A former Israeli government minister has been heckled by a rabbi at a charity event in London.
Gideon Sa’ar, who was Education and Interior Affairs Minister, was challenged over his comments on the deportation of African asylum-seekers in Israel –a policy he endorsed while in government.
Speaking at the Zionist Federation gala dinner on Sunday night, Mr Sa’ar told 300 guests: “We are not deporting asylum-seekers.”
In response, audience member Rabbi Lea Mühlstein shouted out: “Yes you are.”
Alongside Rabbi Celia Surget and another woman, she left the event.
Mr Sa’ar continued: “As a matter of fact, they are not refugees. It is an illegal immigration wave that we knew about a decade ago. We are handling it according to our laws.”
There are around 38,000 asylum-seekers – many from Sudan and Eritrea – who are living in Israel. It is understood that the majority crossed into Israel illegally from the Sinai border. The border was subsequently sealed by Israeli authorities with an electronic fence that was completed in 2014.
African asylum-seekers in Israel are being deported to third-party countries, understood to be Rwanda.
In conversation with former JC journalist Sandy Rashty, Mr Sa’ar was asked whether he understood why the policy had caused so much upset in the community. He said: “No, I don’t understand.
“Shall I remind you, that our country received Jewish refugees from all over the world – more than any country on earth.”
As an audience member called out that Mr Sa’ar was only referring to “Jewish” refugees, he continued: “This is the only Jewish state. We are fighting and we will fight until our last day, that it will remain the Jewish state…
“We are the only Western country on earth, with a common border with the continent of Africa. If we will be weak on that point, we will very shortly [have] on our shoulders, a problem of a huge continent. Our mission is to keep, to preserve and to protect our state for future generations.
“And if it is not ‘nice’… I respect every view of someone.”
Speaking after the event, Rabbi Mühlstein, of Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synaogue, said she could not sit through Mr Sa'ar's comments. A supporter of the ZF charity, she said she thought there should have been an opportunity for a Q&A with audience members.
Rabbi Mühlstein, who co-signed a letter by 60 rabbis protesting against the deportations that was delivered to the Israeli embassy in London in January, said: “There was no alternative view put across – a variety of views should be put across … so I did not want to be party to that.”
She added: “His position was left to stand. I felt that there was no point at all in hearing that. I felt deeply uncomfortable, feeling as though I should be there supporting it, when it was not representative of my views.”
Rabbi Surget, the associate rabbi of Radlett Reform Synagogue, said she would not have walked out if there had been a chance to respond to Mr Sa'ar.
She said: “As a progressive Zionist rabbi, the views he was presenting were not views I support at all. Had there be an opportunity for a dialogue with audience members, it would have been different.”
She added: “As a rabbi who signed the petition, I didn’t feel I could stay.”
At the event, Mr Sa’ar, a member of the Likud Party, dismissed the prospect of a two-state solution, describing it as “a two-state slogan”. He also said the settlements were “an issue that belongs in the past.
“We have half a million Israeli citizens in the settlements… it is irreversible. And I don’t think it is an obstacle to peace.”