What Do We Have in Common With Them Anyway?

No one questions Israel's right to prevent mass illegal immigration for purely economic reasons. However, those who are escaping from Darfur and southern Sudan do not belong to that category of refugee. They are fleeing the threat of genocide.

The state was unable to admit so many illegal refugees. Many of these refugees had fled their homes because conditions in this country were infinitely better than those in the country from which they had come. Others tried to enter illegally because they were fleeing persecution and the threat of genocide. But this small country was incapable of admitting them. Thus instructions were issued that refugees apprehended crossing the border, even those who were apparently fleeing the threat of mass murder, should be returned to the authorities on the other side. Those who nonetheless managed to enter the country were placed under detention, in special forced labor camps.

No, the country referred to here is not the State of Israel; it is Switzerland during World War II. Thousands of Jewish refugees seeking asylum from Nazi persecution were arrested at the border and handed over to the Vichy regime or to the Germans themselves. Those who managed to smuggle themselves into Swiss territory were incarcerated in labor camps. Britain acted similarly: Thousands of German Jews reached Britain on the eve of the war, but when the fighting broke out, they were placed in a special camp (after all, they were citizens of an enemy state), where conditions were harsh. Only a year later, in 1940, after protests by many Britons, did the authorities release the Jews, and the able-bodied among them joined the British army.

Here in Israel, according to media reports, a bill has been proposed in the Knesset whose goal is to prevent the illegal entry of African refugees from Sinai into Israel. It is claimed that there are 10,000 such refugees and that Israel is simply unable to take them in. Some 500 refugees from Darfur have already been admitted, and several thousand from southern Sudan are also in Israel at present. Sudan is an enemy state, so the argument goes, and thus all those who come from there should be sent to prison. Those who are from Darfur should serve a five-year sentence, and those from other parts of Sudan should be sentenced to seven years.

No one questions Israel's right to prevent mass illegal immigration for purely economic reasons. However, those who are escaping from Darfur and southern Sudan do not belong to that category of refugee. They are fleeing the threat of genocide. In Darfur, it is occurring right at this moment, whereas in southern Sudan, a genocidal war was waged against the black Christian population for more than two decades, and some 2.5 million of them were murdered or perished in that war. Fighting in southern Sudan has recently flared up again, particularly in the Abeye area, where oil has been found (China has purchased the oil concessions there). Some southern Sudanese have been taken northward by Sudanese Arabs to serve as slaves, and some fled to Egypt, which treats them cruelly.

The mode of conduct now being proposed for the Israeli authorities is strikingly similar to the way the Swiss and British authorities treated Jewish refugees during World War II. But we have learned nothing from that episode: We are relating to refugees fleeing for their lives in precisely the same manner in which we ourselves were treated.

The argument is that if we allow these refugees, who are escaping the threat of death, to enter our country, hundreds of thousands will follow in their wake. This is precisely the same argument that was heard over six decades ago in Switzerland, and it has the same validity. Tens of thousands of illegal workers are currently in Israel because they wish to improve their living conditions. However, government agencies in Israel are worried about the Sudanese refugees who are fleeing for their lives and seeking asylum here. The bureaucrats either do not know or do not remember that in the past, Israel not only admitted refugees from Vietnam and, later, Muslim Bosnia, but also provided for their welfare and helped them get established. Some of them later returned to their native lands. The present government is ignoring these precedents, which applied to refugees fleeing the threat of mass murder - the very fate that the refugees from Darfur and southern Sudan are fleeing.

The government is sheltering behind its agreements with the United Nations and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Let the UN look after them, the government says. But the UN is in no hurry to look after the Sudanese refugees. So the government proposes returning them. But where? To the gentle hands of the Egyptians? To the slave owners in Sudan? Granted, the refugees are citizens of an enemy state, but they are citizens of an enemy state that is murdering them. In other words, the Sudanese refugees are actually our allies. This government's policy is inspired by precisely the same logic that characterized British policy toward Jewish citizens of an enemy state at the start of World War II.

No one would challenge the Israeli security services' right and duty to thoroughly check the background of each Sudanese immigrant. But thus far, to the best of my knowledge, not one of these immigrants has been revealed as a threat to Israeli security. This should come as no surprise, because their enemies are also ours. Any observer of Israel's treatment of the Sudanese refugees is tempted to ponder the following thought: "What if these refugees were fair-skinned, blue-eyed Norwegians, instead of black Africans? Would they be still be treated in the same fashion?" After all, individuals with lighter skin are already living here among us - people from China, Thailand and Romania - yet no draconian measures have been proposed for illegal immigrants from these countries. In some cases, they are sent back to their native lands - where, however, they do not face any threat of physical danger. Sudan is not Thailand; it is a radical Islamic dictatorship that is also anti-Semitic. Should the Sudanese refugees be returned to such a regime?

Not too long ago, we heard the prime minister comment on the refugee issue. I will never forget his words when, with typical Olmertian theatricality, he demanded from the speaker's podium: "What do we have in common with them anyway?" And indeed, what do we have in common with them - except for the lessons of our Jewish past, the human and Jewish obligation to help victims of mass murder, and our commitment to our own conscience?

The writer is a professor emeritus of history and Holocaust studies and an academic adviser to Yad Vashem.