Refuge or Refusal: Israel and Darfur

“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 . The committee chair is Tzahi Hanegbi – fax +972 2 6753100 or .

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 . 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.

12 thoughts on “Refuge or Refusal: Israel and Darfur”

  1. Did the 20-1 (Ha’aretz says 21-1) vote happen in the committee or in plenum? If the latter, what do I make of the fact that only 21-22 MKs could be bothered to vote at all?

    The drafters of this atrocity have not only forgotten how European Jews were rejected by most of the world in the 1940s (a rejection that was cynically encouraged by Zionists at the time) but also that those who came to Mandate Palestine then were themselves illegal immigrants, and a point could even be made of Britain having been an “enemy state” in this regard.

  2. Thanks for posting this. I wonder whether there is anything we in North America can do on this issue.

    The American Jewish community is all up in arms about the genocide in Darfur, because we can’t come to consensus about the Palestinians. What are the perpetual apologists for Israeli policy in our community going to do if Israel takes such a wrong-headed course on Sudanese refugees? Can we pretend this doesn’t matter?

    Or is it so hypocritical for anyone who lives in the US to worry about how another country treats refugees that my head should be exploding from it?

  3. We can do what is in our hands, which at the very least is contacting Israeli Knesset members. Just because the U.S. isn’t pure on this issue (or any issue) doesn’t mean that we can’t strive to affect Israel’s actions.

    I do not agree that the U.S. Jewish community is up in arms about Darfur “because we can’t come to consensus about the Palestinians.” I am up in arms, at least, because the genocide in Darfur (and especially world inaction) reminds me of how the world stood idly by when hundreds of thousands of people were massacred in Rwanda and Bosnia, and before that in Cambodia, Biafra, and yes during the Holocaust. For me knowledge of what was done to Jews has made me pay more attention when other peoples are victimized.

  4. As a American Christian I am appalled at the lack of action by our mainstream denominations and I for one think the lack of any meaningful outrage is racially based.I must commend Steven Spielberg for telling the Chinese where to stick the request that he oversee the”games” presentations and artistic involvement.If this “infiltration”program goes into effect Israel will forfeit their historical stand that they are “safe haven” for those seeking asylum from genocide .This act brings back sad memories of the “Ship of Fools”

  5. My feeling is that Israel must initiate comprehensive immigration reform, but in order for any such initiative to succeed, it must acknowledge and address the decades-long Palestinian refugee crisis. As Gershon Gorenberg says, “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.”

  6. While the Israeli government makes up its mind about what to do with the influx of African refugees, Israel’s citizens are doing their best help those who have found refuge here:

    PS A lot of the Sudanese spent a few years in Egypt before coming to Israel where many have stories as chilling as those from their homeland…

  7. I have a friend whose work is to process refugees from Sudan. He tells me about the heartbreaking story of death, escape, starvation, desperation, fear. They seek asylum in the one country that can truely appreciate their plight. Unfortunately upon deeper questioning many are found to be lying and admit that they are here for purely economic reasons and are taking advantage of porous borders and open hearts.

  8. “Unfortunately upon deeper questioning many are found to be lying and admit that they are here for purely economic reasons and are taking advantage of porous borders and open hearts.”

    A guy I spoke to from the UN said that that may well be the case for some of the Eritreans now arriving in Israel.

    I pity the plight of the Sudanese although part of the reason they end up in Israel in particular are: its porous borders + better conditions here than with their ‘brethren’ in Egypt

  9. “Unfortunately upon deeper questioning many are found to be lying and admit that they are here for purely economic reasons and are taking advantage of porous borders and open hearts.”

    This is why the latest Israeli government-backed proposed law is problematic! It does not create a system where asylum seekers can be questioned and inspected to check if they are refugees, in which case they have the right to asylum, or migrant workers, in which case they do not have this right.

    The bill assumes that all should be immediately deported or imprisoned. The defense is that some are not refugees, ignoring the fact that surely many are. UNHCR does not have the resources to efficiently check all, and the Israeli government refused to put aside a budget to address the increase in refugees and/or migrant workers entering Israel.

    The Geneva Convention for the Protection of Refugees of 1951 does not require countries take all who claim to be refugees. It demands that countries give all the opportunity to prove that they are refugees, through vigorous questioning, and to not deport those who are proven refugees.

    This is the argument that human rights groups in Israel are making, and the reason we so object to the government “Vilnai Law” proposed by the government and supported by MK Vilnai and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

  10. This week (June 2009), Knesset voted overwhelmingly (50+ against 1) to allow the bill to go through the second and third vote consecutively, without any discussion period. It will pass if there is not a massive campaign to stop it. The new version would imprison and deport refugees, and also imprison volunteers who assist them in Israel.

