TEL AVIV, ISRAEL - APRIL 10: African migrant street vendors peddling used clothes in south Tel Aviv (Samuel Sockol/WASHINGTON POST)

Daoud Ibrahim, newly arrived from the war-torn Darfur region of Sudan, sleeps for now on a piece of cardboard in a city park in a gritty section of south Tel Aviv. When it rains, he said, he and others take shelter in the central bus station nearby.

He is one of tens of thousands of African migrants, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, who have sneaked across the border into Israel from Egypt’s Sinai desert in recent years, seeking asylum, jobs and a better life.

Their presence has created an acute dilemma for Israel, a state founded as a haven for Jewish refugees that now finds itself coping with an influx of foreigners that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has warned could threaten the nation’s Jewish character.

Having escaped deadly attacks by government-backed militias in Darfur, after a long trek through the Sinai and a perilous border crossing that risked gunfire from Egyptian border guards, Ibrahim, 34, said his goals are simple.

“I want to get a job, go to school and grow in the future,” he said, smiling. “This is the beginning.”

There are nearly 34,000 African migrants in Israel, according to the most recent official statistics. Many are concentrated in Tel Aviv, where they live in cramped apartments or shelters in poor neighborhoods where there is resentment against the newcomers’ presence.

At a demonstration in south Tel Aviv last week, protesters marched by African street vendors selling used clothes and shoes, calling for the migrants’ expulsion. “Return them now,” signs carried by the demonstrators said. “If we keep silent we will become strangers in our own neighborhoods.”

The controversy over the African migrants, who have changed the face of some areas of south Tel Aviv, touches on core questions of Israel’s self-definition as both a Jewish and democratic state. A nation of immigrants created as a shelter for Jews after the Holocaust and an active participant in drafting the postwar U.N. convention on refugees, it is now pondering ways to stem a flow of people who say they are fleeing persecution in their own countries.

Harrowing journeys

In a surge that began in 2007, hundreds of migrants have been sneaking across the border from Egypt each month, some after harrowing journeys in which Bedouin smugglers in Sinai have imprisoned them for lengthy periods and subjected them to torture and rape to extort high ransom payments from their families.

After crossing the border, the migrants are taken by the army and held in a detention center in southern Israel for several weeks before being put on buses to Tel Aviv, where they are left to fend for themselves.

Israel has granted special status to those arriving from Eritrea, Sudan and more recently from Ivory Coast, who are protected from deportation because of threats in their home countries. But they have no work permits and are not covered by state health and social services. Still, the authorities have not taken action against employers who collect the migrants from street corners for menial day jobs, such as cleaning work, dishwashing in restaurants or construction.

This past November, the government approved plans to build a large holding center for illegal migrants to prevent them from working and reduce the economic incentive for others to come. “This growing wave threatens Israelis’ jobs, is changing the character of the country and we must stop it,” Netanyahu said at the cabinet meeting.

Work has also begun on a fence along the Egyptian border to block further arrivals. In some cases, Israeli soldiers have sent Africans who crossed the frontier back to Egypt.

The government and Israeli groups helping the newcomers disagree over their motives. The government says the overwhelming majority are work migrants seeking jobs. The aid groups say many are asylum seekers, and they have urged the government to move promptly to determine which should be granted refugee status. Meanwhile, the migrants remain in limbo as the controversy about their presence has intensified.

Religious edict

Along with the demonstrations in south Tel Aviv calling for the expulsion of the Africans, a group of rabbis in the area issued a religious edict several months ago against renting them apartments, warning against intermarriage and claiming that the newcomers have brought a rise in violent crime.

In several interviews, residents recited a litany of complaints against the migrants, accusing them of alcoholism, drug use and carrying diseases, as well as involvement in muggings, break-ins, harassment of women and even rape and murder. Yet police statistics show that the crime rate among the Africans is significantly lower than among the general population.

Yohannes Bayu, executive director of the African Refugee Development Center, said that statements by government officials warning against the flow of migrants have fueled hostility toward the newcomers, leading to increased incidents of assaults on the streets. He showed a list of recent reports from migrants who said they had been beaten or verbally abused in several incidents last month in the Tel Aviv area.

Bayu, a migrant from Ethiopia who is one of the few who have received refugee status, said that Israel, whose absorption of Jewish immigrants has served as a model for countries around the world, “has to extend its hand to this population, too.”

But Binyamin Babayof, a city councilman from south Tel Aviv, said that his economically depressed constituency should not be burdened with housing the impoverished migrants. “It’s not fair to saddle them with this,” he said, noting that he had led efforts to pressure local landlords not to rent apartments to the Africans.

“We have to preserve the Jewish majority in Israel,” added Babayof, who has been active in welcoming Ethiopian Jewish immigrants to his area. “We have no other Jewish state.”

Orit Marom, who works for ASSAF, a local aid organization for refugees, said that it was precisely Israel’s Jewish character that should move it to welcome the migrants.

“What makes me Jewish are values of ethics and justice,” she said. “We know what it’s like to be refugees. As a Jewish state, we have to grant them asylum.”