Imagine, if you will, a Jewish state founded as a refuge and last resort, which one day declares the act of seeking refuge a felony.
Imagine, if you can, a law that would allow the expulsion, without any judicial process, of refugees so desperate to reach that state, that they would hazard their very lives and those of their children to do so. Imagine, impossible as it may be, that a Jewish state that is home to hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors, could decide not only to imprison African refugees for five years, but to make those fleeing genocide in Sudan subject to prison sentences of at least seven years.
Such are the outlines of a bill that has already sailed through a preliminary Knesset vote. So callous is the language of the bill, so cruel its provisions toward Africans now fleeing a host of dangers, that the Prevention of Infiltration Act of 2008 may be said to constitute a whole new form of Holocaust denial. It is a denial grounded in the belief of many Israeli Jews that we are so well versed in the lessons of the Holocaust - and so often ingenuously compared to the Nazis - that we are incapable of treating others the way the wartime world acted toward its doomed Jews.
For decades, Israeli leaders, frightened of opening a Pandora's box holding millions of Palestinian refugees, ducked and deferred policymaking on the larger issues of non-Jewish refugee asylum. They allowed temporary "emergency regulations" on "infiltrators" to remain on the books as the sole legislation on the subject since they were enacted 54 years ago. Officialdom did its best to shy away from the Darfur and wider African refugee problem as well, until the influx of asylum seekers proved too massive to ignore.
The risks of inaction regarding African refugees in Israel, and the moral shadow of the world's response to the Holocaust, have been evident for some time. As early as 2006, Yad Vashem chair Avner Shalev urged Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to take decisive action on behalf of those fleeing mass killings and unimaginable horrors. "As members of the Jewish people, for whom the memory of the Holocaust burns," Shalev wrote at the time, "we cannot stand by as refugees from the genocide in Darfur hammer on our doors."
What was needed, then as now, was creativity and compassion in fashioning a policy that, in the words of Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai (Labor), would strike a balance "between human rights, security needs, and proper order, taking into account the dimensions of the problem." Instead of that, we now have the bill Vilnai himself sponsored. Though the bill passed its initial Knesset plenum reading last month by a 21-1 vote, it has raised serious second thoughts even among some of the lawmakers who voted in favor of it.
The bill's provisions include empowering security forces to hold refugees without arraignment for as long as 18 days. Worse, the proposed law would allow soldiers in the field to carry out "hot returns" within three days of the refugees' capture, sending them back across the Sinai border, where they could be gunned down by Egyptian forces, or re-deported to Sudan, to be greeted by firing squads. It would be wise for Israelis to look closely at the reasons why the refugees choose to seek shelter in Israel, of all places. The stories they have told the Israelis who have helped house them and see to their medical, legal and other needs, are often shocking when viewed in the context of the new law. Many have told my wife, a nurse who volunteered in a Tel Aviv clinic for the refugees, that they chose Israel because it was the only democracy in the region. Another told attorney and refugee activist Anat Ben-Dor that he made the choice because, as printed on his Sudanese passport, Israel was the one country in the world Sudan forbade him to visit.
All the more obscene, then, that the new bill reserves special punishment (seven-year terms versus five for other refugee "infiltrators") for those fleeing countries the bill defines as "enemy states" - Sudan among them. The Darfur catastrophe, and the issues of Africans fleeing drought, starvation, pestilence, organized sexual assault, vicious despotism, rampant banditry and sudden war, are certainly not Israel's to solve. Nor can a small country with a heart-stopping range of problems of its own be expected to open its gates wide to uncounted thousands of refugees. Israel can, however, begin to serve as a model and a facilitator - yes, as a conscience - for the humanitarian effort the entire developed world should be shouldering. The author and journalist Gershom Gorenberg has proposed that Israel should publicly declare its commitment to take in a number of refugees that it can reasonably support, and convene an international conference at Yad Vashem, where nations' representatives will be "pushed, prodded and guilt-tripped to stand to make commitments on how many refugees they will accept."
In the interim - and certainly before the bill comes up for final Knesset approval in a few weeks - legislators would do well to re-read Deuteronomy 10:19: "Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."
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