“For You Were Slaves…” Remember?

Gershom Gorenberg

I have a new article up at the Hadassah Magazine site on African refugees in Israel:

When he was 13, Akon told us, the government-backed militia came to his village in southern Sudan.

“They started killing people and burning their houses,” Akon said, speaking so quietly that I had to lean over our coffee cups to hear his voice amid the music in the Jerusalem café. “They killed my mother. My sister, they raped her, and she died.” The militiamen took Akon to northern Sudan, where they sold him as a slave.

So began the nine-year odyssey that brought him to Jerusalem.

Looking across the table, I saw lines in a dark face. He looked much older than 22 years. The family that bought him, he said, put him to work taking care of their cattle and camels. He was the first to rise each day, the last to sleep. He was beaten and insulted. Because he would not convert from Christianity to Islam, he said, “I was a devil in their eyes.”

Slavery was something I had read about in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and history textbooks. Now a former slave sat across from me. I thought of inviting him to my Pesah Seder, then wondered what he would think of the words. My son, who had come with me, is almost Akon’s age. Afterward he said he felt as if he had listened to testimony from the Holocaust, without the distance of decades to soften it.

Eventually Akon was bought and freed by a Christian aid group. He tried returning to his village in the south, but it was cut off by civil war. So he traveled to Khartoum, then fled onward to Egypt, where he joined the refugee community in Cairo. Telling his story, he mentions his activism among the south Sudanese. Repeatedly he was arrested. In prison, the Egyptian authorities let Sudanese intelligence agents question and torture him.

He feared that if he were arrested again, he would be sent back to northern Sudan and “be disappeared.” He and a friend decided to escape to Israel. The friend’s mother sold jewelry to pay the Bedouin smugglers who guided them on foot from El-Arish across the Sinai Desert. When they crossed the border into Israel one night in June 2006, they were found by an Israel Defense Forces patrol and sent to Ketziot prison in the Negev. Under Israeli law, they were told, they had come from an enemy country. “We explained that we are not enemies to Israel,” he said, and that “after the Jews were in genocide, in Sudan the government is committing genocide.”

Read the rest here, and come back to South Jerusalem to comment.

3 thoughts on ““For You Were Slaves…” Remember?”

  1. “as a Jewish state, Israel is also unique: It has a collective memory of what it means to be homeless, to be refused safety. The dispossessed crossing Israel’s border, I would suggest, are inviting us to take world leadership on the issue of African refugees.”

    Can Memory be so generalized? Can it be born? A courageous stand, you have made. The conference you propose would also break the barrior of what Israel is perceived to be on other fronts. Keep saying, keep saying.

  2. I feel torn by the issue of whether Israel should accept a large number of African refugees – on, the one hand I totally agree that it would be in keeping with Jewish ethics and morally the right thing to do. On the other hand, it makes me uncomfortable to think that there are so many Palestinians who demand the right of return. Obviously that’s another issue in its own right, and in some ways a lot more problematic because it could much more easily compromise Israel’s safety to accept these refugees. But given the historic ties of Palestinians to this land, a part of me finds the idea very disturbing that if Israel is to accept a non-Jewish refugee population, it should be Africans and not Palestinians.

  3. May I suggest this as a right of return: any Palestinian (however one ends up defining that) can enter Israel proper, with claim to citizenship, if they can purchase a bona fide residence, freely sold by an Israeli citizen, where they domicle for one full, continuous, year. This is economically skewed horribly, and would produce only a trickle. Yet it would break the deadlock, and a trickle could be tolerable. It would also place the pivot of return on individual Israelis who, once selling, would expect the protection of the State for their sale and well being. One could include a security check.

    It could also be done unilaterally, without a peace agreement. True return is demographcially impossible, I suspect. This would capture something of the greivance while avoiding the stymieing impossibility. If done outside of a peace accord, it might engender some good will on the Palestinian negotiation side while avoiding a charge of (true) gross unfairness. As long as other methods of return are not precluded through this initiative, it could be a beginning, of sorts.

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