Israel Must Take in Afghan Refugees Fleeing the Taliban

The humanitarian reasons for Israel to offer shelter, now, to Afghans fleeing Taliban rule are compelling. And it would be a powerful retort to decades of racist fearmongering against desperate non-Jewish refugees

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Refugees board buses taking them to a processing center after they arrive at Dulles International Airport after being evacuated from Kabul.
Refugees board buses taking them to a processing center after they arrive at Dulles International Airport after being evacuated from Kabul. Credit: CHIP SOMODEVILLA - AFP
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

America has declared its longest war, in Afghanistan, is over, but the humanitarian crisis is far from resolution. It’s time for Israel to play its role, and contribute its moral share, in alleviating the Afghan refugee disaster. Israel must join the international community in its efforts to help Afghans fleeing the Taliban regime. 

This most recent Afghan tragedy proved that the world once again, as in previous humanitarian calamities, acted too slowly and did very little. Yet late is better than never. All Western democracies, with the U.S. in the lead, have been trying to airlift as many Afghans as possible threatened by the brutality of the radical, fundamentalist version of Islam innate to the Taliban regime. 

Over 140,000 Afghans have already found their way out of the country by air from Kabul in an operation conducted mostly by the U.S. military but also by the UK, Australia, Germany, France, Italy, and other nations. 

The doomsday scenario in Kabul have often been compared to those in Saigon in 1975, when South Vietnamese were evacuated by helicopter from the rooftop of the U.S. embassy. But the Kabul operation is more of a reminder of the heroic British evacuation from Dunkirk, France, way back in 1940, during the Second World War.

The massive Afghan evacuation was made possible by the brave servicemen and servicewomen who risked their lives to bring people to safety, despite enormous hazards including terror attacks. 

Afghan refugees boarding a U.S. Air Force plane at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, last week.Credit: DONALD R. ALLEN - AFP

Many of the Afghan refugees had worked and cooperated with the U.S. or its NATO allies in the military, security intelligence and diplomatic fields as agents, translators, advisers and clerks. Among them are also a substantial number of men and women engaged in civil society - as medical personnel, educators, journalists, human rights activists, aid workers, artists and even those working in animal shelters.

In the weeks before the Kabul airlift, nearly one million people fled Afghanistan to the neighboring countries:  most left on foot for the relative tranquility of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan. For two decades now, since the Taliban last took control of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan have hosted at least four million Afghan refugees (according to official figures from the UN) and Iran received the highest refugee flow this time around.

Afghan refugees walk inside a fenced corridor to enter Pakistan at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing point in Chaman last week.Credit: - - AFP

Reacting to the dire situation, different countries have offered a spectrum of responses. Some merely offered moral support, lip service to cleanse their conscience. Others have contributed more tangible assistance: Financial aid, materiel or sanctuary. Austria accepted 40,000 refugees, Greece 21,000, the UK 20,000 and Switzerland 14,000. Uganda has offered refuge for 2000 Afghans; Denmark, with a population of under six million, agreed to take in 1000. 98 countries have committed to offering sanctuary to Afghans who manage to leave even after the end of the airlift. 

Shaharzad Akbar, who leads the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, calls the refugee situation "failure upon failure." "It’s better than nothing," he said, but pointed out the confirmed offers of shelter are a drop in the ocean.

It’s high time for Israel, as a member of the international community, to stand up and follow in the footsteps of those countries that are taking in refugees. Israel must lend a hand to Afghan asylum seekers. Israel’s population of 9.2 million, is 150 percent bigger than Denmark’s. Its GDP in 2020 was $43,000 per capita, close to Finland and Belgium, and more than fifty times the GDP per capita of Uganda. There is no demographic or economic excuse for turning a blind eye to the Afghan disaster.

And Israel has moral obligations. If it prides itself on being part of the family of nations, big and small, sharing universal values of human rights, it has to pay its duty to humanity. The ancient Hebrew prophets called for justice, and their voices echo now more than ever. 

Taliban fighters patrol a street in Kabul this week, after celebrating ‘victory’ over America as the U.S. withdrew its forces from the country’s longest war.Credit: HOSHANG HASHIMI - AFP

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father and its first prime minister, emphasized the role that the Jewish state must play as a "light unto the nations," adopting the vision of Isaiah. Unfortunately, in the last few decades, Israel has walked away from both ancient and modern visions of justice. 

Israel mistreats the Palestinians who live under its occupation since 1967. Israel has closed its borders and erected walls to keep away African refugees, survivors of the horrors of civil wars and evil regimes in Eritrea and Sudan. 

Israel offers plenty of excuses, rationalizations and justifications, often rooted in references to security considerations and terror threats. But they are also rooted in racism.

Protest against Israel's policy of forcibly deporting African refugees and asylum seekers to Uganda and Rwanda, outside the Rwandan embassy in IsraelCredit: JACK GUEZ/AFP

Israel’s refugee policies, not to mention a significant number of its legislators, are prejudiced against people of color and those from a different religious background. It was MK Miri Regev, Benjamin Netanyahu’s minister of culture, who described the Sudanese and Eritrean refugees living in south Tel Aviv as a "cancer in our body."

She was just the crudest representative of Netanyahu’s governments which, with a tail wind provided by Orthodox ministers, bashed and scapegoated African refugees and other non-Jewish foreigners and incited voters against them.

Only twice in the last 45 years have Israeli governments risen to the moral and human challenge of refugee crises involving non-Jews. In 1979, Prime Minister Menachem Begin ordered the rescue at sea of 41 Vietnamese refugees, and brought them to live in Israel. In 1999, during Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, he agreed to absorb 100 Muslim refugees fleeing the civil war in Kosovo.

U.S. Air Force plane prepares to load evacuees at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, earlier this month.Credit: TAYLOR CRUL - AFP

As the Afghan catastrophe deepens in the wake of the West’s withdrawal, Israel must do it again. And now. The Jewish state was born from the ashes of the Holocaust, when much of the world closed its doors to Jewish refugees, resulting in the annihilation of six million Jews. Israel has the moral duty to offer tangible solidarity to Afghan refugees. 

I know that Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, himself the son of a Holocaust survivor, is in favor of bringing a small number of Afghan refugees to Israel, or offering Israel as a transit country for processing refugee applications. Unsurprisingly, he is opposed by right-wing ministers in his government. 

We can only hope that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, fresh from his first meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, will side with Lapid and other supportive ministers of conscience, and take this small, symbolic but necessary and powerful decision, rooted in the Jewish conscience as articulated in the Talmud: Whoever saves a single soul is considered to have saved the whole world.

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