TEL AVIV, Israel — Father Tesfayohanns Tesfamariam has always prayed his way through the darkest days. Growing up in Eritrea — a small East African country run by one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships — he prayed to God to find freedom.
When he fled Eritrea, as tens of thousands of others have to escape the slavery-like military conscription there, he prayed for God’s protection. When he was then trapped by human traffickers and tortured by smugglers in Libya and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula — the physical and psychological wounds from which are still raw today — he prayed for the strength to survive.
When the priest made it across the border into Israel in 2010, he prayed that he would finally be safe.
And Tesfamariam, 44, was relatively safe, for eight years. Many people don’t know it, but Israel — home to the world’s largest Jewish community — also houses an estimated 40,000 African refugees who started arriving in the country en masse in the mid-2000s to escape war, economic hardship, and persecution.
In the southern part of Tel Aviv, Israel’s vibrant commercial capital, African food stands are a common sight. The streets echo with many languages, including Tigrinya, which many people speak in Eritrea, and Arabic, which is spoken in Sudan.
But all of that may soon change because of Israel’s new, and deeply controversial, push to rid the country of its African asylum seekers. Israel says they are economic migrants that the Jewish state can’t and shouldn’t have to care for; critics say Israel’s moves violate international law by denying legitimate asylum claims and deporting people to countries where they’ll be unsafe again.
This month, Israel started issuing deportation orders that present a bleak choice: take $3,500 and leave — or face imprisonment. The issue has divided Israelis as well as the larger Jewish community; some argue that Israel’s identity as a refuge for persecuted Jews should extend to non-Jewish asylum seekers as well.
The problem for Tesfamariam is that a majority of Israelis seem to support the government push to deport the Africans. Sixty-six percent of Jewish Israelis (and half of Israeli Arabs, who make up 20 percent of Israel’s population) favor the deportation plans, according to a late January poll by the Israel Democracy Institute.
It’s part of a worldwide wave of anti-immigrant fervor that is playing out in dozens of countries ranging from smaller places like Hungary to larger powers like the US.
The stakes extend well beyond Tesfamariam and his community of Eritrean refugees. If Israel continues to deport Africans, it will be another sign of how the Jewish state is solidifying a more right-wing nationalist identity and an increasingly closed conception of who belongs and deserves rights.
But if asylum seekers and activist groups in Israel succeed in blocking the effort, it could rejuvenate the more liberal parts of Israel’s civil society that have struggled to build broad enough coalitions for nationwide change. In the meantime, Tesfamariam — and tens of thousands of Africans — are waiting and watching to see which way the country goes.
“They have no idea what is waiting for them on the other side,” he said in a hushed voice.
A country created to take in persecuted Jews is struggling with how to take in persecuted Africans
In Europe last year, about 90 percent of the tens of thousands of Eritreans who applied for asylum were allowed in. In Israel, just 10 Eritreans and one Sudanese person have received asylum since 2009.
That reflects how Israel — a country built to be a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution — is struggling to develop its own policies toward non-Jews seeking asylum amid fears of losing its Jewish majority.
Instead, the country’s law classifies the mainly Eritreans and Sudanese who have crossed over from Egypt in recent years as “infiltrators” — a term first used in the 1950s to refer to Palestinians who would infiltrate from the then-Jordanian-controlled West Bank to attack Israel.
This wave of Africans have been trying to make their way into Israel since about 2006, and by 2012, roughly 60,000 Africans had succeeded. That influx largely ended around 2013, when Israel completed construction of a wall along its southern border with Egypt.
But the wall didn’t fix the question of what to do with the Africans who were already there. So Israel developed different policies along the way, making life harder and harder for those who stayed in an effort to coerce them into leaving, according to Human Rights Watch.
“These [methods] include indefinite detention, obstacles to accessing Israel’s asylum system, the rejection of 99.9 percent of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum claims, ambiguous policies on being allowed to work, and severely restricted access to healthcare,” a 2014 HRW report found.
Over the years, new laws have meant more paperwork and rules that people have to follow to avoid being deported. In 2013, Israel built Holot, an open-air detention center in the south for men; those who didn’t report when summoned could be imprisoned or deported. (In 2015, Israel’s supreme court ruled that African refugees and migrants could only be held there for 12 months.)
Last year, Israel enacted new legislation adding an extra tax on the salaries of asylum seekers, most of whom were already working menial and low-paying jobs. (Asylum seekers aren’t technically supposed to work, but the government allows it in some circumstances.) The law made it more expensive for employers to hire asylum seekers and created a new fund where 20 percent of each person’s monthly salary is set aside — to be accessed only once they’ve left Israel.
This last part is crucial: The government is using money to pressure people to leave — a process that human rights groups say violates international law because they’re being sent to countries that can’t ensure their safety.
A few years ago, Israel started offering asylum seekers $5,000 and a plane ticket to undisclosed countries in Africa, widely known to be Rwanda and Uganda. The Israeli government denies that it is deporting anyone against their will and insists that Rwanda and Uganda, with which Israel has warming ties, are safe.
But Africans who have taken the money and left Israel, and human rights groups that have monitored what happens next, warn that the reality is quite different. Once in Rwanda or Uganda, the asylum seekers have had their money and paperwork stolen and have often become ensnared in human trafficking.
