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.

Strangers in a strange land.

Eritrean refugees on Israel’s border.

After a week of living beneath scraps of fabric on a scrap of land between two metal fences, hoping to be given asylum in a country established by refugees, 21 Eritrean refugees have gotten their answer from the Jewish State:

Israel has granted entry to two Eritrean women and a 14-year-old boy who were stuck on the Israel-Egypt border for eight days. The remaining 18 men were ordered to return to Egypt. The three Eritreans who were granted entry into Israel were immediately transferred to the Saharonim detention facility.

Lest we be tempted to believe that the decision to allow in three of these poor souls is an act deserving of praise, however,

Israeli experts on international law warn that stopping asylum seekers from entering the country and making their claim for asylum is a breach of binding treaties to which Israel is a signatory.

Moreover, according to William Tall, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel,

The most worrying thing to me is the discussion of pushing them back into Egypt, which is highly irresponsible, because if they go back to Egypt there is a high risk these people will fall in the hands of human smugglers, and it is well known, it is all documented, that many of these people have been abused, there are cases of torture or rape, and if you send them back you are sending them to a situation with a very high degree of insecurity.

Furthermore, while the refugees were awaiting this extraordinarily hard-hearted response from Israel’s authorities, those same authorities instructed the soldiers standing guard over them to provide the Eritreans with as little water as possible. The soldiers also acted to prevent human rights activists from bringing them food, and doctors from examining them. One of the women in question is reported to have miscarried over the course of the week.

Why didn’t the refugees give up and leave? Well, as my colleague Raphael Magarikwrote yesterday, refugees from Eritrea are often so desperate that

they will jump off trucks, to their deaths, rather than face repatriation….[and] Eritreans who go back report imprisonment, torture, and abuse. That’s why the United States, Canada, and Western Europe don’t deport Eritreans.

Indeed, according to +972 magazine, fully 93% of Eritreans seeking asylum elsewhere are granted official refugee status.

So, in short: Israel’s decision to ignore international treaties in order to send three people to a detention center and 18 to the gentle mercies of human traffickers and/or a government happy to whip them is hardly a grand compromise.

It’s more along the lines of a shanda—and forget fur die goyim. This is a shame for the Jews. To the extent that we identify with and support the Jewish state, to the extent that we choose to share in the collective experience of Jewish peoplehood, the treatment these human beings have received at Jewish hands should shame us to our very core.

There is simply no excuse for this. None. Not security, not the logic of borders, not the fact of laws recently passed. Nothing.

One more quote:

[The LORD] upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Deut 10:18-19

If we can sit idly by as the Jewish State behaves in this fashion, I’m forced to ask: What, exactly, do we want the words “Jewish state” to mean?

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.