Opinion |

We U.S. Jews Promised to Protect Darfur's Genocide Survivors. Now Israel's Expelling Them, and We Don't Care

A decade ago U.S. Jewish groups like the ADL, Reform Judaism and the Presidents Conference rallied to 'Save Darfur'. But our silence on Israel's refugee deportations relegates 'Never Again' to an empty platitude

Russel Neiss
Russel Neiss
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A malnourished Sudanese child waits for medical attention at a Medecins Sans Frontiers camp, one of an estimated 95,000 refugees who fled Sudan's Darfur region into neighbouring Chad. Jan 26, 2004
A malnourished Sudanese child waits for medical attention at a Medecins Sans Frontiers camp, one of an estimated 95,000 refugees who fled Sudan's Darfur region into neighbouring Chad. Jan 26, 2004Credit: AP
Russel Neiss
Russel Neiss

Twelve years ago, in a full page New York Times advertisement, more than forty national Jewish organizations, two dozen local Jewish Federations and hundreds of rabbis representing their individual congregations, promised to protect Sudanese refugees fleeing violence from the Darfur region of Sudan.

They proclaimed: "Unless there is this comprehensive response, more than two million people will remain crowded in camps, subject to starvation, disease, rape and murder. Their lives are in our hands."

This was not a one-off event. Congregations around the country plastered the outside of their buildings with giant green banners proclaiming: "A call to your conscience. Save Darfur."

In 2006, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel declared on Darfur: 'What is at stake is our humanity.' Here with George Clooney after addressing the UN Security Council on Darfur. Sept. 14, 2006 Credit: AP

Rallies were organized. Prominent Jewish figures such as Eli Weisel, Representative Tom Lantos, Rabbi Rick Jacobs and others spoke in D.C., while Malcolm Hoenlein (representing the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations), Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, and Israeli Ambassador to the UN Dan Gillerman headlined a New York protest outside the United Nations.

Many of them even channeled our community's greatest tragedy and promised: "Never Again."

A dozen years have passed since then. The violence and the refugee crisis in Sudan continues, fueled in no small part by the sale of Israeli weapons to parties involved in the conflict. Israel, (which we are often reminded is the only democracy in the Middle East) is also one of the few signatories of the UN's 1951 Refugee Convention that can be reached overland (via the Sinai) from Sudan.

Today, there are an estimated 39,000 African asylum seekers in Israel who have made the journey, the vast majority of them fleeing war in Sudan and dictatorship in Eritrea. The Darfuri population in Israel is estimated at 2,400, and the wider Sudanese refugee population is estimated at between 10-20,000.

Israeli border police officers stand guard over Sudanese refugees who crossed into Israel illegally north of Nitzana, near the border with Egypt, August 20, 2007.Credit: REUTERS

Many of them have been waiting years for their asylum applications to be processed, while the Israeli government ignored them and hoped the problem will go away.

Last week, the Israeli cabinet upped the ante, and unanimously approved a proposal to force many of these same refugees - whom the American Jewish community promised to protect so many years ago - to choose between being sent back to Africa, or to be jailed indefinitely in Israel.

The response from the organized American Jewish community thus far: Silence.

Because of the volatile situation in Darfur, no country hosting refugees from the region has rescinded their refugee status. Israel also hasn't rescinded their refugee status, but instead has refused to process their asylum claims in a timely way. The government has admitted as such.

Demonstrators hold placards as they protest against human rights violation in front of the American Embassy in Tel Aviv, February 3, 2016. Credit: Reuters

To be sure, it is certainly a difficult proposition for a state the size of New Jersey to manage an influx of 39,000 asylum seekers while maintaining its own unique identity. Yet, Israel has an obligation under the UN's 1951 Refugee Convention, a document they helped draft, inspired by the Holocaust, to process these asylum claims.

While I certainly understand the difficulties that diaspora Jewish communal leaders face when it comes to controverting Israel's policies publicly, if organizations are willing to stand up to the Israeli government about pluralism, conversion and the Western Wall, I should hope that they also would be willing to stand up for the lives of tens of thousands of individuals who they previously promised to protect.

I can think of no more appropriate words than those voiced by the eloquent authors of that 2005 New York Times ad. The same ones who are having trouble finding their words today.

African asylum seekers and refugees protesting in Jerusalem's Rose Garden, in front of the Supreme Court, January 26, 2017.Credit: Emil Salman

"Sixty years ago, after the Holocaust, the world vowed 'never again.' That pledge was repeated after the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. We cannot wait any longer to make good on our promises."

Indeed. This should not be difficult. The 2013 Pew Study reminds us that for Jews in America, remembering the Holocaust and leading an ethical and moral life are the most frequently cited essential aspects of being Jewish.

We cannot wait any longer to make good on our promises, and we will be judged for our passivity and indifference. I personally do not intend to allow the words "Never Again" to be relegated to empty platitudes. I hope that the rest of us find our voices as well.

Russel Neiss is a Jewish educator, technologist, and activist based in St. Louis, MO. He is the creator of PocketTorah, the viral Stl_Manifest bot among many other Jewish educational technology initiatives. Twitter: @russelneiss

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