Mazal tov to Liat in Year 10 who has been chosen as only one of two students from NSW to make it into the grand finals of the Mikolot, Voices of the Future, public speaking competition. Liat’s chosen topic was Sudanese Refugees in Israel.
Much like the rest of the world, Israel is facing a refugee problem. Sudanese first began entering into Israel through its southern border with Egypt in the mid 2000s to escape war, persecution and economic hardship and they now wish to stay indefinitely in the Jewish state. Polls consistently show that most Israelis don’t want them because they are perceived as different, as a threat. After all, we are now living in a post-Trump world where America wants to build walls and Australia is sending refugees to languish on islands for years on end; in this context, Israel’s reluctance to accept these people is very much a sign of the times.
But Israel is different. The issue is as complicated as anywhere else in the world, but somehow, perhaps even more so because of Jewish principles and Jewish history. Yes, it’s a refugee problem just like the rest of the world is experiencing but it also has characteristics which are quite unique:
The crux of the issue seems to be whether allowing non-Jewish refugees will negatively affect Israel’s Jewish identity. It begs the question of whether Israel is a Jewish State or a State for Jews and does Israel have a religious obligation as the children of Abraham. Are we commanded to welcome the stranger and “invite him into our tent”?
Or on the other hand, does Israel have a better justification than most countries to reject refugees on that same basis. Namely, because of religion and because of our history, it is imperative that we keep a state for the Jews. All we have is a tiny sliver of land and at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise again, can we really afford to give up what we have?
Now that’s a lot to take in. Let’s step back a little and just take a moment to understand the facts on the ground…
Most Sudanese refugees in Israel now live in southern Tel Aviv around the Tachana Merkazit or the old bus station. While the Sudanese have found support amongst some pro-refugee groups within Israel, many residents of Southern Tel Aviv are unhappy with the changes in their suburbs. The residents say the migrants have contributed to a higher crime rate and the deterioration of an already low-income neighbourhood.
Some even say that the Sudanese shouldn’t integrate into Israeli society because they are not Jews and have no intention of becoming Jewish as they have no connection to the land or its people.
Those in favour of the refugees being allowed to stay, argue that this is racism at heart but the counter-argument to this is that Israel has taken in Ethiopian refugees in the hundreds of thousands and even risked Israeli lives to do so. It would seem that the issue, therefore, is not about skin colour but about a sense of connectedness and belonging.
The government supports the local residents. It says that Israel must first take care of its own citizens, especially residents of Southern Tel Aviv. It has previously tried to move some of them away to make it easier on the residents there. It has also offered the Sudanese money to leave and has introduced other economic measures, making it more difficult for the Sudanese to make a good living and stay in Israel.
For many, the Sudanese are simply economic refugees and the argument is that they do not qualify for refugee status under the UN legislative criteria. Others of course, believe that they are true refugees and that Israel is violating international law by delaying giving them proper refugee status. In addition, another argument is the Jewish ethical principle of Tikkun Olam or reparation of the damaged world.
Another way of looking at it though is to ask, in light of what happened in the Holocaust, is the obligation only to ensure our own protection by having a Jewish state or to ensure the protection of others as well?
Ironically, if we follow our own principles of being a “light unto the nations” and doing what is noble and caring without limits, does Israel also face the possibility of too many non-Jewish refugees coming and staying and changing the Jewish State forever?
These are not easy questions. The Israeli government has delayed making any solid decisions either for or against the Sudanese and for the purposes of today’s speech – I will do the same. I hope, nonetheless, that I have sufficiently outlined the issues and allowed everyone to see the nuances and complexities of this highly controversial issue.