Blockbuster Scoop

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Among the issues recently dominating the front pages of Israeli newspapers are the tortured negotiations to form a coalition that will govern the country while the growing riots and demonstrations on the West Bank might be the opening salvos of a new intifada as hope for freedom among Palestinians dwindles to zero.  These daily stories appear against the backdrop of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strikes, a recently arrested Palestinian who died while undergoing interrogation by the Shin Bet (amidst allegations of torture), more threats about Iran, Israeli forces on the move in the Negev demolishing Bedouin homes, and the racially-motivated beatings of Arabs by violent mobs on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the aftermath of Purim festivities, events that are no longer aberrations.

One item that caught my attention was a controversy around the pending deportation of 25 African refugees back to Eritrea. Eritrea is one of the most oppressive regimes in the world where there is a universal, lifelong conscription of young men into the army. Draft dodgers are severely punished with torture and often death. Their plight reminds me of the multitudes of Jewish men who fled Czarist Russia back in the 1800’s which is why many found their way to America and some even to Palestine at the time.

Needless to say, these Africans have not found a warm welcome in Israel as I have written about repeatedly. The new law passed last year criminalizes these asylum seekers with an automatic three-year prison sentence with unlimited extensions. There is no trial or appeal. Apparently these 25 refugees opted for “voluntary repatriation” when faced with the threat of indefinite imprisonment. Human rights groups were up in arms over the pressure brought to bear on these helpless people who would face a guaranteed brutal reception when they landed in Eritrea.  So this controversy was simmering in the background of all the other news.

But then the blockbuster story appeared yesterday. Splashed across the front pages of the Haaretz newspaper was the scoop that Israel has already “voluntarily deported” 1,000 asylum seekers back to Sudan. Many of these refugees fled genocide in Darfur and more recently from the Nuba Mountain region where the government has conducted a brutal campaign against the civilian population including aerial bombings, the destruction of entire villages, mass arrests of thousands, and a government initiated famine. (Click here and here for articles written last year by Nikolas Kristof in The New York Times about this genocidal war).

This deportation is a blatant violation of the UN Refugee Convention that Israel helped develop in the 1950’s in the aftermath of the Holocaust. As the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) representative stated, “…deporting Sudanese to Sudan would be the gravest violation possible of the convention that Israel has signed – a crime never before committed.” Although Israel claims the deportations were voluntary, the UNHCR stated there is no “freewill from inside a prison.”

Sudanese officials have consistently warned that it is a serious crime for any citizen to go to Israel and offenders would be punished. Let’s remember these people were already fleeing slaughter.

Trying to defend itself, Israel states that it is not deporting the refugees directly to Sudan but, by prior arrangement, they are being deported to a third country that, in turn, deports them to Sudan – as if this strategy will not quickly be discovered by the Sudanese authorities.

One Israeli human rights activist, Reut Michaeli, summed up this stunning news perfectly.

“The ease with which the State of Israel is willing to force people to return to a place where their lives are in danger…shows that we have become a society that sanctifies Jewish demography and gives it priority over humanistic Jewish values.

[Sudanese] who hear from [Israeli] government representatives that the law enables them to be held in prison forever without trial, and without their being able to apply for refugee status, despair. They are even willing to endanger their lives to gain a slim chance of freedom.”

Israeli officialdom has been mum about this development. Silence reigns from Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. Except that we know Netanyahu’s attitude given his government’s long record of incitement against the refugees.  Just a few weeks ago, in a Jerusalem speech to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, he repeatedly labeled all African asylum seekers in Israel “illegal job immigrants.” This while his government was sending 1,000 people back to their probable imprisonment and death in Sudan.  And, of course, those paragons of virtue in the audience gave him adulatory ovations, having forgotten they owed their own freedom to their ancestors who fled to America to escape similar bloody persecution or genocide.

ASSAF, the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, issued the following statement in Tel Aviv, “In deporting [people] to Sudan, Israel has crossed a red line and is not only violating its most basic obligation under international law, but demonstrating cruelty, hard-heartedness and indifference to the fate of human beings.”

A Man, a Woman, and a Baby

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From Maimonides:

Our sages commanded us to visit the non-Jewish sick and to bury the non-Jewish dead along with the Jewish dead, and support the non-Jewish poor along with the Jewish poor for the sake of peace. As it says, “God is good to all and God’s mercies extend over all God’s works” (Psalms 145:9), and “[The Torah’s] ways are pleasant and all its paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:17). —Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 10:12

Our beat-up car weaved around potholes in the dusty road. We were in what’s known as “Shchunat Ha’argazim,” a neighborhood named after the wooden shipping crates used long ago by poor immigrants for housing in this neglected corner of Tel Aviv. The houses aren’t shipping crates anymore but most aren’t much better; crumbling stone structures and metal huts. It’s hard to believe that this dilapidated enclave is within sight of the sleek office towers and glass-enclosed condos that make up so much of the city’s skyline.

