Local activist seeking asylum for Africans in Israel

A grass-roots effort started by Los Angeles and New York activists is calling on the Israeli government to grant refugee status to African asylum seekers in the Jewish state and to reform the refugee-status determination process.

More than 60,000 immigrants — the majority of whom are Sudanese and Eritrean — are currently in Israel, according to a recent story by The Jerusalem Post. The problem, said Maya Paley, co-founder of Right Now: Advocates for African Asylum Seekers in Israel (and who also pens a blog Woman Writes at jewishjournal.com), is that they are not permitted to work and do not have access to welfare services. Many are held in detention centers or left to fend for themselves on the streets of Tel Aviv, the San Fernando Valley resident continued.

Paley’s organization, co-founded by Stephen Slater, a campaign organizer based in New York, is trying to engage Diaspora Jews as well as officials in the Israeli government to improve the conditions and quality of life for immigrants from Sudan and Eritrea. 

The goal is “not just to say this is happening in Israel but to say that people here in the Diaspora care about this,” Paley said. 

In addition to her activist work, Paley is the program coordinator at the Jewish Women’s Conference of Southern California, an initiative of the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles. 

Paley became aware of this issue facing African migrants in 2010, when then-27 and living in Israel, she worked as a social justice fellow for the New Israel Fund. She was asked to research the psychological impact that the limbo status — not being given refugee status and not being deported out of the country — was having on the immigrants.

Right Now launched in July, and it has approximately 90 members on its listserv. Partner organizations include Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and the New Israel Fund. 

A petition started by the coalition on change.org has garnered more than 900 signatures, and there is an additional one on the Rabbis for Human Rights Web site.

Meanwhile, Paley has been spreading the word. Over the summer, she spoke about her efforts at the progressive congregation IKAR. A day of educational activities with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society will take place on Jan. 27 at the National Council of Jewish Women/L.A., a community advocacy day with the Los Angeles Eritrean community is happening Feb. 10 at the National Council of Jewish Women/L.A., and Paley will make an appearance at Adat Ari El in Valley Village on Feb. 20.

On Dec. 20, Paley met with Los Angeles’ Israeli Consul General David Siegel to discuss the problem. “There is an ongoing, significant immigrant issue from Africa, which is fine, but if it’s numbers that overwhelm our ability to deal with it, it becomes an issue,” Siegel said in an interview.