Refugees and the Jewish Question

My friend and colleague Ben Lynfield forwarded me a news report he wrote a couple of days ago on Prime Minister Olmert’s response to the continued flow of African asylum seekers from Egypt to Israel. In both the foreign and local press, Ben has done his best to make people aware of the refugees’ plight. Several months ago, when I wrote about the obtuseness to Jewish history that Olmert was demonstrating by turning back refugees from Darfur, Ben pointed out to me a flaw in my story: Refugees from elsewhere in the Sudan were fleeing similar dangers, and were equally desperate for asylum.

Since I haven’t seen Ben’s most recent story up yet on the Net, I’ll quote some of it here with his permission:

…Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert suggested … that the army open fire on African refugees crossing into Israel to stem what he depicted as a “tsunami” of asylum seekers threatening the Jewish state’s future

According to Israeli media reports, Mr. Olmert instructed his defense minister, Ehud Barak, yesterday to prevent “at any price” the entry of asylum seekers from Egypt, including by “use of reasonable force.”

Asked if this meant opening fire on the refugees, Mark Regev, a spokesman for Mr. Olmert said “No one wants to see any harm come to anyone, but we can’t have a situation where because the economic situation is Israel is better and because Israel has a land border with Africa you can have a constant flow of people coming in looking for jobs.”

As reported today in Ha’aretz (here, and here), the Sudanese have now been joined by an estimated 2,800 people who have fled from Eritrea, and who face prison, torture or death from a dictatorial regime if they are returned “home.” In Egypt, they face mistreatment or, worse, forced repatriation.

If Olmert believes that the way to preserve Israel’s Jewish character is to turn back refugees fleeing from dictatorships or genocidal conflicts, then the word “Jewish” for him is a mere signifier of ethnocentrism, lacking any historical lessons, which is to say moral lessons. For instance: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” If those words are too abstract, ancient, or religious for him, the prime minister might try take the standard dignitary’s tour of Yad Vashem, slowing down for the part on how Western nations refused entry to Jews trying to escape Germany. A legend on a wall, quoting from an Australian official, reads, “Australia cannot do more… as we have no racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.” He can try replacing the word “Australia” with “Israel” in his mind.

No, I’m not naive. I know that Israel is the only Western country that has a land border with Africa. A country of 7 million cannot rescue everyone.

Nor, however, can it evade responsibility, or shoot people trying to cross the border to freedom. So I repeat the proposal I’ve made before. Olmert should announce he is convening an international conference on the spacious campus of Yad Vashem, where the representatives of the nations will stand to make commitments on how many refugees they will accept. Israel, which now has one-twentieth the population that the United States had in 1939, should agree to one-twentieth the number of Jews we think the US should have accepted then. Mr. Olmert, “Who knows whether you have not achieved your kingly state for this moment?

Postscript: For those who read Hebrew, the Laissez Passer blog, by two Israeli lawyers, provides updates on refugee and immigration issues.