He spoke in Hebrew on the phone. After his third prison term for political offenses, Yemani had fled from Eritrea, traveling north through Sudan and Egypt. He crossed the Sinai Peninsula — the same ancient route used by Hebrew slaves delivered from Egypt — and entered Israel 10 years ago.
It has been enough time for him to learn the language — but not enough to gain a firm legal status. Like nearly 40,000 other refugees from Eritrea and Sudan in Israel, Yemani has lived on a short-term visa that he must renew every couple of months at the Interior Ministry. The last time he did so, he brought a document that had been requested. The ministry official refused to take it, and Yemani recounted the exchange:
“No need,” said the official. “Soon we’ll deport all of you, and you’ll sit under a tree, open your mouth and wait for a banana to fall, like a monkey.”
“But I’m a human being, not a monkey,” Yemani answered.
“Don’t you see yourselves, that you look like monkeys?” the official answered.
Upset, Yemani complained to a supervisor, who asked for his visa and told guards to escort him out. When Yemani returned with a lawyer, the supervisor said he’d have to pay 250 shekels (about $75) — the fee for replacing a lost visa — if he wanted it back.
Yemani said he preferred to keep his self-respect.
(A representative of the ministry’s Population and Migration Authority has not replied to a request for a response.)
While Yemani has faced indignities dealing with the Israeli bureaucracy before, this incident seems to stand out. The official felt no inhibitions. But as we know, racists may speak more freely when they see their government pursuing brutally nativist policies. And the government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has, in fact, started the machinery to expel African “infiltrators,” as it insists on labeling them, in the months ahead. The reported — but unofficial — destination is Rwanda.
African refugees began crossing from Sinai into Israel in 2005. Some were feeling genocide in Darfur; others, war in southern Sudan. Most came from Eritrea, where everyone is virtually a slave to the regime. By 2012, more than 60,000 had arrived. Then, increased Israeli border security, violence in the Sinai Peninsula, and a new refugee route to Europe through Libya ended the migration to Israel.
Israel has not sent the refugees home, with the exception of South Sudanese deported to their newly independent country when it appeared safe. But the government’s asylum bureaucracy exists to deny requests. Cabinet ministers insist they are “labor migrants,” not refugees. Under pressure, some accepted “voluntary” deportation to Rwanda. Rather than finding safety, many were soon on the refugee trail toward Europe, Israeli researchers reported.
Now, the government intends to tell most of the remaining Eritreans and Sudanese that they can renew their papers just once more. After that, they can either accept deportation or go to prison until they change their minds.
Nativism is a political epidemic in the Western world. But the disease is different in each place. In Israel, the government’s plans — and the rising protests against them — tap deeply opposing views of Jewish history and of Israel’s responsibility. Every Israeli Jew knows about refugees. Some of your ancestors were refugees. Some were pushed out of Arab countries. Some managed to escape Europe before 1939. Some survived the Holocaust and had nowhere to go until Israel was established. Every Israeli Jew knows that many more would have survived if the Western world hadn’t shut its doors. If you were awake in school, you know that Jews were turned away because they were purportedly an inferior race.
Netanyahu isn’t bashful about bringing up this history. But for him and his allies, the world sinned against Jews, and Israel’s obligation stops at giving refuge to Jews.
Voices of resistance, thank God, are growing. Israelis, with Holocaust survivors among them, are signing up to shelter African refugees in their homes. An online campaign is urging pilots not to fly deportees. The board of the Ghetto Fighters’ House, a Holocaust museum, has called on the government to reverse its decision. In a newspaper ad signed by a lengthy list of historians, the very large type was the commandment from Deuteronomy: “You shall not deliver a slave to his master.”
What drives the protest is the realization that the world refused refuge not just to Jews, but to humans. Jewish history and Judaism obligate us to behave differently.
This is an Israeli political battle, but outside voices matter. Some Jewish groups in the United States have protested the expulsions. More should, and do so more loudly.
In the Age of Trump, no objections will come from the White House. But Democratic members of Congress, whose backing matters to the Israeli government, should pick up a phone to Netanyahu, and explain that the Jewish state they support cannot throw out Africans who crossed the Sinai seeking refuge.
The message is so simple, and so biblical: Let these people stay.
Gershom Gorenberg is an Israeli historian and journalist. He wrote this for The Washington Post.