work legally. Israel’s zero rate of refugee claim approval only adds to the problem.

Another Jewish organization, the American Jewish Committee, also began recently to take action in Israel. It has awarded a $5,000 grant to a refugee rights clinic in order to ”support immediate interventions on behalf of asylum seekers and migrants from South Sudan who are at risk of imminent deportation from Israel.”

The decision to begin the deportation campaign with South Sudanese immigrants followed a determination by Israel’s attorney general stating that South Sudan, which gained its independence last year, is “safe enough.” Jewish activists, who have taken on the issue of Sudan, hold a different view.

“The situation there is still so dicey,” said Ruth Messinger, president and executive director of American Jewish World Service. “I cannot imagine sending any person back there.”

Since South Sudan’s formal independence last July, border clashes between the new state and its neighbor Sudan have intensified, leading to the mass displacement of Sothern Sudanese and to a near-famine situation caused by the destruction of farmland and crops. The rate of violent deaths in South Sudan, according to international figures, is higher than in Darfur, Sudan’s border region that suffered an ethnic genocide in the past decade.

“The regime [of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir] is one of terror and starvation,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and one of the leaders arrested outside the embassy of Sudan. “The idea of mass deportation troubles me.”

Many of the immigrants currently living in Israel left the area before the creation of the new independent state and have been away for years, first in camps in Libya and Egypt and then inside Israel, to which they fled from the camps. Their ties with families and friends back in Sudan are scanty due to years of separation and communication difficulties. Many face uncertainty if deported. South Sudan’s dire economic situation promises financial hardship for those deported, as well.

Still, they are not necessarily refugees. Experts agree that it would be difficult to prove a “well-founded fear” of persecution, as international laws require, in order to be recognized as refugees.

Jewish activists would like to see the Israeli government replace its deportation campaign with a strategy similar to that adopted by the United States. In America, South Sudanese already in the country are allowed to remain there under protected status. At the same time, America’s government has made clear that those arriving after South Sudan received its independence will not be seen as deserving asylum.

“Israel should follow the lead of the U.S. and allow those already in to stay,” Hetfield said. He explained that Israel should clarify what the benefits of the migrants are, set a cutoff date for accepting migrants under protected status, and acknowledge that some asylum seekers are actually refugees.

Jewish groups are also looking to the United States as a model even more strongly following President Obama’s recent decision to stop deportations of undocumented young immigrants who arrived in America at a young age. The move—a partial implementation via executive action of the administration’s stymied Dream Act bill—won praise from a broad spectrum of Jewish organizations, including some of those now protesting Israel’s actions.

Hetfield voiced concern that a policy of mass deportation coupled with hateful rhetoric could potentially be “harmful to intergroup relations” even within the United States. “Xenophobia,” Hetfield said, is never good for the Jews, whether or not Jews are the target. But for now, Jewish groups see little willingness within the Israeli government to listen to their concerns. At times, they even sense hostility from Israeli citizens and officials toward their intervention on this issue. “I feel pain, but I don’t mind criticizing the government if needed,” Moss said.

Moss, who was a Canadian immigration justice before becoming the director of HIAS’s Israel office, said he meets many Israelis who are “simply not sensitive to the issue.” But being a yarmulke-wearing observant Jew helps, he said jokingly. “I can get away with a little more than others.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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