Friday, May 25, 2012
"Transcending the News"
There comes a time when it is important to move beyond the trap of current events and look higher. Such a time is coming with the holiday of Shavuot, which will be celebrated on Sunday here in Israel, and also on Monday outside of Israel.
Shavuot marks the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai.
It was a transformative and singular moment of direct revelation. It involved all of the people of Israel, who were present and received the word of the Almighty with fear and trembling.
I rather like this Aish video about Shavuot, and so share it here:
The world is decidedly reluctant to give us, as Jews, our rightful place. But the reality is that through the transmission of a code of values at Sinai, the Almighty set into action the process by which Am Yisrael (the people Israel) would become a light unto the nations.
The struggle of how to be true to that heritage, marks, I think, one particular painful and difficult controversy in which Israel is currently embroiled: That is, the controversy over what to do with the thousands of African immigrants (currently about 80,000) who have made their way illegally into Israel.
We Jews are bidden by the Torah to welcome the stranger in our midst. And to an extraordinary degree we have done just that. For Heaven's sake, the Egyptians have no compunction about shooting them in the back.
For the most part, they have come through the Sinai to reach Israel. The claim is that they are political refugees, but the reality is that many -- if not the majority -- are simply economic refugees, that is, not fleeing violence or persecution, but rather seeking a better quality of life.
They are illegal in the country, and either are unemployed or work illegally. They live poorly and are without health care and other benefits accorded by the State. They are tended to in large part by volunteers and NGOs.
And yet they consider this a utopia compared to what they left behind. This tells us a good deal about us, and about their nations of origin -- in the main, Eretria and Sudan.
The word is out -- even in small villages in Eretria -- that Israel is the place to come. A fact of enormous irony considering the accusations of "racial cleansing" and "apartheid" leveled against us. And so their numbers have been growing, leaving us with a problematic and untenable situation:
We simply cannot, nor do we wish to, absorb Africa's poor. We would become, very quickly, something different from what we are intended to be as a Jewish state. We would be swallowed up. And our resources would be overwhelmed.
Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch (Yisrael Beitenu) is on record as saying that "a million Sudanese and Eritrean migrants are currently making their way to Israel, some are near the security fence already and some are in Cairo."
Already we are seeing a host of social problems, particularly in south Tel Aviv, where there is a concentration of 25,000 Africans. There are issues of greatly increased crime rates, and rapes. There is major disruption to the community: Cooking fires lit in parks, people wandering the streets at all hours, heavy drug usage.
I will come back to this below.
An article by Dr. Gabi Barbash, the CEO of Tel Aviv's Sourasky Medical Center, which appeared a week ago in the JPost, struck me as a particular poignant and disturbing picture of what we are dealing with, and how we have conducted ourselves.
Children are being admitted into the hospital with measles, something that hasn't been seen here in years. Immigrant African children. African women with particular problems are also being admitted: they have twice as many emergency cesarean sections as the Israeli population, and their babies require treatment in the neonatal unit three times as often.
This is just the beginning. The number of cases of active tuberculosis doubled this past year because of the Africans. "Many of those refugees also suffer from extrapulmonary tuberculosis (in the spine, or central nervous system) that requires special interventional diagnostic procedures and biopsies performed under general anesthesia in operating rooms."
All of this is before we even talk about malaria, and HIV: "The HIV carriers are characteristically diagnosed with advanced AIDS-associated illnesses requiring prolonged hospitalization, extensive and repeated laboratory tests and treatments with expensive drugs."
In 2011, the cost to the hospital of treating the illegal immigrants was 27 million shekels ($7.5).
"This expenditure is not funded by any government agency: it is paid for with the hospital resources that were earmarked to benefit the citizens of Israel who are often treated side-by-side with the migrant patients. Nevertheless, the message conveyed to the medical team by hospital management is clear and unambiguous and based on inflexible medical ethics: treatment of this population must be in every way identical to the treatment given to Israeli citizens, and no financial considerations can be allowed to enter into the medical decision- making process." (emphasis added)
In a similar vein, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai has said that the municipality has spent millions in taxpayers' funds to create schools and improve infrastructure in neighborhoods where the Africans constitute a majority.
"They are human beings," he said yesterday. "What can I do, I can't see human beings thrown into the street."
So we might say that we are pretty wonderful.
But we must also say that this is an untenable situation that cannot be sustained.
On Wednesday night, there was a major demonstration by Israeli residents of south Tel Aviv, demanding that the illegal African immigrants go. Their anger spilled over, resulting in rioting and incidents of violence against some of the Africans.
Unequivocally and across the board Israeli leaders and politicians condemned this violence. In no terms is it acceptable. Not in any instance, but especially not perpetrated by Jews, who are bidden to a different standard of behavior, and who have been on the receiving end of violence so often in our history.
Yet, the mother who keeps her children in after dark for fear of who may be walking the streets, the father of a girl who was raped by Africans, these people and many others from this depressed economic neighborhood, resentful of the strain on limited resources, are angry with reason.
It is platitudinous and unfair to simply say they should welcome the stranger within their midst.
And the vehemence of the demonstation alerts those same politicians and leaders who criticize the violence to the necessity of acting speedily and effectively to peacefully ameliorate this situation.
The question, of course, is what to be done.
