No Longer the Stranger: Responding to Sudan’s Refugees in Israel

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October 1, 2007
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Yosef Israel Abramowitz

In July, the Israeli government announced that it would arrest and deport hundreds of Sudanese refugees who had snuck into Israel and camped outside the Knesset to seek protection. When my daughter Aliza and two of her friends from Kibbutz Ketura heard about this, they hopped on an Egged bus to attend a rally spontaneously organized in support of the Sudanese. To her surprise, instead of finding hundreds of Sudanese there were only a handful. In advance of the police’s arrival, Israeli families had swooped in and whisked refugees into their homes. This is the whole story in a nutshell: It is a conflict between the instincts and moral obligations of the Jewish people and the security-fearful instincts of the state.

Over the past two years, roughly 1,500 Sudanese refugees paid Bedouin smugglers to slip them under the fence along the Sinai-Negev border. Almost every person tells the same tale: running away from the genocides of Darfur or southern Sudan, seeking refugee status in Egypt, getting the cold shoulder from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, fear and often violence against them in Egypt, and then a fateful decision for these Muslims and Christians from an enemy state to seek refuge in the Jewish state.

Recently there was a terrible incident at the border. Four Sudanese refugees on the Egyptian side of the border fence were trying to flee the Egyptian military. One of the refugees managed to get part of his body under the fence. The Egyptian soldiers pulled at his legs while an Israeli soldier held on tight to his arm, in a tug of war. The Egyptians pointed their guns through the fence at the IDF soldier, who let go in fear for his life. The poor Sudanese was dragged back, beaten to death, along with three others, in front of the Israeli soldiers. We know something about running away from Egypt, yet Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has started deporting new arrivals in Israel back over the border and asked that the Egyptian military be vigilant.

In 1977 Menachem Begin, no bleeding heart softie, took in several hundred Vietnamese boat people in a Jewish and humanitarian act. Granted, Vietnamese do not come from a hostile Muslim state with al-Qaeda training camps. But Begin’s point was not only to save several hundred people. It was to challenge the civilized world to do their part and for the Jewish people not to lose our souls and values watching refugees suffer.

In 1951, the newly formed Jewish state actually authored the key provision of the International Convention on Refugee Rights that grants automatic refugee protection and status to people fleeing oppressive regimes, including enemy states. Yet Israel has been living in violation of her international obligations by arresting and deporting the Sudanese when they cross the border. Even after the Israeli office of the UNHCR screens and certifies the refugee status of each person caught, Israel seeks their arrest and deportation, or, at the very least, denies them legal status.

The Arava valley today is home to several hundred Sudanese refugees, who, instead of remaining in prison, have now been placed in kibbutzim and in Eilat. This positive development came about through a combination of tenacious legal work by the Tel Aviv University Law School Refugee Rights Clinic and the Hotline for Migrant Workers, along with a quiet campaign by many American Jewish organizations and leaders.

American Jewry has led the way in bringing the issue of Darfur to the forefront in the United States. Yet a key mistake was made: distinguishing the genocide in Darfur, which has claimed at least 200,000 lives, from the genocide in the south, which claimed 1.5 million lives. American Jewish leaders were correct to focus in the United States on Darfur, the genocide happening as you read this, but did not switch gears to advocate also for the Christian refugees from Sudan’s south when speaking to Israeli leaders.

Because of this, Israel is likely to allow only several hundred refugees from Darfur to stay in the country but deport the rest, who have also suffered greatly. The western nations that have condemned the genocide in Sudan should take in their fair share of refugees and all of them should pressure the UNHCR in Cairo to process refugees and provide for them.

In June, our kibbutz voted to take in two Sudanese refugee families from Darfur, who now live next door to us. For the first time in many years, they are not living in fear. Our children play together and they are learning Hebrew. Our kibbutz home happens to be on the path that the Israelites took on their way to the Promised Land. Moses walked in these sands. The Torah reminds us 36 times to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We are no longer the strangers. While the State of Israel continues to demonstrate incompetence or cruelty in dealing with the Sudanese refugees, the people of Israel defiantly live in the shadow of the Exodus with our new neighbors.

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Yosef Israel Abramowitz blogs daily at Peoplehood.org and penned a four-part series, “A Troubled Exodus: Sudanese Refugees in Israel,” for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in March, 2007. He is working with Kibbutz Ketura to bring solar energy to Israel and Jordan and can be reached at YosefA@aol.com. Yossi serves as Executive Editor of this journal.

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