Is Israel treating refugees fleeing murderous regimes the way European governments treated Jews fleeing the Holocaust?
By SHLOMO AVINERI
We should be ashamed about those 50 black refugees from the Darfur region in Sudan, fleeing murderous and genocidal Arab militias.
They reached Israel, and what did the Jewish state do? It put them in jail, under an antiquated military ordinance, without access to lawyers or recourse to the basic principles of the rule of law. If it hadn't been for some human rights organizations, which brought the case before the Supreme Court, no one would know of their existence and arbitrary and brutal incarceration.
One must realize what is happening in Sudan - something the police and military authorities apparently don't know about.
In Darfur the black population is being subjected to ethnic cleansing, murder and rape at the hands of government-backed Arab militias. Nobody knows the number of people killed - tens of thousands, probably more - but UN sources admit that almost two million people have become refugees.
The reason given by our security and police authorities for the Darfurians' arrest is that they are citizens of an enemy country. This is technically true - but as the Holocaust historian Professor Yehuda Bauer told the court in his deposition on their behalf - German Jews fleeing Nazism were sometimes viewed as "enemy citizens" by the Allies. Indeed, many of them were put in detention camps by the British authorities when they reached the United Kingdom.
To imagine that the Jewish state is as blind to the plight of refugees fleeing from their own murderous government as European governments were in the l930s and 1940s should make any one of us deeply ashamed.
THE COURT was also told that the refugees, who entered Israel illegally, are being held pending their deportation. But to which country should they be deported? To which country can they be deported? Back to Sudan, whose government has been murdering them?
It may be that the agreement recently signed in Abuja, Nigeria, between the Sudanese government and some of the black insurgents will be implemented and a modicum of peace achieved. The record, though, is not good. As in the past, the world community has done little about Darfur - and not for lack of knowledge. But with the US bogged down in Iraq there is little support anywhere for a robust threat of the use of force to stop the Sudanese government continuing its ethnic cleansing.
Israel can do little to help or alleviate the enormous suffering of the millions of refugees. But it can - it should - grant asylum to those refugees who have reached our shores.
In the 1970s prime minister Menachem Begin granted asylum to shipwrecked Vietnamese boat people picked up by an Israeli commercial vessel; in the 1990s prime minister Yitzhak Rabin granted asylum to a number of Muslim Bosnian refugees from the wars in the Balkans.
It may not be an accident that in the latest cases of ethnic cleansing and near-genocide it has been Jewish groups and individuals in the US and Europe who have spoken out most forcefully for more vigorous Western intervention on behalf of those threatened and victimized.
In the Balkans the victims were mostly Muslims - Bosniaks, Kosovo Albanians - but true to the universalistic premises of Jewish ethics this did not stop Jewish people from feeling empathy and a moral obligation to help. In Darfur, everyone is Muslim - the Arab victimizers as well as the black-African victims - but this does not matter, as the issue is not one of political calculus but of basic moral responsibility: We are our brothers' keepers.
As a state, Israel has over the years had to balance political calculations with moral precepts. Not always did it emerge from the equation with flying colors. Our ambivalence about apartheid in South Africa, as well as a reticence regarding the historical reckoning regarding the Armenian genocide, are not exactly shining examples of ethical behavior in international affairs.
But these complexities are not relevant in the Darfur case, where the way we treat the refugees should be addressed on the only meaningful plane - that of basic humanitarian compassion.
It is a moral duty for Israel, a nation built by refugees, to follow this example. Otherwise, all the lofty talk about "Never again" and "the world's silence" is mere hypocrisy.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni have a chance to make the world a little less cruel for a small number of people: This is what tikkun olam is about.
The author is a former director-general of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
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