Tell Old Netanyahu: Let These People Stay

Abir Sultan, Pool via AP, File

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem

Everything is on hold in Israel. The holiday of Passover begins Friday night and lasts a week. Until it's over the answer of every government office to every possible question is “after the holiday.” Normally this is cause from frustration, despair, and multilingual Middle Eastern cursing.

This year it's reason for a small, flickering, uncertain but welcome hope.

The exodus, it seems, has been postponed until after the holiday.

By exodus, I do not mean the departure of the ancient Israelites from Pharaoh's Egypt. That will be celebrated as it is every year, on Passover.

Rather, I'm referring to the exodus of some 38,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees who crossed the Sinai from Egypt to seek asylum in present-day Israel. Under a government policy government announced at the start of the year, most of them were to face a cruel choice as of April 1: Leave for an unnamed African country—Rwanda, and perhaps also Uganda—that had contracted with Israel to take them, or go to prison indefinitely in Israel.

Judicial rulings in recent days have forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to delay the mass deportation. Whether the plan is cancelled altogether is formally a question of law, in the hands of the court alone. In reality, public opinion and protest inside and outside Israel could influence the decision.

The asylum-seekers began crossing the border from Egypt in 2005. Most of those still in Israel originally fled Eritrea, where the dictatorship has turned endless military service into modern slavery, or escaped the genocide in Sudan's Darfur region. The Israeli government accepts that they'd be in danger if sent home—but it has refused to accept the logical and legal consequence of granting them asylum status. Instead they live in limbo, renewing short-term visas, doing manual labor at low pay, constantly pressured to accept “voluntary” deportation to African countries with which they have no connection but skin color.

The latest government plan dispensed with the “voluntary” bit. Activists supporting the refugees turned—not for the first time—to the Israeli Supreme Court. The suit—filed by human rights lawyers Avigdor Feldman and Eitay Mack—cites a contradiction: The government claims it has agreements with the destination countries. Yet both Rwanda and Uganda deny any such agreement—and thereby undercut the Israeli government's claim that the deportees will have legal status and legal protections when they arrive.

There's more to the complex case. The bottom line is that the Supreme Court issued an injunction freezing the expulsion while it awaits more information from the government. In principle, the court's next decision, on whether to extend the injunction, could be immediate. “After the holiday” is more likely.

Meanwhile, an immigrant appeals panel made a precedent-setting ruling: It said that having deserted from the Eritrean army was grounds for getting asylum status. It's a position that immigration authorities had consistently rejected in the past. In response, Israel's deputy attorney general has ordered the review of cases of Eritreans currently in prison.  Ultimately, the ruling could lead to asylum status for thousands of refugees.

In principle, neither judges nor the attorney general are supposed to be influenced by public opinion. In reality, they live in the world. When weighing the ambiguities of the law, they can't help but be affected by what seems to be the range of sensible and enlightened choices. When the public mood changes, that range shifts.

This leads to another reason for very cautious hope: Public criticism of the expulsion has grown. The latest demonstration against deportation, last Saturday night, drew an estimated 25,000 people—less than the once-a-decade, country-rattling protest-quake, but enough to register as significant.

Some of the opposition has come from surprising quarters. Avi Gisser, rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Ofrah, came out last week against forced deportation. From American Jewry, a public letter to Netanyahu warning that “a mass expulsion could cause incalculable damage to the moral standing of Israel and of Jews around the world,” was signed by Abe Foxman, the former head of the Anti-Defamation League, and by lawyer Alan Dershowitz, better known for strident defense of Israeli policies.

Netanyahu has reasons for ignoring critics, especially from abroad. American Jews don't vote in Israel. He might care more if such a letter came from some of the Democrats in Congress whose support he has been able to assume. (Senator Chuck Schumer, are you listening? Senator Ben Cardin? How about their constituents?)

But Netanyahu has never had carte blanche from a U.S. president the way he now does from Donald Trump. And there's no issue on which he could count on Trump's understanding more than this—rousing nativist fears against helpless people seeking safety.

Fact is, Netanyahu fits right into the zeitgeist of much of the developed world in 2018 when he warns that a “flood of illegal infiltrators from Africa” is an even greater threat than terrorists because a million and a half of them could pour into Israel and change its ethnic character beyond recognition. From a satellite 1,000 kilometers in the sky, Israel is just one more small country ruled by a man of small spirit intent on locking down its border.

I can't look at Israel from the emotional distance of orbit—in part because it's my country, and more so because it claims to be a Jewish country, and “Jewish” isn't just a matter of the number of Jews. It's the country of a people with a story, one that most Jews in Israel, and many around the world, will celebrate this Friday night: the story proudly told of having been enslaved, of leaving slavery for freedom, and freely accepting the obligation, “When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not oppress him,” and the obligation, “You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you.” That story is never supposed to be in past tense.

So the flickering hope is that the delay in expelling refugees has come at just the right moment, that at holiday tables on Passover, people retelling that story will be determined to make their voices heard against the expulsion.

If they—if we—are loud enough, some members of Netanyahu's coalition may have the sense to look for an elegant way to change policy. Without acknowledging any influence of public opinion, justices of the Supreme Court may sit up straighter, and feel more confident about standing up to a hard-hearted ruler. After the holidays, we'll have even greater cause to celebrate.

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