Here and there: If not now, when?

What is a “safe country”? We cannot say.

February 21, 2018 20:23
African migrants painted in white hold signs during a protest against the Israeli government's plan

African migrants painted in white hold signs during a protest against the Israeli government's plan to deport part of their community, in front of the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya, Israel February 7, 2018. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

Perhaps because I am married to a Holocaust survivor who, as a child, managed to escape Germany just before the outbreak of World War II, I am conscious of what it meant for him to have finally found refuge in Britain in March 1939. Tragically, his paternal grandmother, widowed when my husband’s father (an only child) was just eight years old, failed to receive an exit visa. Her bitter end came in Theresienstadt. His Hungarian maternal grandmother committed suicide in 1944 when the Germans entered Budapest, taking her son to a labor camp and her daughter-in-law and grandson to Auschwitz, where they were murdered.

These thoughts came to mind in the light of two current situations that share a common theme.

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THE FIRST is the imminent expulsion from Israel of African asylum seekers to a “safe place” in a third country. But what is a safe place? While the Holocaust stands alone and must never be trivialized through comparison to other abhorrent happenings – be they the Rwanda conflict of 1994 when the Hutus and Tutsis fought each other, resulting in the massacre of 800,000 Rwandans or the half-million killed in the current conflict in Syria – no event compares to the barbaric murder of six million human beings simply because they were Jews.

The analogy to be drawn with those Jews seeking refuge from Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s is that we conceptualize that the free world considered it “safe” for Jews to remain, indefinitely, in Germany as country after country closed their gates to Jews seeking a safe haven. Several, including the United States, had quota systems in operation allowing those fortunate enough to have obtained the requisite acceptance papers to enter their country – but only on the stated date. My husband’s family had a visa for the US (obtained with a written guarantee from relatives in the US accepting full financial responsibility for the family), but it was dated November 1940, which was too far in the future. Luckily, John’s grandfather, an eminent rabbi in Budapest and a friend of Britain’s chief rabbi Dr. Hertz, pleaded with him to arrange a temporary visa to the UK for the Katten family – dated from March 1939 until November 1940, when they would be able to enter the US. My husband is alive today because of this friendship, while most Jews, unable to arrange such protektzia, died in the gas chambers. Of 300,000 applications for entry to the US, only 75,000 were given visas – with too many postdated.

Regarding those countries whose gates remained firmly barred to Jewish refugees, perhaps it was impossible for them to imagine what one human being could do to another? We are speaking of cultured Germans; could anyone have conceived that the annihilation of the Jewish people was being meticulously planned and expedited at the January 1942 Wannsee Conference? A month later, the Struma, a boat bringing desperate refugees from the Holocaust, was refused entry into British-mandated Palestine and finally driven off the Turkish coast, sinking in the Black Sea. Only one of the 770 passengers survived.

What is a “safe country”? We cannot say. We note that Rwanda has agreed to take a large proportion of Africans (for which Israel is paying their government around $5,000 per person), yet we witness the fear of the Africans being deported to a country whose human rights record is somewhat questionable.

THE SECOND African situation is the plight of our Ethiopian brethren. Thousands left their homes and villages more than a decade ago hoping to come home, but are living in squalid camp conditions in Gondor and Addis Ababa. Many have close relatives in Israel awaiting their aliya and family reunification.

Why has their aliya been delayed? Is it because many are Falash Mura – the name given to those in Ethiopia and Eritrea forced to convert to Christianity during the 19th and 20th centuries? Or is it because they share the skin color of the African deportees?

Back in April 2016, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset members agreed to permit 10,000 Ethiopian Jews to be absorbed into Israel between 2016 and 2020. Funds were allocated for transportation, conversion programs and more to integrate the new citizens. Some 1,308 Ethiopian immigrants arrived here in 2017, and within the next three weeks the government is expected to approve the immigration of a further 1,000 Ethiopians, prioritizing those parents who have children already in Israel. However, some 8,000 still remain languishing in the sordid camps.

An open letter to Netanyahu published recently in The Jerusalem Post brought tears to my eyes. A young man identifying himself as Abere writes on behalf of the children and teenagers of the Jewish community in Gondor and Addis Ababa. He speaks of learning together with his Bnei Akiva madrichim (counselors); of coming to the synagogue on Shabbat and singing “Hinei ma tov umana’im, shevet ahim gam yahad” (How good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together). “Yet we are far from our brothers who are now in Israel.”

The writer continues, “Even though we have not seen our family in so many years, we pray for their safety and wellbeing. Sometimes we dream together of what it would be like to arrive in Israel and walk past a big wall and see our sister or mother or older brother. Will we be able to identify our own mother?”

Abere painfully points out that in the past, being able to come home to Israel was in the hands of others, but today it is in our own hands (that of Israel and its government). He concludes, “While you are waiting to decide, we are dying at the hands of others as if we have no one to care for us.”

What have we, the Jewish people, with our own beautiful independent country, learned from our tragic history? Have we forgotten the journey we made to arrive at this point? In the words of Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, who am I? And if not now, when?”

The writer is public relations chair of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society.

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