TEL AVIV—Around 9:30 p.m. on a recent weekday night, four men sat waiting on the sidewalk outside Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority office. In a broken mix of Hebrew, English, and Arabic, they told me they were waiting for it to open so they could turn in their applications for refugee status—the next morning. According to local activists, the office only processes a handful of these forms each day, so asylum seekers arrive the night before to ensure their place in line.These men are among the roughly 40,000 African migrants who have been stuck in limbo in Israel for years. Many crossed into Israel through the Sinai desert between 2006 and 2012, according to Israel’s African Refugee Development Center, fleeing the harsh political conditions in Eritrea or genocide and war in Sudan. The Israeli government has argued that these migrants are simply in Israel looking for work. Human-rights organizations, however, claim that most or all are here out of fear of persecution in their home countries. Of more than 13,000 people who had applied for asylum as of last summer, only 10 have been recognized as refugees, according to the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an Israeli human-rights organization.
Israel isn’t alone among Western nations struggling with large-scale migration—and the backlash against it. At the height of the European migrant crisis in 2015, more than a million people applied for asylum on the continent, and the issue empowered far-right political parties in places like Germany and France. While some countries have expanded their resettlement efforts, others, including Sweden and the United States, have stepped up deportations or restrictions.Yet, Israel’s situation is also distinctive. Its proportion of migrants is relatively small compared to Germany’s, for example, which saw 722,400 asylum applications in 2016 alone—equivalent to nearly 1 percent of the German population. And unlike European countries, Israel shares a land border with Africa; many migrants attempting to reach Israel faced brutal encounters with traffickers and Egyptian security forces as they crossed the Sinai.Now, as Israel prepares to send them back to Africa, the country is facing challenging questions about the meaning and purpose of the Jewish state, itself created as a harbor for Jews fleeing anti-Semitic persecution in Europe and the Middle East. The situation lays bare a central tension for Israel, which has both a particular obligation to protect Jews and, some Jews believe, a general responsibility to represent Jewish values to the world.

The Israeli government has been promising mass deportations of African migrants for years. But at the beginning of January, it set a timeline. “Last year, we deported approximately 4,000 and the major effort is to deport most of those who remain, who have infiltrated and are present in Israel illegally,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The government would offer these migrants a choice, he added: a plane ticket out, or jail. The Israeli government reportedly struck a deal with Rwanda to accept the returning migrants, although the African country has denied this.

Because most migrants from Eritrea and Sudan are given short-term visas that must be renewed every one to three months, many of them may lose their right to be in the country within weeks. “The fear, the concern, the panic, among the refugee community is more significant than it was before,” said Sivan Carmel, the director of HIAS Israel, a Jewish organization that works with the migrants. “It does feel more urgent.”Last week, Susan Silverman, a Jerusalem rabbi (and sister of the comedian Sarah Silverman), started a campaign to get Israelis to hide African asylum seekers facing deportation in their homes, comparing their situation to that of Anne Frank. More than 2,000 people surrounded the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya to protest its participation in the deportations. Pilots for El Al, the Israeli airline, have called for a boycott of deportation flights, although the company said it has not been required to fly refugees, according to Haaretz. And more than 850 rabbis and cantors, mostly outside of Israel, have signed a petition opposing the removals.Since its founding, Israel has had to negotiate its dual identity as a democracy and as the world’s only Jewish-majority state. Netanyahu has long referred to the migrants as “infiltrators,” claiming that they pose a threat to the state. And many of the migrants’ neighbors in South Tel Aviv complain that the area has become overcrowded and crime-ridden since the newcomers arrived. Yet, advocates argue, Jewish identity should be built on values and ethics, not just membership in a tribe. What, they say, could be more Jewish—and more faithful to the history of Israel—than welcoming the stranger?

“As a Jew, I come from a tradition where you love the stranger, for you were a stranger; that you learn from your past on how you treat others,” said Donniel Hartman, the Orthodox rabbi who runs the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. “If we’re failing here, it’s an indication of a much bigger problem with our commitment to human rights.”“This is a turning point—a fork in the road for Israel, not only dealing with these refugees, but what kind of country does Israel want to be?” said Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg, an American activist who has worked extensively with the African asylum-seekers in Israel. “I personally will never be able to forgive Israel and the Jewish people if we let this happen.”

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The Eritrean Women’s Community Center in South Tel Aviv is nearly impossible to find, tucked away in a back alley up several flights of stairs. But the center is a pillar of this migrant-dominated neighborhood, with a waiting list for its refugee services in the many hundreds. Many Eritreans and Sudanese people ended up here because it is central to downtown Tel Aviv, close to the central bus station, and cheap.

At least twice a week, volunteers come by to help asylum-seekers fill out their Refugee Status Determination forms, a step that’s important for their cases, even though the vast majority of applicants never hear back and their attempts to be recognized may be ignored under the new deportation policy. On a recent Wednesday night, toddlers played with a Mickey Mouse toy as their parents waited in line to be seen by one of the 20-something-year-old volunteers, mostly American women in sweatpants. Each migrant carried his or her life story in paperwork, often tucked carefully in plastic binders or page protectors. Together with the volunteers, they improvised their way through pages riddled with errors made by the officials who processed their entry applications, from incorrect birthdates to misspelled names.  readmore