Picture: Government Press Office: Refugees from Sudan in Jerusalem’s Rose Garden
I know I’ve written about this subject before, but it’s one that simply isn’t going to go away, and in fact is getting worse every day, every hour, every minute.
Many of these unfortunates come from Africa, from countries where conflicts, poverty, corruption and hopelessness are endemic. Others come from Middle Eastern countries such as Syria and Libya where orderly government has collapsed, wars are being fought and no one is safe from danger.
They are the refugees who, like the poor, are always with us.
Most people reading this know at first hand or at one or two removes what the word refugee means. It is a word that has defined an entire generation of Jews who were forced to flee their homes in Europe. And even though I was born in England, to this day I still proudly define myself as ‘the daughter of refugees.’
The Jews of Europe who tried to find shelter in the years following Hitler’s rise to power were subjected to rigorous restrictions. A sponsor or place of employment had to be found, a place of residence guaranteed or an affidavit provided, and to all this were added the exorbitant taxes that had to be paid in order to be allowed to leave Germany. The heartbreak arising from having to leave home and family was not confined solely to the children who were fortunate enough to get a place on one of the Kindertransport trains.
At that time no one thought of getting into a crowded rubber dinghy and throwing themselves on the mercy of some kind person out there. No one expected to be provided with food and accommodation after enduring a hazardous journey and being exposed to the elements. The nearest thing to that experience may have been that of the illegal immigrants to pre-State Israel, but that did not save very many Jews from the fate that the Nazis had prepared for them.
Mankind has always been on the move. Millions of years ago Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens migrated from one part of the African and European continents to another in search of food and shelter. Migration is an integral part of human nature and, as we all know, there have been more than a few battles for territory and booty in the course of human history. But unless one tribe was being threatened with extinction by another, the people involved in this kind of movement could not be defined as refugees. What we are witnessing today is a different kind of mass migration, but for roughly similar reasons.
Israel has its own refugee problem. First there are the Palestinians who left Israel in the course of the War of Independence in 1948, and who have been deliberately kept in that state of limbo ever since. Their children and grandchildren have the same refugee status and demands as the first generation. They continue to live in poverty and privation in UN-sponsored refugee camps and are not enabled to obtain citizenship in the Arab countries where those camps are situated.
The contrast with the Jewish refugees who left Europe and scattered all over the world in the 1930s and 1940s, rapidly becoming self-supporting, is striking. Furthermore, Jews who were expelled penniless and en masse from Muslim countries in 1948, after the establishment of the State of Israel, were taken in and absorbed by the nascent nation to the best of its ability, and on the whole have become an integral part of society, leaving their mark on its culture and economy.
In the last few years Israel has been forced to contend with the problem of people coming from Sudan and Eritrea, seeking refuge and a way out of the conflicts and poverty that afflict their countries. Faced with a constant flow of these refugees, Israel built a fence to prevent their entry from Egypt, and a special holding camp for those who nonetheless managed to enter. Some of them have found low-paid work, but many of them constitute an almost insoluble problem. Israel’s Supreme Court has recently ruled against their protracted imprisonment in camps, so that now the ball is in the hands of the politicians once more.
Many Israelis come from families that were themselves once refugees, and, as I do, find it difficult to harden their heart to the problem of today’s refugees.