On The Other Hand: A 'Giant' refugee problem

Eli Manning, leading the NY Giants on the way to the Super Bowl, has other things on his mind besides Sudanese refugees streaming into Israel.

sudan refugees 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
sudan refugees 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It was probably the most quintessential American pastime that one could possibly experience in Israel – sitting in a spacious Modi’in home with three friends watching a National Football League playoff game live on TV.
Of course, it wasn’t exactly the same... it was after midnight, due to the time difference between the two countries, with the game (between the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers) beginning at 11:30 p.m. local time.
And the snacks the host provided weren’t nachos or spicy chicken wings, but standard – or substandard – Machaneh Yehuda junk food fare.
But otherwise, it could have a carbon copy of any Sunday in my pre-aliya existence. Except for one other thing.
Near the end of the thrilling game (for us Giants fans), while we were entertaining a fuzzy, celebratory glow over the impending victory, I heard the text message beep go off on my cellphone – a curious occurrence, since aside from my fellow football crazies, I didn’t know anyone who would still be awake at 2:30 a.m. Well, maybe one person.
The SMS was from my daughter, serving in the IDF in a combat unit patrolling the border with Egypt. It read, in Hebrew: “I just caught 38 Sudanese refugees coming across the border, 25 men, 11 women and two babies. It was horrible.”
The comforting illusion that the game and its middle-class surroundings had created were shattered by that abrupt reality check.
I wasn’t sitting in an American den, watching football, sipping suds. No, I was in a country – my country – where some can be sitting contentedly in a warm house with a flat screen TV, eating sugar cookies, while their children are out on patrols in the middle of the night, in the freezing cold, in the middle of nowhere, rounding up refugee women and babies who are fleeing for their lives from Egyptian forces who would like nothing better to do than shoot them dead.
It sounds, and is, more complex than the conundrum that faced Green Bay in its attempt to stop the Eli Manning-to- Hakeem Nicks scoring carnival.
Since I don’t ever receive late-night play-by-play messages like that from my daughter, and she doesn’t usually use words like “horrible,” I left the living room to call her.
She sounded calm and fine, explaining that the incident hadn’t been that “horrible.” After identifying the infiltration into Israel of the refugees and then detaining them, she and her unit provided the mothers with food for the babies, and brought the group to a place nicknamed the Sudaniya, – a makeshift holding station consisting of a few barracks-like buildings with bunk beds. There they would stay until the army either moved them to more permanent military detention quarters, or transported them to freedom in Eilat or Tel Aviv.
But from hearing her describe similar experiences over the past two years of her service, I knew that she and her troops were not a “welcome wagon” for the refugees, greeting them with milk and cookies. She was a soldier, they were infiltrators, and that mix usually results in a display of aggression and fear.
Talk about mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was sailing on a high over the Giants heading for certain victory in the final minutes of the game. And on the other hand, I was thinking of my little girl. She used to play for hours at a time with an extensive doll collection, and now, equipped with a cocked rifle and an ear-piercing voice developed out of necessity as a commander in the IDF, she was herding a frightened group of refugees through the night into safety, but also into confinement.
Those mixed emotions spread to my feelings about Israel as well. Our policy of enabling African refugees to enter the country (at a rate of hundreds a week) reflects our value for life – especially when we’re aware of how our neighbors across the southern border solve their refugee problem. But how many more can we take in before the fabric of our society is irreparably altered? Those existential thoughts vanished, however, as the Giants scored again with two minutes left, icing the victory and sending them on the path that would eventually lead to next week’s Super Bowl.
Sometimes it’s easier to concentrate on things that have a clear winner and no ambiguity over who the good and bad guys are.