Israel and the African refugees

Israel and the African refugees

Debate rages over asylum policy, politics, and lessons from the Shoah

A petition circulated and signed by leading scholars of the Shoah calls on the world community to take responsibility for the estimated 60,000 African refugees who entered Israel in recent years.

“We hope Israel will play an appropriate role in such an effort, alongside other nations that are committed to doing their fair share,” says the petition, whose signatories include three local rabbis.

The petition, however, is being criticized by some of those who have been advocating on behalf of the refugees in Israel, saying it whitewashes the Jewish state for its failure to follow United Nations procedures concerning refugees, as well as for the anti-immigrant fervor whipped up by politicians beginning last spring and continuing through this election season. (Israel is to hold national elections in a little over two weeks.)

Last week, it was reported that a 21-year-old Jewish man accused of throwing eight firebombs last April at four private homes of Africans and the yard of a kindergarten where African children were sleeping was offered a plea bargain by prosecutors that would entail six months of community service, but no prison time. No one was hurt in those attacks.

The lead force behind the petition is Rafael Medoff, director of the David Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington. Medoff said that the petition emerged from conversations with another Shoah scholar, Yehuda Bauer of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

After debating the question of United States complicity in the Shoah in Israeli newspapers, the two sought common ground, Medoff said in an interview this week.

“Historians need to not only study history, but have an obligation to try to make this world a better place,” he said. “We had both expressed concern about the plight of the African refugees. Discussing the issue, we found we agreed that this is a world problem, a problem not just for Israel, and there should be a world solution.

“It’s not fair that Israel should be expected to shoulder the lion’s share of the solution to this problem, because every country in the world has the same moral responsibility to help the oppressed when they can,” Medoff continued.

“For the international community to expect Israel to take in all these refugees and then accuse Israel of racism if it doesn’t is simply unfair. The Israelis have been doing more than their fair share, by contrast with Egypt, whose border police have been shooting at many of these refugees.”

Rabbi Ronald Roth of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center is among the local rabbis who signed Medoff’s petition.

“Israel isn’t given credit for what it is trying to do,” he said. “It’s an astonishing historical turnaround that people are literally dying to get into Israel to be safe. Other people who are persecuted around the world are finding Israel to be a refuge.”

Other area signatories include Rabbi Arthur Weiner of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus and Rabbi Eugene Korn, who lives in Bergenfield and is the U.S. director of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation.

A petition circulated a few months ago condemning the Israeli government’s policy of “deterring asylum seekers” as “inhumane and unjust” attracted a different set of local rabbinic signers: Rabbi Michael Chernick, a professor at the Hebrew Union College ““ Jewish Institute for Religion, and Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, who works for Clal: The Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership. Both live in Teaneck.

Medoff’s and Bauer’s petition looks back to the 1938 Evian Conference, where representatives from 32 countries met to discuss the plight of Jews living under Nazi rule, but refused to take in any refugees, as well as a 1979 conference, also in Evian, that was more successful in resettling refugees from Indochina.

The petition urges the international community to address the crisis of African refugees “in the spirit of the appeal made by U.S. Vice President Walter F. Mondale at the United Nations Conference on Indochinese Refugees, held in Evian, France, in 1979. He said the countries attending the infamous 1938 Evian conference ‘failed the test of civilization’ by refusing to help Europe’s Jewish refugees, and he urged the 1979 attendees to cooperate in resolving the crisis of ‘boat people’ fleeing Indochina: ‘We face a world problem. Let us fashion a world solution.’ Those words moved governments to act. Hundreds of thousands of lives were saved.”

Those who have been advocating on behalf of the refugees, however, and particularly in the wake of increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric and violence from right-wing Israeli politicians, slam the petition as a whitewash of Israel’s moral failures in responding to the refugee situation.

“It’s the total abdication of Jewish moral responsibility and proof positive that the Jewish people have learned nothing from the Shoah other than how to cynically invoke it when expedient,” said refugee advocate Daniel Sieradski, a New Milford native who now lives in Syracuse. Last spring, Sieradski drafted his own petition condemning the Israeli government’s policies, as well as the silence of Jewish organizations in the United States, which generally strongly support accepting refugees and legalizing immigration when it comes to these shores.

