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June 27, 2012

Where's the Coverage? Another Double Standard for Israel on Refugees


There are an estimated 45,000-60,000 people currently living in Israel illegally, mostly from Eritrea and South Sudan. Some of them would be considered refugees by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR):

The 1951 Refugee Convention establishing UNHCR spells out that a refugee is someone who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."

Many others would not be considered refugees, but instead migrants:

Migrants, especially economic migrants, choose to move in order to improve the future prospects of themselves and their families. Refugees have to move if they are to save their lives or preserve their freedom.

Only refugees have protected status under international law and the preferred outcome for them is to be repatriated. According to the UNHCR Handbook for Repatriation and Reintegration Activities, "The UN General Assembly (GA) has repeatedly affirmed UNHCR’s function of promoting/facilitating the voluntary repatriation of refugees."

So, when Israel undertakes a program to voluntarily repatriate several hundred South Sudanese refugees, there should be no hue and cry, right? Wrong.

A Washington Post blog on the subject used words like "deportation" and "expulsion". And, of course, Isabel Kershner couldn’t resist a Holocaust reference in her New York Times article:

But the government clampdown is also ripping at Israel’s soul. For some, the connotations of roundups and the prospect of mass detentions cut too close to the bone.

"I feel I am in a movie in Germany, circa 1933 or 1936," said Orly Feldheim, 46, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, as she doled out food last week to a long line of immigrants...

Of course, the usual suspects in the anti-Israel community could not help but pile on. Moira Levy, who claims to be a South African journalist, wrote a letter to the Cape Times declaring she will cut herself off from being a Jew because of Israel’s "violent racial repression." In response, Desmond Tutu wrote a letter to Levy pleading:

Please do not blame your faith for the policies of the people who have political power in the State of Israel.

When members of our family behaved wrongly, we did not turn our backs on them, but tried to convince them to steer a fairer course.

What would that "fairer course" be here? Would it be the course taken in the case of Liberian refugees being repatriated from Gambia? Angolan refugees being repatriated from Namibia? Angolan refugees being repatriated from Zambia? Congolese refugees being repatriated from Burundi? Ivorian refugees being repatriated from Liberia? What about the refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo being repatriated from the Republic of Congo?

Are these "fairer"? Not really. In all of the above cases the world community through the UNHCR, funded in large part by the United States, picks up the tab. But in Israel's case, the people of Israel are paying -- adults reportedly received $1,300 each and children $650 each. In the "fairer" non-Israeli cases, repatriated refugees received much less, only a few hundred dollars each. Fairer?

However, the main thing that differentiates the repatriation of refugees from other countries from the repatriation of refugees from Israel is that there's no outrage about it. There's no uproar and there's certainly very little media attention. Furthermore, regarding the fact that economic migrants have no legal status, have you heard about that in the press? Have you read that repatriation of refugees -- including from Israel -- is legal, fair, and even encouraged by the world community? No? Where's the fairness? Where's the journalistic integrity? Where's the coverage?

Posted by SC at June 27, 2012 04:30 PM



Victor Gordon

Dear Ms. Levy,

From the depth of the anguish you displayed in your letter published in the Cape Times, I gather that you and I share the same pain. If only we lived in a perfect world where wars were no more than footnotes, making refugees an irrelevant figment of history.

While, when faced with certain realities we share the same frustrations, we part when it comes to how best to deal with them. You have chosen to turn your back on your religion which, of course, is your prerogative. Had you done so privately I would not be writing this, but against what I would regard as “better judgment�?, you chose to do so publicly which has caused this writer, amongst others, some disquiet.

It should be clear to you, Ms. Levy that the very difficult and controversial decision that Israel has been compelled to take is a political one and bears no practical reflection on Israel being a Jewish state. To be inundated with 60,000 uninvited refugees is a challenge that no country would accept, least of all one as miniscule as Israel.

Ideally, she should be able to throw open her borders and invite all people who suffer persecution (all too familiar to us as Jews) to enter, where their safety would be secured; however, we both know that this is simply not possible.

I feel sure you are aware that the Israeli government has had to make some extremely difficult and unpopular decisions about this matter and that it is the subject of much heated debate. The decision to send these unfortunates back to their home country was not taken lightly and the process undertaken with as much sensitivity as possible. Many other countries would have been far less considerate. In 1981, Australia’s Fraser government, which had allowed 137,000 Vietnamese Boat People to land on her shores, had to weigh the effects of absorbing any more asylum seekers against fears harbored against an uncontrolled Asian penetration of a predominantly White population. Thereafter, her policy towards refugees became far more pragmatic and restricted. Every country, even one large enough to qualify as a continent, has its limits. The Australian intake was only little more than twice that of Israel’s. The USA sends home 400,000 illegal immigrants per month. Both these countries have resources far larger than Israel could ever imagine.
To further place matters into perspective, in June 1977, an Israeli cargo ship en route to Japan crossed paths with a boat full of 66 Vietnamese. They were out of food and water, were extremely lost and scared, and their boat was leaking. The Israeli captain and crew immediately offered food and water, brought the passengers on board and transported them to Israel. There, Prime Minister Menachem Begin authorized their Israeli citizenship, comparing their situation to the plight of Jewish refugees seeking a haven during the Holocaust. Following this rescue, between 1977 and 1979, Israel welcomed over three hundred Vietnamese refugees.
As Begin explained to then-U.S. President Carter:
"We never have forgotten the boat with 900 Jews the St. Louis, having left Germany in the last weeks before the Second World War... traveling from harbor to harbor, from country to country, crying out for refuge. They were refused... Therefore it was natural… to give those people a haven in the land of Israel."
The government of Israel offered a ceremonious welcome, with Minister of Absorption David Levy uttering some words of rebuke to the rest of the world: "Let them do as we have. May they lend a hand to save women and children who are in the heart of the sea without a homeland, and lead them to safe shores."
Unlike the 300 Vietnamese that Israel welcomed 35 years ago the numbers now under consideration are 60,000 from both Sudan and Eritrea. It is one thing to decry the actions of another country from the safety of one’s armchair but another to come up with a practical suggestion of how Israel should tackle this problem. I trust that you must have given this some thought and invite your input.

