“An infiltrator is subject to five years imprisonment,” reads the government-backed bill that gained initial approval of the Knesset yesterday, by a vote of 21-1*. If the “infiltrator” – someone crossing illegally into Israel – is from an enemy country, the maximum sentence goes up to seven years.
In other words: The law states that if a refugee from Darfur fleeing genocide reaches the State of Israel, he or she can expect not refuge but seven years imprisonment.
Consider yesterday’s vote a preliminary decision to declare that Israel is no longer a Jewish state – for to refuse refuge is to deny the most basic values of Judaism and to erase the lessons of Jewish history. Rather than “The Prevention of Infiltration Act,” this bill should be titled, “Act of Amnesia.”
According to Ha’aretz , the bill has been sent to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, “which does not have experience with migration issues and whose sessions are held in camera.” Before I go further, let me note that the fax number of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is +972 2 6753100 and the email address is firstname.lastname@example.org . The committee chair is Tzahi Hanegbi – fax +972 2 6753100 or email@example.com .
If a Biblical prophet or a sage from the time of the Talmud could be brought back to comment on this bill, his statement would likely begin with the words, “We have become Sodom.” In rabbinic tradition, following the simple meaning of the text of the Torah and Prophets, the city of Sodom stands for a polity that denies help to the poor and the stranger. In Genesis 18, God says he will check whether the “outcry” of Sodom reflects the actions of everyone in the city. As the late Bible scholar Nahum Sarna wrote in his classic Understanding Genesis, explaining the consistent meaning of “outcry” in Biblical Hebrew, the word
…implies, above all, heinous moral and social corruption, an arrogant disregard of elementary human rights, a cynical insensitivity to the sufferings of others.
As virtually all of Jewish tradition reads the story of the visitors who came to Sodom, it’s about a place where you had to act secretly to take in strangers, lest the entire community take mob action against you. The midrash in Pirkei Derabbi Eliezer (ch. 25) was taking very little license when it said that a law was proclaimed in Sodom that “everyone who strengthens the hand of the poor, the needy, the stranger with a loaf of bread will be burned by fire.” Maybe they called that “The Prevention of Infiltration and Poverty Act.”
In Jewish history, nations and kingdoms that gave us refuge are remembered as heroes; those who turned us away are villains. Visit Yad Vashem, and you’ll find a section on how the world refused to accept Jews from Germany. On one wall a quotation from an Australian official appears: “Australia cannot do more… as we have no racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.” Britain – so learns a visitor to the museum – turned a ship carrying Jewish refugees away from Palestine, claiming it might be carrying German agents.
According to the bill in the Knesset, an “infilitrator” may be denied bail if security officials certify that in the region or country from which he comes, “activities are taking place that could endanger the security of Israel or its citizens.” In other words, refugees from Darfur or southern Sudan can be denied bail because of the anti-Israel activities of the Sudanese government – even if the refugee is suffering from the same government.
Let’s stress: Israel has the right to control immigration, and an obligation to its citizens to prevent infiltration by actual terrorists. But those needs must be balanced with humanitarian obligations to refugees and with human rights.
And yes, the refugee issue is a difficult one. This is the only Western country that can be reached overland from Sudan or Eritrea, via the long, easily crossed border with Egypt. We can’t bear the entire burden of saving Africa’s refugees. But our history and our religion obligate us accept part of that burden, and to prod the rest of the developed world to lend a hand and take in refugees who reach Israel.
So I repeat this proposal: Israel should convene an international conference at Yad Vashem, where the representatives of the nations will pushed, prodded and guilt-tripped to stand to make commitments on how many refugees they will accept.
To its great credit, the Diaspora Jewish community has taken a major role in raising the world’s awareness of the genocide in Darfur. The latest act was a call by nearly 200 Jewish leaders for Jewish tourists to boycott the Beijing Olympics, in part because of China’s support for Sudan. Israel, as a sovereign country, can do more: It can exploit its location and its history to take the lead in finding solutions for refugees.
The first step is stopping the Prevention of Infiltration Act in its present form. A wave of faxes, from within Israel and from the Diaspora, could make a difference. The bill was presented to the Knesset by Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai of Labor. His Knesset fax number is +972 2 6408903, email firstname.lastname@example.org . You can find a list of members of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committe here . Click on a member’s name, and you’ll get his or her email address and fax number. Send a letter. While you’re at it, send an email to others who can take action. It’s possible to make a difference.
*Corrected figure, thanks to a reader’s sharp eye.