Jewish Journal

Israel’s Darfur refugees require worthy action

by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

Posted on Aug. 23, 2007 at 8:00 pm

I was in Jerusalem in early July when a news story about Sudanese refuges demonstrating in front of the Knesset caught my eye. From the press accounts, it was difficult to fully understand who these refugees were or under what circumstances they had arrived in Israel. Some seemed to be refugees from the genocide in Darfur, but clearly, not all of them were.

It was not even entirely clear what they were hoping the Israeli government would now do for them or what the government had -- or had not -- done up to this point. But the story seemed to nonetheless vibrate with moral and Jewish historical significance, and I set out to understand it.

One phone contact led me to another until I finally reached Eytan Schwartz, a semicelebrity in Israel who won an Israeli reality TV show a few years ago. Schwartz is today the head of CARD (the Committee for Advancement of Refugees of Darfur) and has emerged as the chief advocate for the Sudanese refugees in Israel.

Schwartz invited me to meet him at a shopping mall in Herzilia, from where we would go to meet two men who had made the journey from Darfur to Israel. I could never have guessed how familiar their stories were going to sound.

We arrived at a dusty, off-the-beaten-track moshav just before sundown. We pulled off the moshav's dirt road at a random-seeming spot, parked and were greeted by Abdel and Ayman.

They escorted us to a small open area hemmed in by farm equipment. We sat with them at a small, round plastic table, and they poured us some juice. Just beyond the table was what looked like a large shipping crate, containing two beds, a fridge, a small stove and a satellite dish on the roof.

The following is Abdel's story: He was born and reared in Darfur, a son of a well-to-do family that owned 400 head of livestock. His older brother tended to the family's livelihood and Abdel became a teacher (I presume of the Quran), holding classes for the residents of the village.

In early 2004, he was accused by the Sudanese government of teaching anti-government propaganda, charges that he flatly denies. Soon thereafter, he was abducted at gunpoint, blindfolded and driven several hours away from his village. He found himself in a remote area with other abductees from other villages around Darfur.

Abdel quickly realized that each morning, several of the prisoners were sent out to collect wood, and that upon their return, they were burned at the stake with the very wood they had collected. On the morning that Abdel was to meet the same fate, he proposed to one of the others in his group that they try to escape.

"If they catch us, they will shoot us," he said. "But this is better than being burned." When the whistle was blown, signaling that it was time to return, they hid. And aided by a heavy rain that began to fall, they then began to run.

After hours of running, Abdel and his friend arrived at a village at which they were clothed and fed. It was there that he learned that the Janjaweed had come to his village, killed his older brother and taken all the livestock. Abdel immediately returned to the village to be with his family, and it was while he was there that the entire village was set ablaze.

On the run again, Abdel sought shelter in various locations within Sudan, but realizing that no place in Sudan would be safe, in December of 2004, he crossed the border into Egypt and made his way to Cairo. There he found hundreds of others who had fled Darfur just as he had.

Cairo was not hospitable to the refugees, as they encountered virulent anti-Sudanese prejudice and hostility there. But like others who had arrived from Darfur, he was given a "yellow card" by the U.N. office in charge of refugees, which guaranteed him some degree of protection for a period of six months.

While awaiting further processing of his case, Abdel met and married a fellow Darfur refugee who had also fled to Cairo. Many months passed, and the U.N. refugee office in Cairo had still not addressed the refugees' cases in any meaningful way.

They were stuck in legal limbo, facing a rising level of hostility on the Egyptian street. In December of 2005, frustrated and fearful, Abdel and his new wife joined 1,500 other Sudanese refugees gathered in front of the U.N. headquarters in Cairo to hold a demonstration.

The Egyptian army moved in and violently broke up the demonstration, killing 27, wounding many others and forcing the remainder onto buses that would remove them from the demonstration site. As he was being loaded onto a bus, Abdel saw his wife, apparently hurt, being taken away in a police car.

For days afterward, he searched every hospital, inquiring after her whereabouts. Everywhere he was denied entry or information. After several days, he discovered that she was dead. She had been two months pregnant.

With Egypt clearly providing no future, he began to contemplate where to run next. He decided to try Israel.