Before the point is made that Israel absorbed over one million Russians in the early 1990’s without protest, it must be understood that at that time Israel desperately sought immigration to boost her numbers. By and large, the majority of these immigrants were skilled and some, highly qualified; and while a good proportion of them had questionable Jewish credentials (to say the least), the pragmatic policy Israel adopted then, suited her at the time. This is not the case now where circumstances are vastly different.

But, Ms. Levy, it is the matter of your decision to decry your Jewishness that I wish to address as your very public “gett�? has inevitably drawn all Jews into your orbit of self- doubt.

By taking so personal a step on the pages of a predominantly hostile media, you have clearly indicated that either the very principles of Judaism have been so deeply abused by this episode that you no longer wish to be associated with them - or that, whilst these principles are sound, you have no desire to be associated with those of us who remain loyal to these beliefs.

The distinction is of the utmost gravity, for, if your antipathy lies towards all other Jews who uphold Jewish values you must inevitably qualify as the first, undoubted, self-hating Jew that I am able to identify with any sense of certainty. Sadly, I am unable to see your desire to distance yourself from those of us who retain our identity in any other light. Had you not stated this publicly I would have had some reason to hesitate about this conclusion, but that has unhappily been stripped away by your very own words.

If, however, you are disinclined to remain Jewish because you can no longer identify with Jewish values (Option 1); while that is distressing, it remains a personal decision based on your own inner beliefs and convictions. I would therefore make no further comment.

The question therefore remains: what/who are you blaming; the religion or the people associated with it? Accepting that you disagree with the policies of the Israeli government, would it not have made more sense to simply take that position – perhaps cancel your stop order to the IUA, WIZO or the MAGEN DOVID ADOM and redirect your contribution to the UN Refugee Fund? Why take your anger out on “being Jewish�?? It seems such a pointless exercise, making little or no difference to anyone other than Archbishop Desmond Tutu whom you provided with an excuse to make another sanctimonious statement that, “when members of our family behave wrongly, we do not turn our backs on them, but try to convince them to steer a fairer course�? - echoes of, “Forgive them Lord as they know not what they do.�?

I join your distress at Interior Minister Eli Yishay’s choice of words (“Israel’s racial purity will be effected�?). But these are the sentiments of the minority ultra-Orthodox Shas party (the traditional coalition “King-makers�?) who currently hold no more than 4 of 120 Knesset seats. It is not a reflection of government thinking nor the feelings of Israelis as a whole. Yet it appears to be this, more than anything else that has pushed your buttons and stoked your radical step away from your roots.

You know as well as anyone that Israel is a hotchpotch of divergent views, from the Ultra-ultra-Orthodox Naturae Karta, who deny the Holocaust, do not recognize the country’s very existence and openly side with Iran; to the “Centre�?, to the Ultra-Left. The statement from Shas should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Israel’s social and political tapestry, particularly a journalist of some experience and standing.

There is far more sadness on earth than happiness, Ms.Levy, and far more reason to lament what appear to be injustices than moral victories to celebrate. However, the very fact that you have taken the step that you have, proves that standards are demanded from Jews that do not appear to apply to any other group and I would respectfully suggest that it is the pressure and stress of this demand that has got the better of you.

Because we suffered the Holocaust we are expected to subject ourselves to incredible acts of justice, benevolence, sacrifice, restraint and, ultimately, even suicide. We find ourselves in an unprecedented situation of ‘upside-downess’ where, despite the fact that we were the persecuted victims we are now expected to atone for our survival by performing impossible acts of self-sacrifice in order to justify our very existence. Indeed, the demand on Israel is that it may no longer defend itself against hostile acts without the fear of retribution by the International Court of Justice.

Ms. Levy, I, too, am deeply distressed with what Israel has done. I wish the world were fairer, kinder and sweeter, but I am sufficiently realistic to accept that Peter Pan is nothing more than what he is. Israel, like any other country must do what it considers best in the interests of all its citizens. Within that expectation, benevolence and reality will find their rightful place.

If you have read this rather lengthy tome I thank you and wish you well in the hope that you ultimately return to the fold where you will be warmly welcomed.


Victor Gordon

Posted by: Anonymous at June 29, 2012 08:53 AM

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