August 23, 2007
Israel’s Darfur refugees require worthy action
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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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