On African Refugees, Netanyahu Evades Facts, History and Responsibility

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African migrants walk on a road after leaving the Holot detention facility, Dec 15, 2013Credit: Reuters

When I read Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's assertion that Israel has a problem with "job-seekers from Africa" rather than refugees who seek asylum, I thought about J.

I recalled the afternoon I spent with him in south Tel Aviv, listening for hours as he told how he'd gotten there from Darfur in Sudan. About the attacks on his village by the Janjaweed militias and Sudanese government forces; about fleeing to a UN camp that the Janjaweed also attacked; about his trek, walking night after night for weeks, to the Egyptian border; about the Sudanese intelligence agents in Cairo who targeted Darfuri refugees; about another journey by night in Sinai to the Israeli border; about how he wanted to go home and how he knew he'd be killed if he did.

And I thought about Y., who told me his story in one long rush of words, in the park across the street from the Tel Aviv bus station. He was an Eritrean in his 30s, who'd joined the army before his country drifted toward totalitarianism.

The first time he was jailed was after he asked why soldiers only got 10 days furlough a year to see their families. The third time was after he asked why journalists had been jailed without trial.

When he was released from prison, he was assigned to a base near the Sudanese border. He fled, and kept going through Sudan to Egypt, where he heard that you could pay smugglers to take you to a democratic country called Israel, "where Jews, Christians and Muslims could live together." So he crossed yet another border. When the Israeli soldiers who found him gave him food, he thought they were practically angels because they treated him like a human being.

These, according to our prime minister, are the immigrants coming only for jobs, not for refuge from persecution.

Netanyahu made his remarks about "illegal job seekers" and Israel's right to protect its borders last week, when he was asked in New York about the High Court's recent decision overturning two anti-refugee amendments to the Prevention of Infiltration Law: One allowing the state to jail new "infiltrators" for a year without trial; the other allowing it to keep more veteran infiltrators in the Holot "open facility" in the Negev, a prison in all but name.

The week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur would have been an appropriate time for Netanyahu to engage in introspection about his government's errors. Instead he seems set on finding a new way to circumvent the judgment of the earthly court.

In the seasonal spirit of forgiveness, though, let's accept that Netanyahu really believes in a country's unlimited prerogative to seal its borders, and that he's merely ignorant of the meaning of international law.

But forgiveness has limits. One can only attribute his insistence that the 50,000 or so Sudanese and Eritreans in the country are all economic immigrants to dishonesty. And his underlying attitude toward the refugee issue points to what's truly pernicious in his constant references to the Holocaust.

Contrary to what Netanyahu implied, national sovereignty isn't absolute. It's limited by law. The part of international law created by treaties is a textbook example of a social contract. Countries agree to give up freedom of action to create a world with less conflict and cruelty.

Israel is a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and to the 1967 protocol expanding it. As a guide to those treaties by the UN High Commissioner on Refugees explains, one of the basic rights of people fleeing persecution is "not to be punished for illegal entry into the territory of a contracting state." Under the social contract, Israel has ceded some control of its borders.

But then, Netanyahu claimed in New York that Israel allows legitimate "asylum seekers like those from Syria" to enter its territory. (Apparently he was referring to people wounded in the Syrian civil war who have received treatment here.) He just denies that the Sudanese and Eritreans are legitimate.

As the Supreme Court ruling notes, though, the Interior Ministry has evaded dealing with most requests by Sudanese and Eritrians for refugee status. Of those on which it has ruled, it has approved two out off 444 applications by Eritreans, and none by Sudanese.

Worldwide, the acceptance rate for Eritrean asylum seekers is 82 percent, and for Sudanese 68 percent. In other words, government policy under Netanyahu is to ignore the facts.

Israel, along with international Jewish organizations, took an active role in formulating the convention on refugees. The reason was clear: Before, during and after the Holocaust, Jews were victims of nations asserting their unlimited right to seal their borders. Jews knew that there was a greater right to safe haven.

Except for Menachem Begin, no Israeli prime minister has called up the memory of the Holocaust more often than Netanyahu. He uses it to justify Israeli actions and to demand that the world remove threats to Israel. Heaven knows, such threats exist.

But in his rhetoric, the memory of the immense crime imposes responsibilities only toward Jews, not toward human beings as such. It does not serve as a reminder that Jews, too, have an obligation to those fleeing the threat of murder – and that as prime minister of a Jewish state, he must meet that obligation. 

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The Unmaking of Israel" and "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977." Follow him on Twitter.

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