On African refugees and Jewish heartlessness.

Please note: I just learned that an Israeli soldier was killed this morning in a firefight that Israel’s military says was made possible by the fact that soldiers had left their post to bring water to a group of refugees. Comments at Open Zion already reflect this, but comments that absolve Israel and we Jews of these sins because of that accusation will not be allowed in this space. 

Next week, Jews around the world will gather to fast and pray. We will hear, as we do every year, the words of the prophet Isaiah:

They ask Me for the right way, they are eager for the nearness of God: “Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?” Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers!… Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies?… No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him.

I wonder, as we hear these words, how many of us will bring to mind the 21 Eritrean refugees Israel recently left to languish in the summer sun—without food, without shelter, with about a gallon of water a day to be shared among all of them, until, contrary to international agreements to which Israel is a signatory, the state finally forced 18 to return to the documented cruelties of Sinai smugglers and took three (including a 14 year old boy) to prison.

I wonder how many of us will bring to mind the fact that soldiers fired live rounds into the air and tear gas at the refugees as they huddled under a scrap of fabric between two national borders, and reportedly prodded them with an iron pole, in an effort to get them to leave. Testimony from the three Eritreans who were brought to Israeli prison reveals that

None of [them] wanted to return to Egypt. They knew they were destined for torture and death. Two or three days before it all ended, five of the men, who were stronger than the rest, dragged themselves to the Egyptian fence and asked the Egyptian gunmen whether they could return; the reply was that if they did, they would be shot. But, the Egyptian gunmen added, should they attempt this, they should bring the women with them, as the gunmen wanted to rape them.

…[When the state reached its final decision], IDF gunmen cut through the fence, crossed it, pulled the two women and the boy inside, and dragged the rest of the refugees on the cloth towards the Egyptian fence. The refugees, few of whom could move at this stage, screamed and begged to be shot, telling the gunmen they preferred this to a return to Egypt…. Their fate is unknown.

I wonder how many of us will bring to mind the fact that this horrifying story—a story steeped in heartlessness and lies, from the lowliest soldier to the highest government officials—is, in fact, merely the natural outgrowth of attitudes and policies that have greeted African refugees in Israel for more than five years?

After they enter the country, usually via the Egyptian border, those who are caught are jailed without charge for an arbitrary period; when Israel needs to make way for more prisoners, the asylum seekers are dumped in south Tel Aviv and other cities.

…Once out of jail, the state either refuses to process refugees’ individual requests for asylum or arbitrarily rejects them without adequately investigating their claims [note: again, contrary to international agreements to which Israel is a signatory]. Instead, Israel gives citizens of Sudan and Eritrea group protection. So they get visas, but not work visas—forcing refugees onto the black market where they face exploitation.

I wonder how many of us will bring to mind the recent survey that showed that whilenearly 80% of Israelis have no African migrants living anywhere near them, fully 80% of Jewish respondents said that Israel shouldn’t have an “open-door policy” for refugees “who were persecuted in their countries of origin.” Eighty-three percent supported the violent demonstrations that broke out against the refugees in south Tel Aviv a few months ago, and 52% of Jews surveyed agreed with Member of Knesset Miri Regev who, speaking at one of those demonstrations-turned-riot, said that “unauthorized Africans living in Israel are a cancer in the body of Israel.”

I lived the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for 14 years and have written about it for nearly 20. I frequently call on Israelis to have compassion for Palestinians and Palestinians for Israelis, but I understand why they often fail to do so. It really is a war, and in war, compassion is often ground to dust.

I understand that countries have borders for a good reason. I understand that in a country struggling with enormous social inequities, the influx of tens of thousands of undocumented laborers is a genuine problem. I understand fear of the unknown.

But this is not that.

This is a level of inhumanity that frankly boggles my mind and makes me ill. No one treks 1300 miles across unforgiving ground in search of a professional advancement. No one leaves family and friends and chooses privation and possible torture in order to make life hard on someone in Tel Aviv. The refugees from Sudan, South Sudan, and Eritrea are fleeing barbarous repression, so anxious to never return that some have been known to jump off moving trucks to their deaths to avoid repatriation.

And to the extent that we in America do not call our Israeli brothers and sisters on this inhumanity, we are complicit in it.

This is the fast I desire: To share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

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5 Comments

  1. The point about being human comes down to this, I think: that you recognize other humans.

    Yeah, it’s all bollixed by the problem of third world societies too close to rich first world societies, and no country, it seems, is open to just anyone moving in. I get that.

    But there is also the simple humanity of recognizing people desperate to live. Maybe that’s something to focus on–mothers and father wrenching themselves from a known situation (albeit terrible) to a place that offers nothing but hope. (I’m not saying that the place offers hope–but that they, the refugees, believe it offers it to them.) Hope is a powerful attraction when your life doesn’t seem it can get much worse.

  2. Neocortex

     /  September 21, 2012

    It was interesting, when I was in Israel, to talk about the Sudanese refugees with our trip’s Israelis. Particularly the (right-wing-ish, Mizrahi) one from South Tel Aviv. She talked about how the Israeli government lets in refugees but then dumps them into the already-poor Mizrahi-dominated South Tel Aviv slums so that they can be the problem of the people there, rather than actually integrating them. She complained about liberal Ashkenazim who theoretically support the refugees but would clutch their pearls at having any in their posh neighborhoods.

    I suggested that the refugees and the South Tel Aviv Mizrahim should band together and march on government buildings and posh Ashkenazi neighborhoods. She said that would be awesome but they’d all be arrested instantly (which I don’t doubt).

    It reminded me of the way that certain politicians in the US will play marginalized groups off against each other.

  3. This is how you deal with African refugees – help them make their own countries better

    http://israel21c.org/social-action-2/israel-to-build-model-farm-in-south-sudan/

    • I will certainly agree that this is very important – but surely first you must give the people literally on your doorstep some food and water.

      • Of course, provided you make it clear they will be going back, otherwise you create a huge magnet. Better to allow Zionists to spread wealth-making to poor countries than encourage the poor to spread poverty to Israel. Israel has people and knowledge but not much land. Africa has lots of land, less people and even less knowledge. Bring the knowledge to Africa rather than the people to Israel. Of course they should come as students. The more Israel helps the tier of countries behind the Arabs, how will the Arabs respond when they see the growth. More hatred from some but perhaps some more will see the good that can come from partnering with Israel.