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Yishai, a leader the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party Shas, defends his plan as a demographic imperative. He cites legislation passed by the Knesset in January that provides for incarceration for up to three years of ”infiltrators.”
Yehezkeli told the Forward that his boss views the Sudanese and other ‘’infiltrators’’ from Africa as a demographic threat to the state’s Jewish character.
“They do this by the very act of coming here,” Yehezkeli said. “There is a Jewish state, and the state cannot absorb them. The possibility that they remain here means turning Israel into a state of all its citizens, something that contravenes the Declaration of Independence and everything that was behind the establishment of the state.”
Government statistics do not support the view that Israel’s Jewish character is under demographic threat from asylum seekers. The total number of asylum seekers in Israel is estimated at 60,000 in a population of 7,765,700. And in recent months there has been a dramatic drop in the number of asylum seekers entering Israel, a trend attributed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the erection of a fence along the Egyptian border.
The drop-off started in June, when 928 asylum seekers entered compared with 2,031 in May. In July, 280 people entered; in August, 199, and in September, 122.
Despite this, the asylum seekers remain potent political fodder for Yishai and other right-wing politicians whose declarations on the issue reflect and stoke pre-existing animosity against the Africans.
“Most of the people arriving here are Muslims who think the country doesn’t belong to us, the white man,” Yishai told the daily newspaper Ma’ariv on June 3 in one such statement. In fact, most of the immigrants from South Sudan and Eritrea are Christians. Yishai’s own family immigrated to Israel from Tunisia in the 1950s.
Many lower-income Israeli residents of the neighborhoods in which the immigrants have settled are especially supportive of Yishai’s initiative. On Salame Street in Tel Aviv, near where Hamad and many other Sudanese live, there was scant sympathy for their situation.
“Children can’t walk around here alone,” said Elvin Khamkayer, 31, who works in a fabric store. “There has been a wave of sexual attacks on young girls, and they bring all kinds of diseases from Africa. I know they also have to live, but if it is either us or them, then I prefer us.’’
Yehuda Bauer, a leading Holocaust scholar and academic adviser to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum, termed the idea of imprisoning the Sudanese to safeguard Israel’s Jewish character “nonsense.” Noting that Israel continues to bring in legal foreign workers from Asia, he said, “We could permit the Eritreans and north Sudanese to work instead of taking more people from Thailand and the Philippines. This would keep them occupied, help the Israeli economy and comply with international law. But the attitude of the ultra-Orthodox is clearly racist. If they were Norwegians, they wouldn’t be put for three years in a detention camp in the desert.”
Orit Marom, a spokeswoman for the group Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum-Seekers, a co-plaintiff in the court petition against Yishai’s plan, does not blame Yishai alone for the initiative. The other ministers “are approving this huge outrage with their silence,” she said.
Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, declined to comment on the issue for this article.
Contact Ben Lynfield at firstname.lastname@example.org