“These Holocaust scholars completely ignore Israel’s brutal treatment of and racist incitement against African asylum seekers, instead lavishing praise upon Israel, which has built internment camps for asylum seekers,” he said.

Sierdaski continued, “Rather than offering any words of criticism to Israel for its outrageous and inexcusable behavior…, it lays the blame at the doorstep of humanity, saying it is the world’s problem to solve, not Israel’s. While there’s an inkling of truth to that, the fact [is] that Likud is currently campaigning on expelling African asylum seekers, and the fact [is] that these Holocaust scholars have remained entirely mum in the face of that reality,” Sieradski said, adding that he was distressed by such an approach.

Said Medoff, “The majority of the people fleeing Africa are not fleeing religious or ethnic persecution. The majority are fleeing destitution, poverty, and civil war. The large majority are not fleeing genocide in Darfur – that’s a minority.

“Beyond that, Israel’s response is not at all similar to the world turning away the Jews aboard the St. Louis” who had received permission to exit Nazi Germany, but were turned away by the United States and others. “Israel has been accepting them for years. It’s only when the numbers became so large as to be unmanageable that the Israeli public began to express concern,” he said.

In 2011, the United States admitted 56,384 refugees. On a per capita basis, Israel would have to admit 1,000 refugees a year to match the United States. Instead, it admitted more than 50,000 Africans into Israel over the past several years, meaning that it well ahead of the United States per capita in admitting refugees from distressed lands.

Advocates for the Africans in Israel, however, say that Israel has failed its legal – and moral – obligations by not actually determining whether the Africans are deserving of asylum. Instead, said David Sheen, a Canadian-born Israeli journalist who publishes extensively on the topic, while the Africans have been allowed into Israel, it is not as refugees. Without refugee status, they are not allowed to work or to receive other privileges due refugees under international agreements of which Israel is a signatory, Sheen said.

In countries where emigrants from Eritrea, Sudan, and South Sudan are formally evaluated to see whether they qualify as refugees with a reasonable fear of persecution, Sheen noted, “90 percent receive refugee status.”

Sheen said that while the petition praises Israel for its acceptance of refugees, in its history, Israel “has taken in less than 200 non-Jewish refugees.”

The issue is part of the Israeli national election campaign. Just this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “All tens of thousands of infiltrators from Africa will be returned to their country or other countries.”

Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu party is competing with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, as well as smaller far-right parties, for the anti-African vote. The Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronoth quoted sources in Shas as saying the anti-African vote could be worth as much as three seats in the elections later this month. The Sephardi-oriented religious party prepared – but did not publicly air – a five-minute video scapegoating refugees for crime and housing shortages, with the claim that only the party, one of whose three leaders, Eli Yishai, heads the Interior Ministry and has been one of the leading anti-refugee voices, can battle the “demographic threat” posed by the Africans.

Against this background, Sheen called Medoff’s petition “preposterous.”

“The government of Israel has signified with its words and actions that it intends not only to reduce the amount of non-Jewish African asylum seekers coming to the country; it also intends to deplete the country of those people who are living here currently,” he said.

At the same time, he added, a report from the Knesset Research Institute “said that all of the countries around here are accepting refugees to various degrees. How many Syrian refugees has Jordan taken in so far?

“Eighty percent of the refugees in the world are taken in by other third world countries. The poorest countries in the world are taking in way more than the lion’s share of refugees. This government doesn’t want to take any.”

Leonard Grob, professor emeritus at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, is among those who signed the Evian Declaration. Grob, who still teaches one course a year at FDU, used to direct the university’s Holocaust center. He said that while it is appropriate for the nations of the world to take in the African refugees, Israel too “must heed the lessons we have learned from the Holocaust.

“Israel must do its best to provide a refuge for those who are attempting to escape from situations in which their lives are in danger.”

Grob said he disagreed with the Israeli government’s plan for the refugees.

“I realize that Israel can’t absorb every immigrant who comes across the border. But I think Israel as a country has to come to grips with different people, to welcome the stranger. It is a duty of the Jewish people, given the history of the Shoah when doors were closed throughout the world,” Grob said.

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