Israel’s error: Mass deportation of a friendly nation

Many of us saw the South Sudanese as “the Jews of our time”; we should continue to treat them as the very special people they are.

South Sudanese protest against deportation 370 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
South Sudanese protest against deportation 370
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
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.
And they 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 problem.
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.
But 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.
Salva 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 for Israel.
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.
It 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.