in or out?

09.21.12

On African Refugees and Jewish Heartlessness

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 while nearly 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.