Why Are the Jews Not Preparing a Plan to Help the Refugees?

The world is facing the worst refugee crisis since 1945, and the fact that Jews aren’t in jeopardy doesn’t mean the Jewish refugee relief network should be sitting on the sidelines.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Two women sit by a wire fence with laundry hanging on it, outside the disused Hellenikon airport, where stranded refugees are temporarily accommodated in Athens, Greece, August 10, 2016.
Two women sit by a wire fence with laundry hanging on it, outside the disused Hellenikon airport, where stranded refugees are temporarily accommodated in Athens, Greece, August 10, 2016.Credit: Michalis Karagiannis/Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Somewhere in central Jerusalem, there’s a medium-sized room filled with computers and filing cabinets. This is where the lists of names of Jews are updated and contingency plans for their evacuation are prepared. It may sound far-fetched to some; for others, eerily reminiscent of not-too-distant history. But there are still organizations that believe in fulfilling Israel’s raison d’être as a haven for Jews in peril. If law and order collapse anywhere in the world where Jews reside, if they suddenly become the target of a terror campaign, if the local government allows them to serve as scapegoats for economic meltdown ... the procedures are in place for a rescue mission.

The operations can range from anything between a massive airlift such as Operation Solomon in 1991 – when 14,310 Ethiopian Jews were flown to Israel in 36 hours as the capital, Addis Ababa, was about to fall in rebel hands – to much smaller operations to extricate families from war zones like Gori, in the 2008 Russia-Georgia war; the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine since 2014; and war-torn Yemen this year.

A much larger airlift for hundreds of thousands was also being planned in the early 1990s in case the disintegrating Soviet Union fell apart in a wave of chaos and pogroms. For months, operatives were stationed in the main cities, prepared to lead convoys of buses from assembly points to the airfields.

According to the circumstances, the rescuers can be official representatives of Israel. Other times it’s Jewish nongovernmental organizations like the Joint Distribution Committee and The Jewish Agency. In some cases, third parties not identified with Israel or the Jewish world are used – as in the mid-1990s, when the last Jews of Syria were extricated.

The discreet network of rival governmental departments and international Jewish organizations – which in periods of calm are regularly at each other’s throats, fighting over budgets and responsibilities, accusing one another of incompetence and corruption – click into place in moments of emergency. They deliver tailor-made solutions combining secret diplomacy, intelligence, logistics, off-the-books funding, on-the-ground expertise and legal status for the rescued Jews, whether in Israel or other sanctuaries.

I’m not writing this as a puff piece for the Jewish world’s often useless and superfluous universe of NGOs and its army of overpaid functionaries. Instead, I’m pointing out that this unofficial network is probably also, when it needs to be, one of the most efficient refugee relief agencies in the world.

True, it is one that was built by necessity to serve the needs of the Jewish people. But it has been, and still is on occasion, utilized for the benefit of others. It’s time to make that into a permanent fixture of Jewish organizational life.

Seventy years ago, nearly a third of the surviving Jews in the world were refugees – or, as they were more regularly called then, displaced persons. A few years later, as Jews living in Arab lands were gradually forced out of their countries of birth, another million Jews were displaced.

A rusty sign stands next to railway tracks where a makeshift refugee camp was at the Greek-Macedonian border, August 10, 2016. Credit: Alexandros Avramidis/Reuters

The Jewish organizations and agencies of the new Jewish state took care of them then. Today, the world is facing the worst refugee crisis since the end of World War II and the fact that this time, for a change, Jews aren’t in jeopardy doesn’t mean the Jewish refugee relief network should be sitting on the sidelines.

The wave of over a million refugees – mainly from Syria, but also from many other war-ravaged countries in Africa and the Middle East as well – that crashed over Europe last year may be just a taste of what lies in store. Over two million more Syrian refugees are currently in Turkey, political hostages of the cynical and increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At any moment, he could decide to open the floodgates and allow the Turkish smugglers in Izmir and Bodrum to resume their deadly commerce on leaky dinghies and with fake, useless life vests, charging hundreds of dollars per head for passage to the Greek islands. Another surge of misery may come from Libya’s shores, carrying Sudanese and Eritrean refugees.

In either case, those who are not drowned along the way will be making landfall in two of the European Union’s weakest nations – Greece and Italy – and will arrive during a period of peak xenophobia and anti-immigrant feeling throughout the continent.

If there has ever been a time in which the Jewish people’s organizational powers should be deployed, it’s now. The funds, the volunteers, the expertise and the political connections are all there.

Just imagine how we would be acting if these human beings fleeing wars were Jews. We would be deploying ships and aircraft to ensure that the refugees made it safely across the sea. Refugee camps with decent infrastructure, ample supplies and excellent medical treatment would have been readied. High-tech entrepreneurs would have created databases to reunite families, and software to replace lost identity papers and academic and professional credentials. Temporary schools would be up and running, and a process of family relocation would already be in place.

Why haven’t we used our resources and knowledge to do so? Is it because many of these refugees are Muslim and come from places where anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda was part of their daily fare? If so, where better to start changing those stereotypes and building goodwill?

Is it because we’re afraid of awakening evil spirits of racism in Europe that could be turned against us? Those spirits are already alive and haven’t forgotten their old hatreds. We are always on the side of the refugees, whether we like it or not.

The real problem, though, is that we are still incapable of making the mental and historical transition from a persecuted people to a nation that, for the first time in its history, can act as a confident world power.

Thousands of Syrian refugees walking in order to cross into Turkey, June 2015.Credit: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

Many individual Jewish professionals and, under the radar, some Jewish organizations are already involved in refugee relief. It’s time to take this to a totally different level and turn this into the main Jewish project of the century. If in the last century the project was saving Jews and building them a safe haven, its ultimate success today must be trying to do the same for those who are now in the same situation our grandparents were not so long ago.