Critical Currents: Beautiful Israel

A country founded as a haven for survivors cannot close itself off to the suffering of others.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
The influx of African refugees seeking asylum in Israel has brought to the fore the very best, the absolute worst, and the most ambivalent features of contemporary Israel. Official narrow-mindedness and expediency make a mockery of the warm-heartedness and goodwill exhibited by many Israeli citizens. The design of a consistent policy toward those seeking a safe haven in Israel will align government moves with the values that underpin voluntary humanitarian efforts, making them that much more effective and meaningful. The 2,000 African refugees who have recently made their way into Israel should not be lumped together indiscriminately. Some, indeed, have fled from Darfur - the western region of Sudan inhabited by Muslims of African origin - after having witnessed the murder, rape and maiming of their loved ones, and after having experienced the devastation of their homes and livelihood. They constitute a mere handful of the estimated two million refugees generated by this unspeakable genocide. Others, however, are Christians and polytheists from southern Sudan, who have been hounded for decades during the successive phases of their civil war with the Arab majority in the north. The latest cease-fire, signed barely four years ago, has yet to be accompanied by the rehabilitation of this war-torn region. An additional group hails from the Democratic Republic of Congo - the country which has claimed the largest number of victims of internal strife on the continent. Still more have made their way from West Africa (notably from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire, which are just emerging from protracted civil wars in which child soldiers, blood diamonds, mercenaries and immense depravity were commonplace). A small number come from the Horn of Africa (Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia), where once again intra and inter state skirmishes are flaring. THE ORGANIZATIONS and individuals who greet these migrants concentrate on addressing their immediate needs, not on questioning their background. They have given shelter to busloads of African infiltrators dumped by the military on the footsteps of municipalities from Beersheba to Eilat. They provide food, clothing, educational services, psychological support, and above all human warmth to the heavily traumatized. Dozens of Israeli organizations - ranging from the veteran Hotline for Migrant Workers and the Kibbutz Movement to an ad hoc coalition of Ben-Gurion University students and a network of university lecturers - are involved in fund-raising, placement, and care giving to the newcomers. The media has played an important role in exposing their plight and mobilizing assistance. Employers have provided some work; members of the Knesset have established a lobby to back these efforts. By any measure, beautiful Israel is working hard at offering shelter to those who have lost everything. THE SAME cannot be said of official Israel. The Olmert-Mubarak deal struck at Sharm e-Sheikh not only seeks to seal off any further refugee incursions into Israel, it also provides for their deportation back to Egypt. Israel is thus colluding in the further harassment and abuse of those who have already been subjected to nefarious crimes against humanity. Israel's official attitude is inexcusable, even if Egypt must not be absolved of responsibility for its past and future actions. The arguments used to justify these moves sound hauntingly familiar: the fear of a trickle becoming a flood of immigrants that might inundate the country; the additional strains on already stretched social services; the potential security threat posed by the influx of migrants from hostile areas. All these rationalizations add up to one, unspoken, undercurrent: non-Jews, especially Africans, are not welcome. This reprehensible mindset goes against the grain of Jewish tradition and contravenes the normative pillars of the state of Israel. A country founded as a haven for Jews who survived the basest forms of racial degradation cannot close itself off to the suffering of others. The descendants of refugees cannot reject those knocking on their doorstep. The government of Israel cannot continue to ignore the instinctive sentiments of so many of its citizens who clamor for measures that reflect their historical and ethical heritage. Israel, in short, can no longer glide along without a clear, reasoned and humane refugee policy. This country, perhaps more than any other, must champion refugee rights everywhere. The country needs legislation that will set out guidelines for migration and conditions for citizenship for those not covered by the Law of Return. It must also establish procedures for the absorption of refugees according to international law, just as it has done recently for the children of foreign workers. Mechanisms need to be created and funds allocated for this humanitarian undertaking (world Jewry, already heavily invested in African refugee relief, can be mobilized to this end). A conscious refugee policy also presumes a greater understanding of the roots of contemporary conflicts and the accumulation of substantial expertise in efforts to prevent the suffering and migrations they unleash. A renewed emphasis on the African dimension of Israel's foreign relations, along with greater participation in assistance programs for refugees on the continent can bring Israeli activities in line with expanding global initiatives in this field. An Israel that closes itself off from the plight of refugees - whatever their origins and beliefs - contravenes its most fundamental mission. Many Israelis know that being Jewish means keeping the doors open to those who are hounded because of who they are. They expect their government to fully affirm and implement this inextricable linkage between Jewish values and universal humanitarian concerns.