Israel's Other Refugee Problem
by Daniel Kieval
On Monday night, a few days after thousands marched for human rights in Tel Aviv, Israel deported about 150 refugees back to their country of origin, Sudan. Israel has said that all of the people involved are leaving voluntarily, that it has ensured they will be returning to a safe environment, and that it is providing each family with $500 to help them readjust to life in Sudan. Still, the action is likely to draw criticism from human rights advocates, especially coming just two weeks after the government announced plans for a new detention center for illegal border-crossers in southern Israel. It is the latest event in a saga that is now several years old, in which Israel has struggled with the economic and social consequences of accepting Sudanese refugees and the ethical consequences of not accepting them.
Over 2 million Sudanese have fled north to Egypt since the genocide in Darfur began in 2003. Even there, however, many have faced harsh conditions, discrimination, and violence from Egyptian citizens and authorities, leading thousands to seek asylum a second time in Israel. While Israel has accepted some refugees (about 1,200 Darfuris currently live in Israel, according to the Jewish Virtual Library), many others have been deported, detained, or chased back across the border where they are shot or arrested by Egyptian border police.
Israel has many good reasons to be strict about whom it allows over its borders. The Darfur refugees are only a portion of the thousands of African migrants who try to enter Israel, many for economic reasons. As in any country, and especially in such a small one already full of demographic tensions, immigration can put stress on economic, social, and political systems if not handled carefully and systematically. Moreover, Israel certainly seems justified in arguing that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which is officially responsible for supporting refugees and finding them a permanent home, should do more to resolve the issue rather than leaving it to Israel, especially since other countries have repeatedly rejected Israel’s requests to take in some of the refugees. Add to this list the importance of Israel’s borders for national security and the fact that Sudan is officially classified as an “enemy state” because it harbors terrorists, and Israel seems to have plenty of reasonable justification for its strictness toward the refugees.
Yet for many, these justifications do not override the moral imperative to help Darfur’s victims. A country whose very founding was meant, in part, to provide a safe haven for victims of genocide and whose Law of Return permanently engraves its status as such a haven for anyone with a Jewish ancestor might do well to remember its foundational principles in a situation like this one. It is true that Israel only finds itself in this situation because several other parties have not tried hard enough to mitigate it—the UNHCR, Egypt, and other nearby countries, to say nothing of Sudan itself. It may also be true that managing the refugees would be very difficult for Israel (when is a refugee situation easy?).
Perhaps, though, it is precisely because no one else seems willing to that Israel should step into the role of safe haven for Darfur’s victims. To truly be a Jewish state, Israel must embody Jewish values even when they run counter to international trends. In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) it is written, “In a place with no worthy persons, strive to be a worthy person.” As the state of a people who have spent more than their fair share of time as refugees in search of a haven, Israel has even more reason to be that “worthy person.”