Netanyahu Trumps Trump On Refugees

"And you know the soul of the stranger"
Benjamin Netanyahu’s government anticipated Donald Trump’s Administration in many ways—with populist assaults on journalists, judges, investigators, and foreign-policy élites—but it has been laggard on immigrants. That’s because, for most of Israel’s history, immigration has been restricted to ingathered exiles, those who can prove affiliation to the historic Jewish people either by religious practice or by ethnic descent. That changed some, especially between 2006 and 2008, when Eritreans escaping civil war and forced military service and Sudanese escaping the chaos, starvation, and violence of Darfur made their way across the Sinai desert. “They were in awful shape,” an Israeli soldier who had served on the border told me. “We fed them and got them medical care—they knew when they saw an I.D.F. soldier that the worst of their ordeal was over.”

Few refugees would have disagreed. Last week, a young Eritrean man told an audience in Jerusalem that “we thought we were passing from Hell to Paradise.” But, by 2012, a southern border wall had been built, blocking that passage. About twenty thousand of the refugees left Israel, while some thirty-eight thousand, or less than half of one per cent of the population, stayed. Of the total number of African asylum seekers in Israel, seventy per cent are from Eritrea, and about twenty per cent are Sudanese; most are Christian. Another ten per cent of refugees come from other African countries. About five thousand children of African refugees have been born in Israel.

Another ordeal now awaits the refugees who remain. Aryeh Deri, Netanyahu’s Interior Minister, and the head of Shas—an Orthodox party appealing to poorer Middle Eastern, or Mizrahi, Jews—has turned the refugees’ presence into a crisis. He is determined, he says, “to ease the suffering of residents in south Tel Aviv and other neighborhoods where the infiltrators reside.” In January, his ministry announced that it will begin deporting refugees en masse on April 1st. Deri seems to know his country: whereas nearly three-quarters of Americans are willing to offer citizenship to Dreamers, two-thirds of Israelis support the deportations, and that sentiment is strongest among those who claim to be “religious-traditional,” of whom only sixteen per cent are in favor of letting the refugees remain in the country. Israelis who support asylum for the Africans—including more than twenty-two hundred families who have agreed to shelter refugees from the police, if necessary—are overwhelmingly secular. They fault an Israeli majority that has failed to absorb the pathos of Jewish history. An even bigger fault, perhaps, is a state apparatus that has failed to absorb the novelty of Israeli nationality.

The refugees were first sent to the Saharonim Prison, in the Negev Desert, where they signed declarations and were given temporary-residency papers. The nature of the declarations proved an important part of their story. Though few of them knew it, those who insisted on being designated as asylum seekers had legal rights to a judicial hearing under the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, to which Israel (unsurprisingly) was one of the original twenty-six signatories; refugees cannot be returned to countries where they may be at risk of persecution. But those who declared only that they were looking for work were issued conditional-release visas, which left them subject to summary deportation, if the Interior Ministry decided, for whatever reason, not to renew the visas. Most refugees report being handed conditional-release visa applications in Saharonim, which they signed. They were then given bus tickets to south Tel Aviv, where many of them stayed and found work doing mostly menial jobs.

That destination is also important to their story. South Tel Aviv is predominantly home to a part of Deri’s base, Mizrahi immigrant families who arrived in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. The buildings they live in sit on valuable seaside real estate, and landlords have been systematically pushing longtime residents out. Some of them complain that the refugees, crammed in scarce apartments, are bidding up rents. Also, the amalgam of poverty, loneliness, and hostility has resulted in some petty theft, drug dealing, and prostitution among the refugees, though not appreciably more than what was already there. The refugee children, meanwhile, have significantly raised education standards in neighborhood schools, where they are taught in Hebrew. Karen Tal, a former principal of the Bialik-Rogozin School, in south Tel Aviv, told me, “These children are desperate to prove themselves. Average matriculation rates in Israel are at fifty-eight per cent. The rate for these children is close to ninety per cent.”

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