    We are collected signatures from organizations. Below is an introduction followed by a petition:



    Humanitarian and human rights organizations, youth groups, and civic groups throughout Israel and abroad ask the Israeli public and members of the Knesset to oppose the Infiltration Prevention Law. While the bill will be discussed in the Committee of the Interior and Environment, it will soon be voted on in a consecutive second and third vote, without a discussion period between votes, as is standard with most bills. We understand that every organization invests its time and energy in promoting its own particular, important causes. However, because the bill is inherently anti-democratic, goes against basic Jewish values, and opposes the principles by which the state of Israel was founded, we ask that organizations take some time to reach an agreement to sign this petition to prevent passage of this bill.

    If this law is passed and enforced, countless refugees—including survivors of genocide, rape, and other crimes against humanity on the part of governments and private militias—will be deported back to areas where they are likely to be imprisoned, tortured and killed because of their ethnicity, religion, political views, and/or gender. Others may be imprisoned in Israel for up to 20 years. This bill makes no distinction between those who are innocent refugees escaping for their lives, on the one hand, and terrorists and those who seek to compromise Israel’s security, on the other. Volunteers in Israel, including volunteers from abroad who come to assist refugees, may also find themselves behind bars, as the law’s punishment for any who assist “infiltrators” is identical to the punishment given to refugees.

    This petition will be presented to the Minister of Defense whose office initiated the Infiltration Prevention Bill and who is appointed for its enforcement. Our hope is that representatives of your organizations will support this petition and sign it in order to assist us in preventing the passage of this bill, in order to uphold our judicial and moral obligations to the state and its democratic and Jewish values.

    If your organization would like to be a signatory of the petition below, please send the organizational representative’s name, position, telephone number and e-mail to:


    The state of Israel is one of the 147 nations in the world that is a member of the Geneva Convention for the Protection of Refugees of 1951. In light of the Holocaust, Israel saw great importance in being involved in the wording and adoption of this convention, and Israel is a member until this day. Israel even signed the Protocol of the refugee convention of 1967, and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984), which includes the deportation of asylum seekers.

    Even though Israel signed these international conventions, and even though the right to request asylum in Israel was established since 1948, there has yet to be a legal process established in Israel that recognizes the status of asylum seekers in Israel. The rights of asylum seekers are currently inconsistently given and taken away by clerks of government offices. A bill to establish a process for receiving recognition and rights for asylum seekers was rejected by the Knesset in a preliminary vote in 2008, while the government of Israel was attempting to pass other bills that directly contradict the international agreement and conventions that the State of Israel has signed.

    The Infiltration Prevention bill directly goes against basic principles of protection and care for asylum seekers. If this law is passed and enforced, many refugees—who have escaped genocide, rape, and other crimes against humanity at the hands of governments and private militias—will be deported, likely to their deaths, because of their ethnicity, religion, political views, and/or gender.

    Volunteers and representatives of organizations that give as much as a glass of water to a thirsty refugee may, if this law passes, find themselves “guilty of assisting infiltrators” and face years in prison, as the law’s punishment for any who assist “infiltrators” is identical to the punishment given to refugees.

    Even today, the Ministry of Defense and Israel Defense Forces are enforcing some of the clauses of Infiltration Prevention Law in a policy entitled “Coordinated Return Procedure.” The asylum seeker victims of this procedure, if they survive it, are imprisoned in Egyptian prisons or in camps in Eritrea and Sudan. Since August 2008, this policy has been enforced in the Egyptian border. Some of the refugees, who survived crossing the Egypt-Israeli border, where Egyptian soldiers regularly open fire on refugees, were blindfolded by Israeli border patrol and forcibly returned to Egypt and into the hands of Egyptian soldiers. Reports from human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, found that many who are deported by Israel to Egypt are deported by Egyptian authorities back to their country of origin, blatantly going against the principle forbidding the deportation of a person to a country where he is likely to suffer from persecution. Others have disappeared within Egyptian prisons and denied access to a representative from the United National High Commissioner for Refugees.

    We, civic organizations in Israel and abroad, call on the Minister of Defense to withdraw this bill and we call on all Members of Knesset to vote against this bill and to do everything in their power to ensure it does not pass.
    At the same time, we call on the government of Israel to differentiate between infiltrators who threaten the security of the state, and those who have fled to Israel for protection from persecution that is no fault of their own. We call on the government to establish a policy that applies her judicial and moral responsibilities as outlined in the Geneva Convention for the Protection of Refugees—responsibilities that reflect the State of Israel’s value for human rights, and the basic Jewish and democratic values upon which the state was founded.

    Name of the organization:______________________________
    Name or Organization’s representative: ____________________________
    Number of members/volunteers in the organization:___________________________
    Position in the organization:_____________________________
    Phone Number__________________________________

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