In one particularly brutal case, at least three Eritreans who left Israel and then tried their luck on the migrant trail to Europe were beheaded by ISIS in Libya in 2015; relatives recognized their faces from pictures and videos ISIS posted online.
About 20,000 Africans have left Israel in recent years, according to the Israeli government.
In February, Israel began issuing deportation orders to some people renewing their visas, giving them 60 days to take the money and leave or be imprisoned. The government says that for now it is only deporting single men who had open asylum applications as of the start of 2018.
But African refugees of all nationalities, including the estimated 6,000 children who have been born in Israel, are scared for their future.
Israel is the latest country to adopt harshly anti-immigrant policies
The debate over what to do about Israel’s asylum seekers has divided the country and Jewish communities in America and raised larger questions about Israel’s identity and Jewish values.
On one side is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — Israel’s veteran kingpin currently battling several corruption cases — who has blamed Africans for crime in Israel and stirred up his voter base by using racially charged language and promising to deport the asylum seekers. He’s backed by members of his far-right ruling coalition, including culture and sports minister Miri Regev, who has likened the Africans to “a cancer.”
This summer, Netanyahu toured the southern part of Tel Aviv, where the government initially sent Africans to live, and promised its Israeli residents that the government would “give back” the area. Some of southern Tel Aviv’s Jewish residents, many of whose families were immigrants to Israel only decades ago, have been organizing against the growing African community in the neighborhood. (Men who have served time in Holot are legally banned from living in Tel Aviv, though many do anyway, as it’s easier to find work there.)
Israeli politicians may not see much to gain in today’s coalitions by speaking out against the deportations. But a determined sector of Israelis in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is organizing against it by drawing on the Jewish people’s own history of repression and the Holocaust that preceded Israel’s creation.
Rabbis both in Israel and abroad have signed petitions opposing the plan and pledging to hide Africans in their homes to prevent their deportation — citing Anne Frank’s story as precedent. Pilots from Israel’s national airline, El Al, have called for a boycott of flights with deportees (a gesture activists lauded, though they then pointed out that El Al isn’t actually chartering those flights). On February 24, an estimated 20,000 Israelis joined Eritreans for a solidarity march through southern Tel Aviv.
At a protest in Jerusalem in February, one of the organizers, 18-year-old Omer Leven, told me he’d been moved to stand up against the deportations because “we have to do something about it.” As in similar events, Israelis at the rally chanted in defense of human and refugee rights and accused the government of racism.
Some of the slogans, like “human rights for all” or “racist government, don’t deport the refugees” were reminiscent of chants at protests against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories — an issue that’s all but taboo to talk about in mainstream Israel circles today.
Leven, who wants to be a combat soldier during his mandatory military service, said he sees the two issues as very different. “We decided that what we are doing here has nothing to do with politics,” he said. “It’s about basic human rights.”
African refugees are fighting to preserve their new lives in Israel
African refugees in Israel have been living for years with talk of deportations. Humor sometimes helps people cope with those fears: Some Eritreans now joke when making plans with friends that they should hang out “before they deport us.”
Others are buckling under the pressure. Israel has never been an easy place for single Eritrean men, who, after surviving the perilous trek to Israel, have struggled to get by with low-paying work and without social and familial ties.
Fed up and without hope, some have taken the money to leave, and others say they’d rather leave than face jail. Earlier this month, hundreds of African asylum seekers in Holot started a hunger strike after seven men there were transferred to the nearby Saharonim Prison for refusing to be deported.
But now a new generation of Eritrean activists across Israel is working to organize coalitions against the deportations, educate community members about their rights and what awaits them, and make sure people’s paperwork is up to date.
One of those activists is 29-year-old Teklit Michael, who was once one of the fastest runners in Eritrea until he fled to avoid military and religious persecution. Today he’s constantly fielding interview requests amid his full-time job as a coordinator at a center for embattled Eritreans.
“The people deported to Rwanda and Uganda have no protection,” Michael told me. “They could face torture and slavery.”
Tesfamariam, the priest, understands why many in the community are now angry and scared after years trying to rebuild their lives amid all the uncertainty in Israel.
“Nobody hears their cries,” he said.
Tesfamariam works at a nondescript Eritrean church in Tel Aviv without drawing a salary; he moonlights as a plumber to earn enough money to pay his rent. He told me that he’s willing to go to jail rather than leave the country, but he worries about what will happen to others who choose to take the money to leave Israel.
In Libya, his torturers targeted him for being a Christian; he’s worried that the Eritreans in his community, too, will face further danger if they fall back into the hands of human traffickers.
In the meantime, he’s keeping the faith that God will provide. His source of strength is his church, known for its opposition to the Eritrean government. A decade ago, the Eritrean government arrested the head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, put him under house arrest, and targeted church members who didn’t accept his replacement. Tesfamariam and Michael were among those who never did. Now they can worship freely here, in exile in southern Tel Aviv. It’s all that Tesfamariam has to depend on after everything that’s passed.
“This church serves the people who have become victims,” said Tesfamariam, taking a break from early morning Saturday prayer to speak to me. “We have to stand with our people. We have to stand with the victims.”