Rattling the Cage: Shame

On this issue, there is no 'but on the other hand.'

larry derfner 88 (photo credit: )
larry derfner 88
(photo credit: )
I met a Sudanese refugee this week, "John," who had an expression of sadness, of hurt, that didn't seem to leave his face. I learned it wasn't only the loss of his eight brothers and sisters in Darfur that put that expression there. It was also what happened to him in Cairo in December 2005. A couple of thousand Sudanese refugees were camped outside the UN compound in the city, trying to get asylum in some other country and protection from being deported by Egypt back to Sudan, where Arab militias were committing genocide against blacks like them. After a few months, police decided to break up the tent camp by charging into the crowd with clubs. Officially, 28 Sudanese refugees, including several children, were beaten or trampled to death. But the true number of dead, who included John's pregnant wife, was unquestionably much higher. Now I have a better understanding of the unchanging look on that man's face. I met another Sudanese refugee, "Peter," whose expression seemed to hold not only hurt, but outrage, too. Unlike John, Peter is not alone; his wife and four children live with him now on the lawn across from the Knesset. But some years ago he saw his father burned alive in a Darfur hut. And then, in Egypt, where Peter and his family lived before escaping across the border to Israel, he was jailed for organizing help for his fellow refugees. On the streets of Cairo, he says Egyptians "would say things to us like 'unga bunga,' they threw stones at us. I kept my children inside for a full year, I wouldn't let them go out." Peter doesn't want to live in a Negev transit camp, which the Israeli government is setting up as a brief waystation for the Sudanese coming over the border before they, or at least the great majority, are returned to Egypt. But if the option is Egypt, Peter says he and his family would prefer to live permanently in an Israeli refugee camp in the middle of the desert. He explains: "The camp would be safer for us." I CRITICIZE Israel a lot, I have moral objections to all sorts of things this country does, especially to Arabs. But for every criticism I have of Israel's dealings with these Arabs or those, there's always a "but on the other hand." The "but on the other hand" is that Israel and the Arabs are enemy nations, and the Arabs have done lots of horrible things to Israelis, too. So I don't think of my country as being purely the victimizer and the Arabs as purely the victim. Far from it; I think Israel, on balance, is less to blame for the situation than the Arabs are. In this vitally important regard, then, I can say to myself honestly that Israel, for all its sins, is not an immoral country. Then there's another second thought I have about Israel's frequent bullying of Arabs that keeps me from getting too down on this place: Israel is a nation-state, so you have to compare its morality to that of other nation-states, not to the morality of, for example, the Sierra Club. And when I think of the histories of the most democratic of states - how America slaughtered the Indians, enslaved the blacks and stole the Southwest by armed aggression against Mexico; how Europe was an arena of slaughter and plunder for centuries; how the English, the Dutch, the Belgians and the French brutalized and massacred their African and Asian subjects - notice that I didn't even mention the Germans - then I figure that when it comes to morality, Israel doesn't have to apologize to any country. BUT THEN I come to the matter of the Sudanese refugees. This is a completely different moral issue from what Israel, as far as I can remember, has ever faced. On this issue, there is no "but on the other hand." The Sudanese refugees are not enemies, they're not Arab terrorists. The Sudanese refugees, rather, are running away from Arab terrorists who slaughtered their families. The Sudanese refugees, who are in their millions, and whose black countrymen were murdered in their millions, have been victimized by Arab terrorists many, many times worse than Israelis. "They're like the Jews after the Holocaust," lamented a haredi rabbi who saw them in Jerusalem. That Israel is preparing to send about 1,000 of these refugees back to Egypt, which kills the Sudanese, harasses them and treats them like animals - I'd say the term "immoral" doesn't adequately describe it. And when I compare Israel with other countries in dealing with the problem of refugees, then I'm afraid Israel doesn't stack up well at all - not against democratic countries and not against dictatorships, either. In fact, when it comes to accepting alien refugees - not Jewish new immigrants, whom Israel sees as exiles "coming home" to build and defend the nation - then this country has quite a bit to apologize for. THE IDEA that Israel might accept, say, 100,000 Sudanese refugees from Egypt, and house most of them in refugee camps with massive assistance from the UN, the US, the EU, the Red Cross and countless other sources, is absolutely unthinkable in this country. Yet the Arab countries of the Middle East, whom we see as our moral inferiors, take in millions of refugees that way. Egypt may treat the Sudanese like shit, but at least it gave them shelter from genocide, it didn't turn them away. And Egypt didn't just take in Muslims, it took in Christians and animists, too. Jordan and Syria, which have a combined population of about 20 million, have absorbed nearly 2 million Iraqi war refugees in the last four years. Jordan and Syria didn't want those people either, but they took them. Across Africa, destitute countries are inundated by millions of refugees running away from war and famine. They may all be black, but they come from numerous different tribes and subtribes, and they most definitely don't think of each other as belonging to the same nation and thus beholden to one another. Our big brother, America, has taken in over 10 million economic refugees from Latin America - otherwise known as "illegal immigrants" - without any international help, and even without refugee camps. Eventually, millions of them will probably be granted US citizenship. WE ISRAELIS live in a region of refugees, of aliens seeking shelter in alien lands, yet we insist that Israel is off-limits. We declare this piece of land to be a Jewish preserve. Our sole responsibility is to take in Jewish refugees - even though, again, they're not refugees but new immigrants, and even though millions of Jewish refugees have been taken in over the years by gentile countries, which is the side of Jewish history that Zionism leaves out. My aunt was an illegal immigrant in the US. My parents were illegal immigrants in France before getting out one step ahead of the Nazis and being taken in legally by the US. There are millions of Jewish descendants of Jewish refugees living throughout the gentile world. Now there are some 1,200 Sudanese refugees in Israel - and the best we can do is keep maybe a couple of hundred Darfurians as a "humanitarian gesture," then send the rest back to Egypt, a racist police state where experience tells them they will be jailed, killed or deported back to their genocidal homeland? The fear that's driven the Israeli government in this policy, which I imagine has strong public support, is of hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees coming over the border from Egypt into Israel. This is a fear bred of xenophobia and national selfishness. How long is Israel going to be the gated community of the Middle East, a "villa in the jungle"? Why can Jordan and Syria take in 2 million Iraqi war refugees - 10% of their combined population - but Israel can't take in, say, 200,000 Sudanese refugees - 3% of our population? We are so much richer than Jordan, Syria and Egypt, not to mention Africa. We could get tons of international aid, too. If dozens of other countries can take in large numbers of refugees, why the hell can't we? Because, you say, this is a Jewish country. A Jewish country. A Jewish country that washes its hands of refugees from genocide. Barring some miracle, this is what Israel is going to do, and very soon. The Olmert government is about to write a new chapter in Israeli history, in Jewish history. This will never be forgotten. Or forgiven.