The Sudanese dilemma

No one denies the plight of the refugees in Israel. What to do about it is less obvious.

Sudanese refugees 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sudanese refugees 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sometimes you just wish the wisdom of King Solomon could again reign in Jerusalem. It would take his fabled powers to solve the humanitarian dilemma facing the country. Maybe he could have consulted with the beautiful black Queen of Sheba and together they could have decided what to do with what is becoming known as the Sudanese issue. The Sudanese refugees, a term used loosely to cover some 2,000 people from several African countries now seeking asylum in Israel, have struck a particularly painful chord with Israelis and Jewish communities around the world. Look at them and see us. At first glance they bear no resemblance to those faded pictures of Jews in pre-World War II Europe, but a brief glimpse of their eyes and tired faces shows the desperation of people running from danger with nowhere safe to run to. Even many of those opposed to granting them permanent asylum in Israel can easily imagine them as Jewish refugees struggling to cross borders or board boats to take them away from the Nazi hell. And that is why hearts are breaking over their plight. No one denies the tragedy. What is at stake is very clear. What to do about it is far from clear cut. Should Israel, the refuge and safe haven of Jews worldwide, take in all those who arrive against the odds at its southern border - some 60 to 70 a day - and provide asylum because this is its moral obligation? Or is Israel endangering its very existence and essence as a Jewish state by taking in a tide of infiltrators - mostly Muslim - many undoubtedly fleeing some form of persecution, a minority trying to find a better home than they left in Africa? SOME EVEN wonder whether trying to solve the refugee issue is actually addressing the real problem. Should the world have opened its doors to Jews trying to escape Hitler's "Final Solution"? Undoubtedly. But wouldn't it have been better to stop Hitler himself, early on, instead of arguing about what to do with his victims? The Sudanese refugees aren't just an Israeli problem. They are victims of Global Jihad and arguably global warming - the former chasing them from their homes (humble mud huts for the most part) and the latter apparently ruining what was left of an already impoverished farming economy. I WATCH the news footage of the Sudanese and recall the Kenyans I met during a vacation several years ago. I was shocked not only by their conditions but by the fact the local tourism industry was based on this poverty being "picturesque." I preferred to take photos of the wildlife than of the starving, barely clothed kids. I would have liked to have gone back for another visit - I don't think anyone who has ever seen an African sunset can get it out of their system - but the resort where I stayed was blown up a few years later in an al-Qaida attack on Israeli vacationers. The 2002 attack killed 15 people, mainly locals, and threatened the lives of hundreds with its simultaneous attempt to shoot down an Israeli charter plane taking off from Mombasa airport. And that brings me back to the more sinister side of the Sudanese issue. Many senior Israeli security officials have warned that the trickle of refugees could turn into a flood and that even the trickle could include al-Qaida operatives not looking for humanitarian assistance and refuge in Israel but to destroy the state and all it stands for. According to the State Attorney's Office, updating the court on July 11 as it heard petitions on the refugee issue, there are some 1,200 Sudanese "infiltrators" in the country, less than a third of them from Darfur itself. Israeli organizations and individuals have - in the absence of official aid - jumped in to help the new arrivals. Even my five-year-old instructed me to donate his old bike "to the children who walked through the desert." Local physicians are treating medical problems for free. Students are teaching the kids and warmhearted volunteers are helping care for the weary and traumatized adults. But the question remains: What to do with them in the long term? This week municipalities in the South, fed up with having the refugees "dumped" on them, bused them to Jerusalem where the decision-makers could not ignore them. They were soon transported back to a temporary camp, near Kassam-hit Sderot. Their plight was well covered by the press, which published pleas by those facing deportation. The refugees praised the treatment they had received from Israelis and told fearful tales of atrocities in their home countries and later in Egypt to which they originally escaped. Anyone who has seen African poverty and lawlessness close up - as close as you get hopping off and on an air-conditioned tour bus, windows closed to keep out the heat and stop wristwatches and bags being snatched by passing thieves - can understand why asylum in Israel would be attractive, even in an area prone to missile attacks from more Muslim militias. The Holy Land is not paradise - ask disaffected Jews from Ethiopia, airlifted in truly amazing rescue efforts but still suffering from innumerable absorption and social problems. Nor does it lack homemade "refugees." This week the Knesset also heard that two years after disengagement most former residents of Gush Katif remain in dire straits, living in temporary housing and dependent on welfare assistance. In the late 1970s, Menachem Begin headed the country that opened its doors and hearts to scores of "boat people," escaping war-ravaged Vietnam. But these were not thousands of Muslims escaping an enemy state, background unknown. These were people in need - who looked nothing like those incarcerated on the St. Louis, but nonetheless obviously in a similar situation, literally floating at sea with no safe harbor in sight. IN 2007, Israel clearly needs to retain that same openmindedness about asylum-seekers. But openmindedness does not necessarily mean open doors. At the Sharm e-Sheikh summit last month, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that Israel could begin deporting the refugees who have infiltrated Israel via the Sinai Desert and that he would guarantee their safety in Egypt, despite the very real fears of nearly all the refugees interviewed in the Post and elsewhere. Egyptian officials also promised to do more to prevent refugee infiltrations into Israel. (They could also act harder to stop arms running, drug smuggling and the trade in women while they're at it.) Israel seems set to receive those refugees who truly have escaped the horrors of Darfur and reached the Jewish state. But the only long-term answer is tackling the source of the tragedy - the one they are running from. And for that, unfortunately, warm hearts in Jerusalem are not enough. The answer needs to come out of Africa. The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.