My companion, Gideon, turned onto a dirt drive and parked next to a corrugated metal wall broken up by a row of prison-like steel doors. As we got out of the car, a big white dog ran up to us, barking furiously, protecting his territory. With the angry dog close on our heels, we carefully made our way to one of the heavy doors and knocked. We waited. The door opened tentatively: a small, young black woman holding a baby. She broke into a huge smile when she saw Gideon.

I followed as Gideon briskly walked through a covered courtyard hung with laundry, a two-burner gas stove resting on a rickety table, and entered the apartment, a single room jammed with beds, a sink and tiny counter in the corner. A man who had been lying down got up to give Gideon a hug, then Gideon turned to the baby in the woman’s arms, cooing and tickling its chubby little belly. Though I’d been warned, I was still stunned by the man’s appearance. His body was covered in thick brown scar tissue. His legs were raw, with what looked like open wounds.

This mother and father are African refugees from Eritrea whose Jerusalem apartment was firebombed seven months ago as part of a wave of violence directed at refugees, one outcome of an incitement campaign spearheaded by leading politicians. Attacked with Molotov cocktails, the mother, Marvit, pregnant at the time, and the father, Tsagai, a soft-spoken man who worked in construction, became human torches, suffering third degree burns over much of their bodies. After the conflagration they were left with nothing—impoverished, their minimal belongings destroyed, homeless, critically injured and in grave pain, with few sources of help. When Gideon heard the news of the bombing on the radio, he drove from Tel Aviv to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem to offer help. He subsequently found them housing in Tel Aviv and continues to find ways to pay their rent, ferries them to doctor visits, and is their steady source of food and moral support.

Now, returning to Israel after a half-year absence, I had come with Gideon to meet them in their tiny one-room apartment. Tsagai, in chronic pain, is unable to work. Marvit, who gave birth to a healthy baby boy four months ago when she was recuperating, was not injured as badly as her husband but her arms and legs are a patchwork of scars.

The African refugee situation in Israel is complicated but there are more humane policies and strategies the government could have chosen to pursue. Nevertheless, as I wrote in a blog post last year, these people who have fled genocide, war, rape and torture, have been demonized in the same way that Jews were for centuries. Senior ministers in the government and Knesset members have engaged in a campaign, unprecedented in its ferocity, calling these asylum seekers a “cancer,” a “national plague,” “rapists,” and an “existential threat” to the nation. As one appalled commentator wrote, “A reviled, powerless minority discussed in the language of war and disease. Where have my Jewish ears heard this before?”

The perpetrators of the attack on Marvit and Tsagi have never been caught. Even if they were, it is doubtful that they would have been prosecuted. Recently, the person arrested for throwing a Molotov cocktail at a Palestinian car last year, severely burning an entire family with children, was released without charges. The same goes for the perpetrators of “Price Tag” attacks throughout the West Bank, and the Jewish settlers who routinely attack Palestinians. Few are arrested or prosecuted.

But back to Gideon. He is an Israeli who believes the Jewish state should be different, that we have a moral mandate to help those in need. He spends much of each day collecting food and bringing it to shelters and the homeless, especially populations the rest of society shuns.

Gideon’s activities are supported by the Good People Fund which raises money to finance the work of people like him in Israel and the USA. The fund helps these “good people” in their work of Tikun Olam, repairing the world as they seek out those in need, feeding the poor, and relieving suffering. Typically, they run small non-profits that operate under-the-radar with just volunteers or very small staffs.

Gideon’s next objective is to raise the $625 monthly rent that will be needed over the next year for Marvit and Tzagai ($7,500 in total). Until now, the rent has been paid by the Good People Fund and by ASSAF, an organization that provides counseling and asylum assistance to African refugees. But existing funds are running out and Gideon does not know where he will find February’s rent – and the rent after that.

Although my blog is usually political in nature, sometimes I encounter situations that cry out for attention. This is one of those. I hope readers can help by making a donation on the Good People Fund website. You can designate your gift for a special purpose (Gideon’s work, African refugees, hunger, etc.) or you can make a general donation for the fund to distribute where the need is greatest. Marvit and Tsagai’s family is not the only dire situation that the fund hears about. Much of its work is directed at helping individuals or families who have their own uniquely distressing circumstances.

Please forward the link to this blog post to others who might be interested in helping.

This column was previously published on The Times of Israel.

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