Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Ethiopia and Israel -- over the past several years they and a number of European states all absorbed refugees from Eritrea, Sudan and Syria. Thousands of refugees have died on the way, partially due to a ban on saving refugees drowning in the sea near the island of Lampedusa (between Italy and Tunisia), and some even have even lost their lives on the Israeli border, at the hands of forces that were originally supposed to provide security.
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It is important to understand the dimensions of this new wave of refugees, which amounts to millions of people. This wave reflects the dramatic population growth in Africa and the Middle East, which is accompanied by an increase in conflicts, wars and genocide. Egypt has taken in huge numbers of refugees (probably several million), especially from Sudan. Jordan hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrians (in addition to Iraqis from a previous wave), and Turkey, too, hands out legal permits to large numbers of refugees, mainly from Syria. Ethiopia even grants citizenship to some refugees from Eritrea and allows international humanitarian aid organizations access to its border area with Sudan.
In a regional comparison, the total number of refugees in Israel is very small, around 50,000, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan. In Eritrea, which has recently also been called "The North Korea of Africa," the regime is persecuting its own people, and in most cases, the lives of those forcibly returned after fleeing are in serious danger. The character of the regime is obviously also the reason, why many of the residents gambled with their lives and fled in the first place. In Sudan, the law officially stipulates capital punishment for refugees returned from Israel, and in the province of Darfur (and perhaps in other regions, too), a genocide was recently identified by observers and analysts from different groups, which may still be continuing. The rescue of the new refugees from Africa in Israel is therefore a matter of pikuach nefesh, the traditional Jewish commandment of saving lives.
There are three options for the practical realization of pikuach nefesh:
1. There is the option of a mere temporary hosting of refugees in good conditions, according to Israeli and international legislation for the protection of refugees. In this option, refugees are considered temporary residents and will receive legal residence and work permits, medical aid and schools for their children. There would be no random arrests of innocent people, while criminals among the refugee community would be dealt with like criminals of any other Israeli population, not by applying special laws. There will not be any extradition of refugees to their home countries, or expulsion to a third country, which is more dangerous for them than Israel.
2. The second option is an expansion of the Israeli right of return for Jews to include other humanitarian refugees. Recognized refugees (75-90% of asylum seekers depending on their exact origin and various estimates), would receive Israeli citizenship within a year, in order to quickly and efficiently absorb them into the Israeli administrative system as new immigrants. The chances of the refugees' home countries returning to normalcy is minimal, so the big advantage of this option is that – in the long run –absorption "like everyone else" will actually prevent ethnic tension in Israel, and will reduce the new sub-lower class growing in the country at the moment. The refugees would be processed by the Ministry of Absorption; they would study in government-run Hebrew language programs (ulpan); receive financial aid through the "absorption basket"; and be eligible for education and health insurance. Israel would do what she does best: absorb immigrants.
3. The third option consists of Israel reaching agreements with Western countries that would absorb the "non-Jewish" refugees, for example with Germany (due to the Holocaust), with the United States (perhaps in conjunction with the pro-Israel lobby there), or with Israel's greatest European ally today, the Czech Republic. These countries would absorb regional refugees which Israel rejects because they are Christians or Muslims. Refugees who wish to leave Israel for more developed countries of their own free will (not for a handful of dollars, or due to threats, beatings and coerced signatures), will leave and start a new life in a Western country.
There is no need to rank these three options, and in principle they may be combined. At the same time, we have to completely reject the current policy of political delegitimization, "popular" riots against asylum-seekers, random arrests and even extradition of refugees, sending them to their deaths. All this, as well as instances of "death on the border" or the killing of refugees through withholding medication do not fit Jewish and humanitarian values such as the Golden Rule (Love thy neighbor as thyself.) This principle figures prominently in many religions, including in Christianity and Islam, as well as in Judaism, of course, in various forms (e.g. Leviticus 19:18, and in the Talmud, where it is associated with Rabbis Hillel and Akiva).
It is imperative to prevent the current Israeli leadership by all means from cooperating with mass murder or even genocide in its quest to turn our country into a "Jewish-only" state. And as Rabbi Hillel said: if not now, when?
The writer teaches history at Tel Aviv University and New York University in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. He specializes in Czech-Israeli relations and inter-religious studies.