Israeli pilots say they will not assist in mass-deportation of Black asylum seekers

They are citing Jewish values and a moral obligation to stand against the government.

African migrants demonstrate against the Israeli government's policy to forcibly deport African refugees and asylum seekers from Israel to Uganda and Rwanda, outside the Rwanda embassy on January 22, 2018 in the Israeli city of Herzliya. (CREDIT: JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
African migrants demonstrate against the Israeli government's policy to forcibly deport African refugees and asylum seekers from Israel to Uganda and Rwanda, outside the Rwanda embassy on January 22, 2018 in the Israeli city of Herzliya. (CREDIT: JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Israeli pilots are the latest to protest a government decision to deport 35,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers, a controversial effort sparking international condemnation.

Several pilots for El Al, Israel’s national airline, have publicly announced that they will not participate in efforts to send refugees back to either their home countries or neighboring nations, all of which could place them in extreme danger. In a Facebook note translated from Hebrew by +972, El Al pilot Captain Yoel Piterbarg laid out his own religious and cultural reasons for refusing to assist the government.

“Israel is populated primarily by Jews who, in their near and distant pasts, were refugees in countries around the world,” Piterbarg wrote. “The vast majority became citizens and a small number remained refugees. Most went through the Holocaust, many were forcefully expelled from their countries, and many others emigrated out of a desire to improve their lives in better countries that agreed to accept them.”

“Out of all people we, the Jews, must be attentive, empathetic, moral, and leaders of public opinion in the world in how we treat the migration of refugees, who have suffered and continue to suffer in their countries of origin. […] I will not fly deported refugees against their will for the legal reason (there is no other legal reason) that they are likely to endanger the safety of the flight,” he continued.

Piterbaug’s colleagues published similar notes, citing Jewish values and concerns over the fate of any refugees sent away from Israel. “There is no way that as part of the flight crew, I will take part in flying refugees/asylum seekers on their way to a destination, in which their chance of survival after arrival (“a third country”) is close to zero,” wrote pilot Shaul Betzer.

Iddo Elad, another pilot, wrote that he was joining “many of my good friends” in refusing to “fly refugees to their deaths.”

The pilots are part of a larger movement clamoring for the Israeli government to allow the refugees to stay in the country. Israel announced the planned deportations last year, arguing that the refugees lacked the paperwork necessary for them to remain. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pushed for the deportations in the name of preserving Israel’s status quo. Netanyahu’s government has referred to the asylum seekers as “infiltrators” who must leave “to protect the Jewish and democratic character” of the country. Israel has proposed sending the refugees to Rwanda, Uganda, and other Sub-Saharan African countries, where internal conflicts could place them in danger.

That plan has been wildly unpopular with progressive groups in and outside of Israel. Many have centered their efforts on the airports tasked with carrying out the government’s demands. More than 7,500 Israelis have signed a petition circulated by the non-profit organization Zazim Community Action calling on the Israel Airline Pilots Association (along with staff at Ben Gurion Airport) to refuse any role in the deportations.

“Tens of thousands of African asylum seekers in Israel are facing deportation – but you have the power to stop it,” a letter attached to the petition reads. “Stand on the right side of history and don’t cooperate with the cruel deportation plan. It’s in your hands – don’t deport refugees.”

Zazim’s efforts were reportedly inspired by similar efforts in Europe, where pilots in countries like Germany and the United Kingdom have refused to fly refugees out of the country.

“This is a test for the Israeli public to determine the fate of tens of thousands of people. In recent months, pilots in Germany and the UK have managed to stop more than 200 deportations, and we call on Israeli pilots to follow their European counterparts and stand on the right side of history,” said Raluca Gena, Zazim’s CEO, in a statement.

Uproar over the planned deportations has led to protests and a number of demonstrations in Israel. Hundreds of Israeli rabbis have said they will hide asylum seekers and more than 1,000 asylum seekers rallied in the city of Herzliya on Monday.

North American Jews have also lobbied the Israeli government, petitioning Netanyahu to reverse the decision. For many U.S. Jews, the cause is a global one. Netanyahu’s close ally, President Trump, has actively implemented hardline immigration policies. Last year, the president ended temporary protections for hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers from countries like El Salvador, Haiti, and Nicaragua. More recently, the U.S. government shut down for three days following a dispute over the fate of 800,000 young undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children.