With African refugees crowding her cities, Israel has no elegant solution to
this serious social problem. So when news came that South Sudan had become the
world’s newest nation, policy-makers were relieved: at least a subset of
refugees could be easily, honorably and safely sent home.
should. But Israel is acting precipitously in its forced mass deportation of
South Sudanese, scheduled for the end of this month.
The South Sudanese
are a very special people – in ways most Israelis do not understand, and at the
same time they constitute a very small portion of the African refugee
Simon Deng, a popular South Sudanese leader, is in Israel now
advocating for special treatment for his people. Deng claims that only 600 or
700 South Sudanese live in Israel, but that they get mixed in the public mind
with larger African populations, especially the Eritreans and the Sudanese
Muslims from Darfur.
Deng is a special person; an escaped slave from
Southern Sudan who has become a well-known figure on campuses across America,
telling American students about the decades-long mass murder and enslavement of
Africans in Sudan by the Arab/Muslim regime in Khartoum.
He has also
become one of the most important allies of American Jewish students, besieged by
perpetual campaigns against Israel and its supporters. No one can counter the
thunderous calls against the “apartheid state of Israel” better than a man who
knows, up close and personal, about the Middle East’s real apartheid.
today, Simon has come to Israel in the hopes of sheltering his people from
Israel’s impatient rush to deport them. Let us be clear: nobody argues that the
South Sudanese in Israel should not go home to South Sudan. But Israel,
flummoxed by a mass of African refugees, torn between its heart – which knows
the plight of the refugee only too well, and its head – which realizes it cannot
become the destination of millions of Africans seeking a better life. Israel is
erring in the way it’s handling Simon’s people.
This, after all, is a
people who will be our very good friends in a very hostile world.
Kir, president of South Sudan, pledges that Israel and his nation will be close
allies. His embassy will be placed in Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv. For many reasons
South Sudanese feel close to the Jews and to Israel. They became a nation
fighting for their freedom from Arab/Muslim domination. South Sudanese tell me,
“You were the first to win your freedom against Arab domination. We are the
second. Maybe we are the second Israel.”
Moreover, hundreds of
thousands of blacks were enslaved in Arab raids on African villages over the
decades-long war, termed by Khartoum’s leaders, a “jihad.” It was a Jewish-led
anti-slavery movement in the US that sparked American interest in Sudan’s plight
and, along with others, pressed president George W. Bush to intervene. Bush
imposed a truce on both sides that included provisions for the South to decide
its own future.
Last January, the South achieved political independence
when its people voted – over 98 percent – for partition. The abolitionist
movement is beloved by the South Sudanese – and cursed as a Zionist plot by
anti-Semites like Louis Farrakhan. Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam teaches that “the
Jews” were behind the African slave trade, and but it has been severely
embarrassed by reports that Arab/Muslims enslave blacks. Meanwhile, South Sudan
has millions of people who will be stalwart friends of the Jews and advocates
Simon and his people are seeking only minor adjustments to
the policy of a rushed, mass deportation: Why deport the 18 South Sudanese
students currently in Israeli colleges and universities? Why not help get them
student visas and nurture them as friends and leaders? Why rip any of the South
Sudanese children out of school before they finish the school year? Why not give
some more time – just a bit more – to those South Sudanese who are working
productively at Israeli jobs? Can we make a special effort for this very special
people to get them work visas? Not so that they will stay indefinitely, but just
so they can save their funds, and make plans to go home? There are many special
links between Jews and South Sudanese. Last March, as president of the American
Anti-Slavery Group, I brought Orthodox Rabbi Josef Polak, head of Boston
University’s Hillel, to South Sudan to participate in a slave redemption mission
led by Christian Solidarity International which has freed hundreds of thousands
of slaves over the years.
Through Dinka interpreters, the rabbi explained
to the just-freed slaves how the Jewish people – who were also enslaved, and not
so very far from where we stood – commemorate our own redemption. We do it once
a year, he told them. We have a tradition that has helped make us a strong
people. Maybe you could remember your redemption in some similar way.
was 18 years ago that Jews in America first learned about the plight of the
South Sudanese – that they were targeted by this century’s fascist power, that
they were being massively slaughtered, that tens of thousands of them were
enslaved – and that they were being abandoned by the “civilized” world. Many of
us saw them as “the Jews of our time.”
We should continue to treat them
as the very special people they are.
The writer is president of the
American Anti-Slavery Group, Boston.