African refugees protesting outside the Holot detention center in the southern Negev Desert, Feb. 18, 2014. (Photo/JTA-Ilia Yefimovich-Getty Images)
African refugees protesting outside the Holot detention center in the southern Negev Desert, Feb. 18, 2014. (Photo/JTA-Ilia Yefimovich-Getty Images)

Bay Area rabbis shout ‘No!’ to deporting Africans refugees from Israel

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Hundreds of rabbis and cantors around the country, including more than 40 in the Bay Area, have signed an open letter asking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reconsider the decision to deport tens of thousands of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees from Israel, a policy the signers consider contrary to Jewish ethics.

“What you’re dealing with is fundamental Jewish values, and the fundamental way of looking at refugees,” said Rabbi Brian Lurie, who signed the letter and who serves on the board of directors of the New Israel Fund, which co-sponsored the letter. Lurie was the executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation for 17 years and president of NIF from 2012 to 2015.

The letter, which has been signed by more than 925 rabbis as of Feb. 14, cantors and seminary students, was also sponsored by Jewish refugee aid organization HIAS, rabbinical activist group T’ruah and Right Now, an advocacy group for asylum seekers in Israel.

“The Torah teaches, ‘The ger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were gerim in the land of Egypt,’” the letter reads in part. “Our own experience of slavery and liberation, and our own experience as refugees, compel us to act with mercy and justice toward those seeking refuge among us.”

“For me, as Jews we can’t separate from other human beings on the planet,” said Rabbi Dana Magat of Temple Emanu-El in San Jose, who also signed the letter.

Outrage began after a Jan. 3 Facebook post in which Netanyahu called the estimated 37,000 African refugees in the country “illegal infiltrators” and announced that Israel would give them a choice between jail or a plane ticket back to their home country or another country. The government has also alluded to a deal with Rwanda to accept the expelled people, although Rwanda has denied this.

The government is offering a stipend of $3,500, a paid plane ticket and document assistance to any “infiltrators” who leave Israel by the end of March. Even requests for asylum won’t put a halt to the process if applications were submitted after Jan. 1.

According to the New York Times, around 60,000 African migrants crossed into Israel between 2005 and 2012, at which point Israel built a barrier along the Egyptian border. Since then around 20,000 have been deported, and advocates say many have faced robbery and violence in their home countries. Eritrea, for example, is known for its incredibly severe system of mandatory work, which has been called “enslavement” by the United Nations.

“This is ugly,” Lurie said. “It’s not good for Israel. It’s not good for the world.”

The controversial expulsion policy has drawn condemnation inside Israel and out, including from the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

On Feb. 7, Northern California activists, including many Israelis, protested in front of the Israeli consulate in downtown San Francisco. Organizer Rob Ungar, an Israeli studying at UC Berkeley, said the moral need to take a stand was imperative.

Activists protest deportation of African refugees in front of the Israeli consulate in downtown San Francisco, Feb. 7, 2018 (Photo/Robert Ungar)
Activists protest deportation of African refugees in front of the Israeli consulate in downtown San Francisco, Feb. 7, 2018 (Photo/Robert Ungar)

“I’m really shocked and appalled by this policy,” he said. “And I’m trying to do whatever I can from here.”

Born undocumented to Jewish parents fleeing Romania, Ungar said he knows first-hand how strong Israeli society is.

“If Israel wants to absorb and integrate people, they can do it,” he said. “They can do it very well.”

The Israeli protesters also attempted to deliver a statement to the consulate against the deportations, but, according to Ungar, were not allowed in the building.

The three groups responsible for the rabbis’ open letter also have set up a website for the public that asks “friends and allies of Israel” to sign a pledge against the deportation and offer help to Israel with the African refugees “in whatever ways we can.” One possibility is “by sharing resources with Israel or by sharing in refugee resettlement;” by that, the groups mean both financial and professional resources for resettling refugees, and they call on people to offer to resettle refugees in their own communities.

The deportation decision has brought Israel considerable negative publicity, but Lurie said that some American Jews may be reluctant to speak out.

“They think that if they’re criticizing, they’re criticizing the state of Israel,” Lurie said, adding that he differentiates between criticizing a policy and the country itself.

Magat sees hesitancy within the U.S. Jewish community as well.

“When any Jew, anyone, comments on Israel, for them it’s automatically a negative thing,” he said.

But he still thinks the point needs to be made.

“We still have to call Israel out on its behavior,” Magat said. “We don’t have a choice.”

And Lurie urges Jewish clergy in the U.S. to make their voices heard, even if it seems like it’s not making a difference. “To be quiet is a defeatist attitude from the beginning,” Lurie said. “I think that’s a big mistake.”

Ungar puts it even more simply.

“Hey, we’re Jewish,” he said. “We cannot let this happen.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.