Four years ago, when African asylum-seekers poured over Israel's border - often injured or dehydrated, having survived rape, and grieving those who had died along the way - they were first greeted with kindness by the Israel Defense Forces. This, however, was followed by chaos: imprisonment that often separated family members; a haphazard, opaque process by which it was finally confirmed that they were not security threats; and eventual release to Eilat or Be'er Sheva without a plan. Yet today, it's as if the Israeli government has suddenly awakened to the 33,000-plus African asylum-seekers living among us.
The number of African refugees in Israel is problematic, but the real problem is the country's utter lack of clear policy. Israel never created refugee law for non-Jews. As a result, the vast majority of African asylum-seekers here can't obtain official refugee status. This means no work permits, no basic rights (including the right to be here ), and no means by which to seek long-term asylum or assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. All told, Israel is choosing isolation where there is opportunity for world leadership.
During the Carmel Forest fire, Israelis experienced the consequences of having a government that doesn't respond to problems until they become critical - but they also experienced what it's like to receive support from the international community, including the Palestinian Authority. In response, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the firefighting squadron he intends to establish will also serve Israel's Arab neighbors. When we receive support, we want to reciprocate. The inverse works even better: When you offer help, people support you.
When it comes to African refugees, however, Israel is acting as if it has only two choices: either border fences and a detention camp, or totally open borders. In truth, had Israel previously established a well-defined border policy and a process for refugee status determination, fewer border-crossers would be here today, and there would be a system in place for those who are. While Israel hasn't wanted to offer refugee rights - fearing that this would create an incentive for many more to enter - its policy of no policy did just that: Israel became an easy place in which to settle.
Over 60 percent of African refugees here are from Eritrea, a country whose human rights record indicates that many would qualify for asylum. This does not mean, however, that we can determine that in a detention camp, they'd be better off than they were before. Asylum-seekers, having undergone trauma, have risked their lives for freedom. Most would choose risking them again over entering a facility.
Two voices polarize this discussion. The first refers to African refugees as a threat to Israel's character, calling them "infiltrators" and "illegal," though the fact that they have no legal right to be here with refugee status is Israel's responsibility. This voice aims to induce fear. The second voice says: We are all refugees! However, although most African asylum-seekers fled life-threatening circumstances, not all will qualify as political refugees according to the UNHCR's definitions. In order to have resources to offer, we must accept that we alone cannot host all.
Still, 33,000-plus African refugees live in our communities, many of whose children speak fluent Hebrew and most of whom if asked "Mah nishma?" will answer "Barukh Hashem." Calling on their employers to fire them because we never offered them work permits is irresponsible. Sticking them in a detention camp shows a lack of vision and is a dead end.
We can't put this fire out alone. Israel, a young country, should begin by learning from the refugee policies and lessons of Europe, Canada and the United States, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. At the same time, Israel has the opportunity to become a world leader in one of the biggest humanitarian crises of our time. It would be difficult to overstate the severity of famine, illness, regional conflicts and political persecution in Africa, yet they are all interconnected at their root by Africans' inability to access and utilize their natural resources. Even Darfur's genocide can be traced back, in part, to drought: After years of desertification, when flocks could no longer graze, nomads entered farmers' tribal territory.
Desert science is Israel's expertise; how can Israel take the lead in addressing Africa's long-term agricultural problems? Already, Israel shares technology; African scientists study here; and two hydrology graduates from Ben-Gurion University recently launched a program to help more than 5,000 Zambian farmers achieve self-sustainability. How can Israel turn the challenge presented by 33,000 refugees, with more on the way, into a platform for leadership, helping Africans in Africa? After all, the place people most want to live is home.
And if this government won't rise to the occasion, we - citizens who have the privilege of free speech - must take the lead. We can say "no" to detention camps, obeying our consciences, as Holocaust survivor Eli Tzvieli of Safed did when he insisted on honoring his rental contract with Bedouin tenants. We can say "no" to a fence in the name of our family members who were turned away when they sought asylum; in the name of every value on which Israel was built. We can say "no" because if this is the direction in which Israel is going, we have learned the wrong lessons from "never forget." And then we can ask the most self-serving question of all: How can I help?
Ayla Peggy Adler teaches academic writing at the Jacob Blaustein Desert Research Institute. She lives in the Negev where she is writing a novel about refugees, drought and sustenance, and she blogs at http://measuringrain.blogspot.com/.
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