The answer that is being provided is two-fold. On the one hand, a fence is being constructed along our border with the Sinai to keep additional immigrants from flocking into Israel in large numbers. Good enough.
And on the other hand, there is talk about sending those who would not be at risk back to their native lands.
The attorney general has ruled that repatriating illegal immigrants is permissible under law. Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) has pledged that they will be moved out in toto by the end of the year.
I myself wonder how he reconciles his "across the board" political declaration with the commandments he, as a religious man, believes in upholding. Perhaps he can, and I am missing something. But the situation is vastly complicated:
It is being said that those who are genuine seekers of political asylum would be permitted to stay. Yet it is difficult to determine precisely who is a genuine political refugee -- and I'm not certain how much of an attempt has even been made or if there is any standard for criteria to use.
There was a time when many of the Sudanese here were counted as political refugees. That was when Sudan was in the throes of a violent civil war. The situation has shifted since South Sudan -- where a number, but not a majority, of the Sudanese here are from -- became an independent nation. We have an excellent relationship with this fledgling nation and are eager to lend support in a variety of ways. The South Sudanese government is grateful for various assistance Israel has provided, and wants good relations -- but plays it low key because in largely Muslim Africa (Sudan is Muslim, South Sudan is Christian and animist), strong relationships with Israel are, shall we say, frowned upon.
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir visited Israel this past December. In meetings with Netanyahu, it was agreed in principle that arrangements would be made for sending the South Sudanese back home.
Kiir concurred, at least in principle, that his people should come back. And the Israeli ambassador to South Sudan, Dan Shaham, has been coordinating arrangements for their return.
But those Sudanese who danced in the streets of Tel Aviv when their nation declared its independence are none too eager to go. South Sudan, after all, is a poor a struggling nation. It's still better for them here in Israel. "Yes, yes," some of them say. "Of course we want to go home. But just not yet." They protest in the streets for permission to remain here.
When Agricultural Minister of South Sudan, Betty Achan Ogwaro, visited Israel just weeks ago, she said that the people from her country came here for a better life, and she appealed on a humanitarian basis for them to be allowed to remain.
They came as political refugees, but we were being asked to keep them for economic reasons.
But we will not be keeping them: Minister Yishai has just given the order to begin rounding up the 3,00 South Sudanese here in order to deport them home.
Yet even when those who are from South Sudan are deported, there is still the question of those from Sudan, and from Eretria.
Israel has no diplomatic ties with Sudan and it would be problematic to send people back there. MK Danny Danon has alluded to possible arrangements by which Africans from here would be accepted in east European nations. This may be a possible answer.
As to Eritreans -- who constitute a full 70% of the illegal Africans who are here -- it is my understanding that it will take more time to determine how to handle their situation:
The Eritrean ambassador to Israel Tesfamarian Takeste has said those illegals who are Eritrean can come back home, and that his embassy would make every effort to facilitate their return.
Representatives of NGOs working with the Africans, noting the horrendous human rights record of Eritrea, scoff at the notion that people can be safely sent back there.
MK Yitzhak Herzog (Labor) advocates a more thorough investigation of the situation there -- rather than simply adopting the position of the NGOs. The UN High Commission for Refugees, he says, accepts the testimony of Eritreans (that they are political refugees) on face value.
Interestingly, however, Herzog cites as potentially problematic the repercussions that would be met by returning Eritreans who were draft dodgers. But is it Israel's place to provide refuge to draft dodgers? This speaks directly to the need to determine criteria for legitimate claims of political asylum.
There have been some creative proposals advanced. But I fear that in the rush of the heated moment they will be given scant attention. These proposals involve sending people back home slowly and under constructive circumstances.
One, for example, suggests training Africans in the skills of Israeli agriculture. Then when they are sent back they would not be unemployed (a major concern for the returning Africans), but would, rather, be welcomed back by their home countries that are eager for these skills. Not incidentally, Israel would be assisting the countries to which they return -- so that there would be gratitude towards Israel and not resentment.
Herzog has proposed that arrangements be made for some of the African infiltrators here illegally to work legally -- as people from the Philippines, Thailand and other places do -- for a defined period of time, and then be required to go back, but now with money in their pockets.
From my own vantage point I see the absolute necessity for the majority of the illegal Africans to be moved out of Israel, but I hope that it can be done with humanity and wisdom. With sufficient care taken for individual cases. And with the acceptance and legalization of some who are legitimately seeking political asylum.
Until such time as final decisions are made, it also seems to me that temporary actions by the State may be required -- affording of health insurance is a key example, and perhaps finding ways for them to be legally and gainfully employed (so that crime can be reduced).
The fear, of course, is that once such accommodations are made, "temporary" quickly and almost irrevocally morphs into "permanent," with the Africans crying about how well they've settled and how they should be permitted to remain indefinitely. I understand this.
Perhaps simply acting quickly is the best of the alternatives. Proposals I've read that we simply allow these Africans to become Jews and stay in Israel are nonsensical ideas from bleeding hearts. (People are only supposed to become Jews because they are committed to Judaism, not because they want to stay in a particular locale.)
Exactly where the line should be drawn between protecting Israel and responding to the "other" is no mean task.
© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by Arlene Kushner, functioning as an independent journalist. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution.
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