The jury is still out in Israel

I missed Ismail at synagogue last night.

This intelligent, thoughtful man, a refugee from Darfur – then in Israel for less than 20 days – had joined me the previous Friday night for services. At the end of the service he had spoken to the community. After a slightly nervous start, he told his story to the 300 assembled people: many bullets, three countries, two jail arrests, fear and death. They were dumbstruck to hear what I knew was only a small part of his and his family’s harrowing and dangerous journey, one that had led him to be there that night. At that point, Ismail, his wife and four children (aged 1, 3, 5 and 15) had been living with my family in our Jerusalem home for a week.

That morning, our photo and a detailed story had appeared on the front page of national paper Ha’aretz; what had felt to my family like simply a Jewish, moral, and Zionist thing to do – to help a refugee family – had been portrayed as an act of great exception. It was one of many interviews and a TV appearance.

Then, in the middle of the next week, the family moved to Tel Aviv where Ismail began work at a restaurant. As a computer technician and network administrator – better trained than most of his peers and with excellent English – I doubt it will be long before he moves into his chosen profession. When I visited them the following night to see their rented apartment, he pointed out an empty shop front he had set his eye on, from which he hopes to start repairing computers, as he had done in Cairo. While I miss the intense experience of their company, I am glad they have moved on.

But the stories of Ismail and the 1,400 or so other Sudanese refugees in Israel have only just begun and Israeli society must contend with this new situation. For now, the refugees are being hosted in private homes, living temporarily on kibbutzim, staffing hotels bursting with summer holiday makers and, perhaps surprisingly, in Ketziot – Israel’s high security jail for Palestinian security prisoners. But then what? Nobody knows quite what to do.

Only if we get our arms around this challenge in real-time will we be able to handle this burgeoning crisis in the humane and moral tradition on which our deepest values rest. Before serious mistakes are made and long-lasting regrets created, several leading Israeli nonprofit organizations have created the Coalition for Refugees from Darfur and Sudan to coordinate their direct activities and to prompt the government into action.

Ismail was born in a small village in Darfur, the region where the ‘Fur’ kingdom existed till a hundred years ago (‘Dar’ means Kingdom and ‘Fur’ is the name of the group of African tribes that made up the Kingdom). Over the years, Western intervention was followed by Arab and Islamic efforts to ethnically ‘cleanse’ the area of the Darfurians, who are neither Arab nor Moslem.

Forty years ago, Ismail’s family lived on the family plot growing agricultural produce; in his late teens he went to Khartoum, the capital city, to learn English. It was then that the attacks by the Janjaweed, Sudanese government backed militias, began. This escalated in 2002 with murderous attacks amounting to outright genocide.

Following many atrocities and family tragedies, Ismail and his family fled to Cairo, where they were given refugee status. Initially things were bearable, but the situation of Sudanese Refugees in Cairo became shockingly bad; they have no access to health or education services and were randomly beaten and arrested on the street.

According to Amnesty International, a protest against this situation in 2005 led to some 30 refugees being shot dead by the authorities. Ismail was arrested and jailed. On his release, he realized he had to do something. That led him to recently pay Bedouin smugglers to smuggle the family to the border with Israel and, after short stops in Beersheva and then Jerusalem’s Rose Garden opposite the Knesset, they were the family we decided to host to save their being ‘relocated’ to the Ketziot prison in the Negev desert.

As our family sat around our lounge discussing this decision, we wondered whether the yet-unknown family would be with us forever. We decided that two weeks was our limit. But what if the government hadn’t made any progress? Would we take them back to the Rose Garden and say ‘It was nice, but that’s all we can do?’ It was clear we would not.

The emotional, moral and practical territory we decided to chart was to do every single thing we felt we could do and to trust that our friends, the organizations involved and the government would rise to the challenge so that we would not face that unthinkable situation. By reaching out to our networks and working closely with the organizations, we proved to be right. We feel this is a microcosm of what Israel must do: to do everything it can and rely on the world community to do its part too. If we think ‘all or nothing’, we paralyze ourselves into inaction.

So far, the government has been slow to react. Perhaps fearful of Israel being overrun at the barely-fenced border between Israel and Egypt, the government’s response to date has been to let citizens look after the refugees.

Recently, new arrivals coming over the border have been sent to jail. I visited these refugees in jail last week as part of the Coalition delegation. While the 52 women and children were being looked after relatively well, the 200 men are in the regular prison facility and having a very hard time. But they should not be in jail at all. The government has not decided whether any of the refugees will be given some sort of permanent status in Israel. Some ministers have said the current status quo is just ’till they are all returned’. That makes us very, very concerned.

So while Ismail is managing, he and the other refugees are still in a complete twilight zone. Our coalition is working hard to achieve three goals:

1. Advance Israeli NGO efforts to directly help the 1,400+ Darfur and Sudanese refugees who have entered Israel (and those still coming over the border) receive proper treatment, have their rights protected and find short and long-term solutions for health, housing, work and childcare/education needs.

2. Advocate for the Israeli government to develop policy and take action in a range of short and long-term issues, including but not limited to: establishing facilities and services to help refugees; developing and implementing a border protection policy and a refugee absorption policy; taking part in international efforts to end the violence in Africa and advocate for protection of refugees there. We will develop and advocate for specific policies as needed.

3. Develop an Israeli and international Jewish humanitarian response to the plight of African refugees, including the creation of an Israeli-international Jewish managed facility for 1,000 refugees in a friendly African country partnering with Israeli and Jewish volunteers.

In Israel we are actively seeking volunteers, donations and more organizations to join the coalition. In North America, we seek the involvement of those who wish to help us carry out goal #1, lend their weight to help convince the government to fulfill goal #2, and partner with us to fulfill a basic Jewish responsibility – as the Jewish people – in fulfilling goal #3. We have begun discussions with major American organizations working on this issue.

When asked by a reporter how I rate my government, I said the jury was still out. This could turn into a huge violation of Human Rights and of the 1951 international treaty on refugees, one which Israel not only signed on but was instrumental in creating. This would be a source of heartache and guilt for generations. Or we can rise to the occasion with mindfulness, compassion and resolve. When our children and grandchildren come to us in the future, as they will, and ask ‘What did you do for the Sudanese refugees and to stop the genocide in Africa?’ will we be proud of the story we have to tell?

My own family narrowly escaped from Vienna when, in 1938, the Nazis came over the border into Austria. Months earlier, prior to my grandfather applying for papers to immigrate to Australia, he had sent a letter to long-lost Uncle Borer asking him to make the mandatory declaration of taking responsibility for the family. Little did my grandfather know that when he wrote to Uncle Borer, he actually sent it (not knowing any English) to the Borer and White Ant Extermination Company. The company owner and friends decided to sponsor my grandparents and then 7-year old father out to Australia. They wrote back as if they were Uncle Borer. Till the moment my grandparents and father arrived, they expected to meet Uncle Borer at the wharf.

Today we Jews – in Israel and elsewhere – are challenged to decide. Do we take responsibility for people in desperate need only if they are part of our Jewish family? Or will we break the barriers of psychology, comfort and habit to include others in the human race? We must now embody what we constantly tell ourselves we believe: that all humanity is one family, that to save one life is to save a whole world; that we truly mean it when we say ‘Never again’.

It is here and now. It is not in heaven.

(The author can be reached at


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