They came with no notice. We knew nothing about them. Only that they were refugees from the worst place on earth. And that if we did not offer them a place to hide, police would come and take them to a holding area in the desert, close to the point from which they could be deported, back to the Sinai which they'd taken great pains to cross, then perhaps back to the Sudan which they'd fled for their lives.
We were a good place to hide: an Israeli village even Israelis have never heard of, close enough to Jerusalem to transport them with relative ease and safety, shielded from public view by mountains and a single access road poorly marked, with a nursery school building lying vacant for the summer.
There was something else, as well. The village is home to many whose parents were Holocaust survivors, people who know something about helping others hide from genocide.
There were 20 Sundanese, mostly young couples, some of them with infants and small children. They came with little more than clothes. Arabic speakers, they knew no Hebrew and no English, and had grown to be suspicious of anyone who spoke Arabic.
The government could not decide what to do with the Sudanese who looked to Israel to shelter them. This government, which has made inertia its watchword, lost no time in adding refugee Sudanese to the mountain of issues on which it has decided not to decide.
For the Sudanese, indecision was not an option. Murderous gangs had rendered lethal their home in Sudan. Egypt, which had agreed to take in refugees, gunned down dozens of them, many of them children, when they held a demonstration at a UN office in Cairo two years ago. The long crossing of the Sinai was the way out. But when the refugees reached the border of Israel, the army did not know what to do with them. The refugees were taken to city centers, where city governments did not know what to do with them.
The government, unable to choose between embracing them as kin in the extended family of genocide survivors, or, as strangers in a suspicious land, spitting them back into the desert, opted for a non-policy that combined insensitivity and waste. Police round-ups combed city parks for the Sudanese camping there. They were taken to a "residential facility" located near Ketziot prison neat Sinai. In an alternative to finding them housing in Israel, the government would spend NIS 10 million on the facility.
In the village, meanwhile, volunteers, some of them residents, aided by students from elsewhere, came forward to help the refugees lead something of a more normal life. They were invited into homes to take showers. They were invited to use telephones, getting in touch with worried relatives in Sudan and elsewhere for the first time in weeks.
One day, the residents noticed a large Israeli flag flying from the roof of the nursery school where the refugees were living. No one knew who in the village had put it there. A debate developed over the flag. Some residents objected, saying that we should not give the refugees the impression that the government was helping them. One of the students, an anarchist, took umbrage on ideological grounds.
Later, we learned that it was the refugees who put up the flag.
In the end, we learned much more from the refugees that lived with us for a short span of weeks this past summer. We learned that if they are allowed to remain in Israel, they will enrich this nation with their dignity and their diligence. Their children will enliven this country with their good humor and intelligence and open curiosity.
For the present, the United Nations has granted the families protection from arrest and detention. But only a small fraction of the hundreds of Sudanese refugees in Israel have received UN documents. The others must watch their backs, for police raids that could result in deportation.
There was a time when the leaders of this country deserved the name. But our expectations have sunk so low as to reinforce their inaction.
It now seems all but inconceivable that Menachem Begin's first official acts as prime minister was to take in 66 Vietnamese refugees who had found shelter on an Israeli ship after their makeshift had begun to sink. Over the next two years, hundreds more were granted permanent residency and resettled in Israel.
There was a time when Begin was Olmert's role model. Perhaps that time should be now.