Why Are Israelis So Apathetic to the EU Refugee Crisis?

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An IsraAID volunteer hands out juice to refugees in Serbia as they make their way to Croatia. Credit: Mickey Noam-Alon / Courtesy of IsraAID

Watching the Syrian refugee crisis unfold in Europe has triggered bad memories for many Jews around the world. And for some, like Shachar Zahavi, it has been a call to action. “I come from a family of Holocaust survivors,” says the young Israeli, “and while I don’t want to make comparisons, seeing the desperate situation of these refugees did something to me.”

Zahavi is the executive director of IsraAID, an Israeli-based disaster relief organization that has provided both immediate emergency aid and long-term support to the victims of international humanitarian crises since its establishment in 2001. At the moment, it is the only Israeli-based Jewish organization on the ground in Europe assisting refugees fleeing the bloody conflict in Syria.

IsraAID currently has 15 staffers delivering relief assistance in Serbia, Croatia and Greece, and it is planning to bolster the team with another five volunteers this week. “We have spotters on the beach who help rescue refugees from boats and bring them to shore,” reports Zahavi. “Then we have medical teams who treat them and distribute food and water. We also have volunteers providing supplies for the long treks they have to make on foot, as well as psychological social workers who escort those experiencing trauma.”

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared two weeks ago that Israel was too small a country to absorb any of the Syrian refugees, opposition leader Isaac Herzog accused him of forgetting what is was to be Jewish. Jewish organizations outside of Israel have indeed mobilized in response to the crisis. For example, the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, a North American-based organization that has raised more than $500,000 to help Syrian refugees in Jordan, is now expanding its fundraising efforts to help those in other parts of the Middle East and Europe.  Another example is the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which launched a petition calling on the U.S. government to raise the quota of Syrian refugees allowed into the country.

Considering modern Jewish history, it seems natural that Jewish organizations would turn out in response to the biggest humanitarian crisis facing the world today. Which makes the overwhelming apathy of the Jewish state – both of the Israeli government and the vast majority of Israeli citizens – even more striking by comparison.

Mike Naftali, a driving force behind many Israeli civil society and volunteer organizations, is not surprised by this lack of response. “Regrettably, Israelis are not interested in what is happening in the world around them,” he says, “and this is nothing new. It has been going on for decades.”

Naftali, who serves as chairman of Brit Olam – International Volunteering and Development, is also co-founder of Natan – the Israeli Coalition for Disaster Relief. As someone who has participated in every one of the Israeli international relief missions of recent years, he dismisses as a myth the widely held belief that Israelis are among the first to mobilize when international disasters strike. “I was in charge of the Israeli mission during the 2004 tsunami and I can tell you this: Relative to other countries, Israelis contributed very little to the effort. The average Israeli donated just seven cents to the tsunami victims, compared with $20 on average in Holland and $200 on average in Norway.”

'Israel very ethnocentric'

About 20 Israeli non-profits specialize in international relief efforts, but according to Naftali, their total turnover is less than $5 million, and altogether they employ no more than a few hundred volunteers. “The picture is definitely not rosy,” he says, noting that most of the funding for these NGOs does not come out of Israeli pockets but rather from Jewish organizations and philanthropists abroad.

(Although the NGO he co-founded, Natan, does not yet have staffers on the ground in Europe, over the next few days, he says, it plans to dispatch an Arabic-speaking delegation to work with Syrian refugees.)

Naftali does not believe that the nationality of the Syrian refugees – in other words, the fact that they come from an enemy state – explains the overwhelming indifference to their plight. “We see the same behavior when it comes to African refugees, who do not come from enemy countries,” he says. “It has to do with the fact that Israel has become very ethnocentric, a place where people feel that the whole world is against them and nobody likes them.”

This is not the first time that IsraAID finds itself alone in the field. “We were the only ones in western Africa with the Ebola epidemic,” reports Zahavi, “and we have been the only ones working with Syrian refugees in northern Iraq and northern Jordan. Other organizations tend to keep away from places where there’s greater danger.”

IsraAID raises most of its money outside of Israel, mainly from Jewish federations, B’nai Brith International, the American Jewish Committee, and various other organizations. Its main donor in Israel is the Ted Arison Family Foundation. But the response to the Syrian refugee crisis among ordinary Israelis, says Zahavi, has heartened him. 

“From what I can see, there is a lot of empathy,” he says. “People are donating money and supplies. They’re sending us emails. I think the fact that this humanitarian crisis is happening so close geographically makes a big difference. Also, I think the scenes of the mothers and children, and the child washing up on shore, these are the sort of things that resonate strongly with Israelis.”

IsraAID is now distributing hundreds of used baby carriers donated by Israelis to Syrian families. In addition, says Zahavi, it has raised “tens of thousands of shekels” from Israelis for the refugees in Europe. “The last time I remember Israelis mobilizing like this was during the disaster in Haiti,” he says.

Why have no other Israeli civil society organizations stepped forth to date?  Naomi Schacter, the associate director of Shatil, an initiative set up by the New Israel Fund to promote social change, says it’s a matter of prioritizing. “When Bouji [Isaac] Herzog suggested Israel take in Syrian refugees, he was pretty much booed out,” she remarks. “There’s a feeling here in Israel that first we have to figure out how to deal more correctly and humanely with our own 50,000 African refugees.”

She believes Israeli civil society organizations can contribute to the international relief efforts in Europe by sharing some of their own experiences with these African refugees. “This is a chance for us to write up our own case study as part of the international discourse and share the challenges we’ve faced, the mistakes we’ve made, and the corrections we’re trying to put in place,” she says.

Beyond that, she hopes the refugee crisis in Europe will prompt some soul searching in Israel about how to treat refugees. “It’s a window of opportunity for correcting things here,” says Schacter.

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