"Why Israel?" I asked him. While there were probably several reasons, the ones he gave me were these: "Because I knew from reading the Bible that Jews were commanded to be kind to the stranger. And also, I knew about the Holocaust" (Abdel had read about World War II growing up in Darfur.)

And so he set off to wander in the Sinai Desert in the cold of winter, relying for navigation only on occasional Bedouin assistance and prayers to God. After several days of walking and almost despairing, he finally crossed what was clearly a border. But a border with what?

He thought he might have been in Gaza, Jordan or Israel. When the sun rose, he saw several army Jeeps in pursuit. The moment of truth had arrived. The soldiers began to question the group in Arabic, confirming Abdel's worst fears. He chose to remain silent. Then he heard one of the soldiers speak into a radio in a language that was clearly not Arabic, and he noticed lettering on the soldiers' uniforms that was clearly not Arabic.

"And I knew," Abdel said, "that I was safe."

The soldiers provided the refugees with food and with blankets ("it was very cold"). And then -- like others before them and after them -- they were arrested not merely for having arrived illegally but, ironically, for being illegally arrived citizens from an enemy state. Though Abdel then spent the next year in an Israeli prison, he actually spoke lovingly about the prison guards, even recalling the name of one in particular, Avi, who "was very good to me."

In February 2007, all of the arrivals from Darfur, numbering about 300, were released from prison by order of the Israeli courts. They were placed on various kibbutzim and moshavim to work and live, but whose confines they were not permitted to leave until the government rendered an ultimate decision regarding their status.

Abdel and Ayman were released to this dusty moshav. They seemed very happy with the reception they have received and the opportunity to work and live in Israel and were anticipating fuller freedom soon.

As Abdel's story drew to its close, I was overwhelmed with how surreal this whole encounter was. There I was, a Jew in Israel, listening to a Muslim Sudanese man tell me both a holocaust story and a Passover story, all in one. And incredibly, the name of the moshav where he was now living was Cherev L'et -- "Sword into Ploughshare."

But the situation in Israel has grown far more complicated than is reflected in Abdel's story alone. The release of the prisoners who had come from Darfur sparked a huge wave of new illegal migration from Egypt to Israel. Hundreds began to arrive each month, now including whole families.

Some of these new refugees were from Darfur, but most were from other parts of Sudan or Africa -- "economic refugees" not refugees from genocide per say. On an ad-hoc basis, student groups place the refugees with families in Be'er Sheva and elsewhere and arrange for many of the men to work in hotels in Eilat.

Finally, in July, following the demonstration in front of the Knesset, the government of Israel realized it needed to act. One can easily appreciate how difficult the government's predicament is. How to find a solution that is worthy of the Jewish nation, that is not a betrayal of recent Jewish history and that does not entail losing control over the border? How to honor the memory of our own people who were denied entry while fleeing genocide, while avoiding an untenable situation of unchecked illegal immigration?

No one incident better captured the complexity of this struggle than the one that occurred in early August at the border fence separating Egypt and Israel. An Israeli soldier saw a man running toward the fence with Egyptian soldiers in pursuit, guns drawn.

She reached over the fence and grabbed his arms, pulling him over into Israel. But she was overpowered by the Egyptians, who grabbed the man's legs, pulled him back over and beat him to death.

It's hard to imagine that the Israeli soldier was "supposed to" try pulling the man over. But how could she have pretended not to see?

With each passing day, the attempt to find the proper solution jaggedly carries on. An agreement is reached to return refugees to Egypt, and then 63 members of the Knesset demand that the government reconsider that agreement on humanitarian and Jewish historical grounds.

Abdel is granted permission to leave the moshav and live wherever in Israel he chooses, and a few days later, 50 new arrivals cross the border -- many apparently from Darfur -- and are immediately deported.

And the story is still far from over.

There are so many ways in which the State of Israel is God's gift to our generation. Not the least of these is the opportunity to grapple in a noble way with complicated and vital humanitarian, spiritual and practical issues such as these.

The American Jewish community has an important role to play, as well, in following the story carefully and in expressing our concerns and feelings with our local representatives of the State of Israel.

It is vital that the Jewish people move forward into this complex story with a vision and with goals that are worthy of the name Israel.

Yosef Kanefsky is the rabbi of B'nai David-Judea Congregation, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson area.

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