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Monday, January 1, 2007

Our obligation to refugees, as refugees

Our obligation to refugees, as refugees
By Haaretz Editorial

Some 300 Sudanese refugees who succeeded in escaping the genocide in Darfur infiltrated into Israel last year. It would have been natural to assume that the Jewish state - which still recalls the Jewish refugees knocking on the West's doors during the Holocaust - would absorb these refugees, just as the late Menachem Begin, whose first decision as prime minister was to absorb Vietnamese refugees, did.
Unfortunately, it seems that a deep process of dulling the senses has overtaken Israeli society: The country is using a range of bizarre methods to deport the refugees or keep them in jail. The authorities justify the imprisonments and deportations on security grounds: fear that members of Al-Qaida, which is active in Sudan, have infiltrated in the guise of refugees with the goal of perpetrating terror attacks here.
This fear seems to be contradicted by the facts: The refugees first fled to Egypt, and only after suffering deprivation and harassment there did they flee here. They arrived with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and immediately turned themselves over to Israel Defense Forces soldiers, with their hands in the air. Therefore, it seems that the true reason for refusing to absorb them is demographic: the fear that their successful absorption would bring masses of refugees to Israel, from Darfur and other killing fields worldwide.
At this point, it is worth returning to the lessons of the Holocaust. Ever since its establishment, the Jewish state has been torn between the national lesson of the Holocaust - a strong national homeland that jealously guards both its security and a solid Jewish majority - and the universal lesson, which mandates strict protection of human rights. The tension between these two lessons requires a delicate balance, not blatant disregard for one of them.
Israel should open its gates, and also its heart, to the refugees. If there are grounds for security fears, the authorities should conduct all necessary checks, but should not see this as grounds for a sweeping rejection of all the refugees - just as it did not halt all tourism from Britain after a few British tourists turned out to be terrorists.
The demographic fear is also legitimate, but the conclusion to be drawn from it is not the rejection of all refugees, but the establishment of quotas. Israel should even initiate the establishment of such a quota and seek refugees worldwide to fill it, rather than waiting for refugees to come knocking at its doors.
The fact that Professor Yehuda Bauer, one of the world's leading Holocaust researchers, heads the Committee for the Darfur Refugees, is no accident, just as it is no accident that American Jews are among their country's leading activists against the genocide in Sudan. As a society informed by consciousness of the Holocaust, and especially now, when Israel is demanding that the world remember the Holocaust to help it defend itself against the Iranian threat, the state must demonstrate a different attitude toward refugees.

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