Does ‘Never Again’ Only Refer to Jews?

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Credit: Visar Kryeziu /AP

The world is astonished in equal measures both by the Putin's bloody attack against Ukraine and by the heroism of the Ukrainians, and is doing its best to help the latter.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, over 1.5 million Ukrainians have fled their homeland. The European Union has declared that it will enable all of them to remain within its borders for three years, and only then will begin to clarify their status.

In Israel, on the other hand, Ayelet Shaked is the interior minister, and the Ukrainian refugees who arrive here (at least, those who are not Jewish) are being treated disgracefully. They are being expelled or required to put down costly deposits to guarantee that they will eventually leave.

Already in 2009, Metzilah - Center of Zionist, Jewish, Liberal and Humanist Thought, noted that Israel is the only Western country without an immigration policy. The rights of refugees are determined by the arbitrary decisions of the interior minister in power at the time.

For a decade, Israel refused to examine the status of asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan, because refugee status comes with rights. That enabled the government to give tens of thousands of people the runaround in order to deny them official recognition. Israel built a detention camp and imprisoned many inside it. It took 20 percent of asylum seekers’ salaries, to be returned to them when they left the country, and then turned a blind eye when labor contractors refused to give them the money. All that should have upset anyone with a conscience.

Now, we are confronting the question again: When we say “never again,” to whom are we referring? Do we mean that these horrors won’t happen again, or that they won’t happen again only when the victims are Jews? In brief, and in more traditional language, are we saying, “Whoever saves a single life it is considered as if he saved an entire world,” or do we mean a single Jewish life?

It is embarrassing to recall that the 1951 Refugee Convention, which entitles refugees to an official status, was an initiative of the young State of Israel. At the time the Jews’ memory of their own suffering as refugees, and the horrifying case of the ship St. Louis, which embarked from Hamburg with Jewish refugees, sailed all over the world and was turned away at every port it came to, was still fresh. That is no longer the situation today; almost everywhere Jews are part of the elite. And still, the world is facing endless refugee crises, which we can anticipate will grow worse with the climate crisis.

That is why I am calling on the government to pass an immigration law that will include an immigration policy regarding refugees based on compassion and humanitarian values. Until then, it must adopt the European policy regarding the refugees from Ukraine, so that we won’t be like the world’s worst countries. Let refugees – all refugees, not only fair-haired ones – find asylum in Israel. Let the Israeli government be the first, as in 1951, to initiate a new international convention designed to deal with waves of refugees from all over the world.

We like to forget that Israel is part of the world. When those harmed by the world’s problems knock on our door, we must help. That’s the meaning of human existence, as we of all peoples must remember.

During World War II, when Sweden took in Jewish refugees from Denmark, the Israeli poet Nathan Alterman wrote the following words in the poem “The Swedish Tongue” in his newspaper column: “Only the Swedes, in their barbaric habit, try to offer a bed and a cup of tea. Thus, in definitions she doesn’t abound neither in red tape nor in formality, she simply writes: ‘Entrance Allowed’…and God forgive her for her stylistic poverty.”

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