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In shunning African refugees, Israel ignores Exodus' call not to 'oppress the stranger'

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Tensions boiled over in May after three Eritrean men were charged with the attempted rape of a local woman and some Israelis, many of them young, responded in vigilante fashion with violence and by trashing African settlements and businesses.

Right-leaning Israeli politicians have also entered the fracas. And Minister of Interior Eli Yishai has been an outspoken advocate against the refugees – illegal migrants in the eyes of the government – claiming that he will make sure they are all deported.

“The threat from infiltrators is no less severe than the Iranian threat,” he said after two Eritrean suspects were arrested for another rape Aug. 15.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s solution is to build a gigantic detention facility isolated in the Negev Desert, where 12,000 “infiltrators” will be housed. Now, Mr. Yishai is pushing for all 60,000 Africans to be jailed. These facilities will be run by the Israeli Prison Services, and those detained in them will be held for indefinite periods of time, as they are effectively prevented from applying for refugee status in Israel due to the government’s lack of a proper immigration policy for non-Jews.

This is policy born out of paranoia rather than reason. The crime rates among the African asylum seekers are much lower than that of the general Israeli population. While no crime is excusable, it is unacceptable to exaggerate and make erroneous claims about an entire population of people.

The African affair – and its shameful handling by the leadership – throws light on one of the central tensions of Israeli identity. It yearns to preserve its status as a primarily Jewish state, yet also wants to live by the compassionate and ethical heritage of Jewish teachings.

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