Refugee Lives Matter

african refugees

A barely seaworthy boat. Overcrowded with refugees fleeing murderous persecution and genocide. No port willing to take them in. Disaster ensues. Hundreds of innocent people dead. The world is silent.

In December 1941, the MV Struma, carrying Jewish refugees escaping the Holocaust set out from Romania trying to get to Palestine via Istanbul. For over two months, the passengers remained stranded in the Istanbul harbor as the Turkish and British authorities debated what should be done with the refugees. The British did not want them coming to Palestine and the Turks did not want them to stay in Turkey. Unwanted by all, in February 1942, the ship was towed toward the Bosphorus strait where it sank the next day, killing nearly 800 innocent people. The silence of the world was deafening.

Fast-forward nearly seventy-five years to this past weekend. A ship full of refugees fleeing murder and mayhem in Africa and the Middle East, capsized in the Mediterranean, killing as many as 900. The silence of the world is deafening once again.

The government of Israel, on the other hand, spoke up. Israel, a country established by Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors, a country that constantly invokes the Holocaust and has turned the phrase “Never Again” into a national slogan, must say something. And so, following the deaths of nearly 1,000 innocent people, Israel Katz, Israel’s Transportation Minister, proudly wrote on his Facebook page, “Europe is having a difficult time dealing with the migrants, and with creating solutions for this difficult issue… you can see the rectitude of our government’s policy to build a fence on the border with Egypt, which blocks the job-seeking migrants before they enter Israel. The elections are over — you can give us some credit now.”

The State of Israel has lost its moral bearings. The collective trauma of the Holocaust has been internalized, but the lesson learned apparently is that for Israel, only Jewish lives matter. The government displays a callousness regarding other peoples that is decidedly un-Jewish.

For nearly a decade, Israel has been struggling with a wave of refugees fleeing persecution, war and genocide in Africa. What started as a trickle in 2006, today has become nearly 45,000 African asylum seekers in Israel – mostly from Sudan and Eritrea — and the government of Israel does not want them there. To date, no more than a mere handful have been granted refugee status; instead of having a system to evaluate asylum seekers, the government policy is to call them all “infiltrators” or “economic migrants.” This official fiction allows the government to pretend that there are no true refugees in the country, only people who sneak in and try to sponge off of the system in search of better lives. This is simply not true. According to the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, in other countries where there are large populations of Eritreans and Sudanese, nearly 85% of Eritreans and 75% of Sudanese are legitimate refugees. It stands to reason that Israel’s African migrants would be no different.

Yet instead of integrating them and giving them the rights that all refugees are entitled to under international law, Israel continues to look for ways to get them to leave the country. Most recently, the government announced that it would begin to “voluntarily” send its African refugees to still unnamed third countries, likely Rwanda and Uganda. Those who refuse to leave the country voluntarily will be sent to the Saharonim detention center. Just a few days ago, the Islamic State executed three asylum seekers in Libya who had been in Israel. The State of Israel failed these human beings and should be ashamed.
The American Jewish community must not follow Israel’s leadership in its indifference to African asylum seekers. Instead of arguing about whether FDR did enough to rescue the Jews of Europe while there was still a chance to save them or if Churchill should have bombed the rail lines to Auschwitz, we should focus on the lives that can still be saved today. That is how we can honor the memory of those Jews who died trying to escape Europe in 1942, as well as those who died trying to get into Europe in 2015.

All human lives matter. As a people who lost so many because of the indifference of the world, we have an obligation to make our voices heard. We must do better to prevent the senseless deaths of innocent people everywhere.

Originally posted on The Times of Israel on April 22nd, 2015


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