How Did Israel Become a Place of No Refuge?

African migrants calling for asylum in Tel Aviv in 2014.

The story is eerily familiar. Fear and flight, death and despair, oppression in Egypt and the perilous journey across the Sinai Desert to reach the Promised Land. This Passover, in thousands of Israeli homes, the Exodus story will be told — but this time, not from old, wine-stained pages. Instead, we will listen to the modern-day exodus accounts of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees who fear that the Israeli government will follow through on its threat to deport them.

Beginning in 2005, tens of thousands of refugees from East Africa poured into Israel from Egypt. That early immigration included our daughter’s best friend, who came here from the Darfur region of Sudan with her sister and parents. By the age of 3, she had witnessed unimaginable violence, but you wouldn’t have known it from the joyful kibbutz child she became.

All told, by 2012 about 60,000 African refugees had come to Israel, some fleeing genocide in Darfur, others fleeing forced national service in Eritrea that this newspaper has called “slave-like.” Then Israel erected a steel barrier at its border with Egypt’s Sinai Desert and the influx stopped.

Some 20,000 of the refugees have already left the country. “The mission now,” as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it bluntly, “is to deport the rest.” And so the government is offering the remaining refugees this choice: jail in Israel or $3,500 and a plane ticket to a third country, like Rwanda, in Africa.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Africans in Israel who over the past few years have “voluntarily” taken the third country option ended up back on the perilous refugee trail from East Africa to Libya without status, papers or protection. Some were killed by Islamic militants. Others drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean. Researchers at Hebrew University estimate that hundreds of returnees have died in camps in Libya or in the waters of the Mediterranean.

And yet, despite knowing the violence they’d likely face, our government is determined to get rid of the remaining refugees. The first deportation-or-jail orders are set to coincide with Passover. The first night of Passover, Jews around the world, including the Netanyahu family, will recite the same line during the Seder: “In every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as though we personally went out from Egypt.”

Our prime minister is on the wrong side of the Exodus story. But the people of Israel — a country built by those who fled Hitler’s ovens and the oppression of Arab countries where they were treated as second-class citizens — understand the injustice of the government’s policy in our bones. It is why 36 Holocaust survivors wrote a letter to the prime minister begging him to “learn the lesson” of our history. It is why Israelis from all parts of society — doctors, diplomats, rabbis, artists — have opposed this policy. It is why some El Al pilots have announced that they will refuse to fly planes bearing Africans being deported.

We are also preparing for the possibility that the government won’t back down and that this deeply anti-Jewish policy will be carried out. That is why last month I and others founded a movement called Miklat Israel, or Israel Sanctuary. Hundreds of Israeli families, plus many kibbutz communities, are opening their homes to asylum seekers who face the gruesome choice of deportation or prison. We will protect whoever we can. That is why some have referred to it as the Anne Frank movement.

“Have you heard of Anne Frank?” asked Yikealo, an asylum seeker from Eritrea, to the Israeli soldier who greeted him warmly at the border, then open, with Egypt in 2008. The soldier laughed at that unexpected question from an Eritrean, Yikleao told me.

Yikealo had fled torture in Eritrea to a United Nations refugee camp in Ethiopia where, in a makeshift library, he read “The Diary of a Young Girl.” The story of Anne Frank was new to him, and he had to hunt for private places in the crowded camp to cry. He soon fled and headed to Israel. His mantra through his ordeal traveling through Sinai was, “The people of Anne Frank will protect me.”

The echoes of history became loud very quickly when Holocaust survivors and their families not only wrote to the prime minister asking to halt the deportations but also offered to shelter African refugees.

“My father was a stateless refugee who, after Auschwitz, was fortunate to be taken in by the United States,” wrote one of the hundreds of people who have volunteered to house asylum seekers. “His uncle was a stateless refugee who, after the Communist revolution in Hungary, was fortunate to be taken in by Israel. How can we Jews now turn our backs on our fathers, our mothers, our aunts, our uncles, and ourselves? We must never become that which we decry. Israel is better than this.”

Our national responsibility and the solution are both clear. The young Jewish state, built by a people who had wandered for 2,000 years, championed and became a signatory to the International Convention on Refugees in 1951 so that no one would be left as helpless as we had been. That is why 25 of Israel’s leading jurists have appealed to the attorney general, arguing that the deportation order and the lack of due process for the asylum seekers violate international law.

The international community, primarily led by the High Commissioner for Refugees, is prepared to resettle up to half of Israel’s African refugees to Western and African countries where they will receive protected status, if Mr. Netanyahu agrees to cooperate. This would provide the prime minister with a domestic political victory and a legacy lifeline.

But if the prime minister and his government will not live up to our international and moral commitments, our citizens — and our survivors — certainly will. How else could we commemorate our own historic redemption?

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