Three questions about the Syrian refugee crisis. First, Why is Israel doing nothing?
On our northern border with Syria, within sight of Israeli hikers in the Golan, bombs are to be seen exploding, people running in fear and panic for their lives, as casualties fall. For those watching, though the victims are seen as ‘the enemy,’ the question is: “Can’t we let them come here for safe haven? Can’t we do something?” Good questions!
We have indeed traveled a long way since Menachem Begin originally accepted 66, and finally 300, Vietnamese boat-people to Israel in the late 1970s because “we Israelis know what it means to be refugees” and understood the certain death implicit in being refused.
Israel has recently been interning (in terrible conditions), or repatriating, bona fide Eritrean and South Sudanese refugees, currently via Jordan to a third, African state; this, despite those refugees having originally faced death in the countries of their origin, and again when returning. Not to mention the excruciating torment of their original flight being repeated, and possibly resulting in capture, rape, torture, imprisonment or even death. On our southern border a huge fence has been hastily constructed to keep such refugees out, even when their presence begging at our gates has been life threatening for them.
As to Syrian refugees, Minister of Defence Ya’alon and Prime Minister Netanyahu have followed their previous form, saying “We have no intention of opening refugee camps” (Ya’alon) and “Israel has maintained that it will not allow refugees into the country, but it has treated a small number of wounded Syrian civilians” (Netanyahu). Both leaders take that position of denial, presumably because they see those ordinary civilian neighbours as enemies, as Arab Muslims, against whom they are waging battles on many fronts and in many guises.
They see themselves fighting demographic warfare whereby the strategic capture of land, or revocation of identity documents disallowing Palestinians from living in East Jerusalem, or from family reconciliation, serve racist goals of containing Palestinians in ever smaller ghettoes or forcing them to leave. But never making peace with them, or treating them as equals. Or reaching out. Or espousing universal values, such as human rights. Oh no.
Tragically for Israel in 2013, Ya’alon and Netanyahu do not, I believe, have the ability to review those attitudes and see that even a goodwill gesture could turn the “game” upside down to Israel’s benefit. Were we to cease demonising our neighbours (or indeed all Muslims – including those with whom Israel has peace treaties), and were we to cease seeing this as a zero sum game, but rethink conflict management and opt for conflict resolution, win-win could be our vision. In other words, adopting Syrian refugees, in the spirit in which Begin adopted Vietnamese boat-people, could shift the entire Middle East logjam by galvanising a re-think, and opening our closed minds and cold, selfish, fearful hearts, which cling to our traumas like scabs constantly being scratched off.
No surprise Israelis were totally flummoxed, during the Carmel Fire in 2010, when neighbours actually sent fire-fighting ’planes to help us. Turkish assistance, especially, came as a huge surprise, since the Mavi Marmara slaughter was still very much a thorn wounding the relationship. Palestinian fire-fighting equipment was of a far higher standard than our own, causing no small embarrassment, especially at a time when the sides were refusing to meet. But no, in the ghetto mentality, one must go it alone against the world. So foolish and so tragic. And in the multi-ethnic world in which we live, our colonialism, exceptionalism and racial purity are extraordinarily badly timed! We are really out of step, lagging behind a world that has moved forward. Stubbornly clinging to our victimhood, so that other victims will never qualify for status, and we shall never be part of a normalised world — a world which increasingly has to come together to fight the modern plagues, such as global warming.
Is it defensible?
This attitude may be understandable at a gut level, but is really self-defeating if we aspire to be a humane, compassionate and modern society and not a failed state, banana republic.
As humanitarians we accepted a few Syrian patients to our hospitals, but immediately repatriated them back into the line of fire. Innocent civilians need safe haven. Far wiser to differentiate maturely between ordinary civilians in need, and fighters with whose cause we differ (especially since the Free Syrian rebel army is now constituted of fighters from distant lands fighting proxy wars).
In pursuing this narrow-minded, tribal mindset, where egotistic self-interest is limited to nationalistic politics and short-term goals, we lose track of the basics of Judaism: treat others as you would be treated.
Who is pointing this out?
On September 6th 2012, Lisa Goldman wrote in +972 Mag of Israel’s refusal to accept Eritrean refugees:
”Today, the government announced that it was allowing three of the refugees – two women and a child – to enter Israel. The other 18 men were turned over to the Egyptians, who may repatriate them to Eritrea. According to Human Rights Watch’s reports, those men face indefinite forced army service, torture or jail in their native country. Or perhaps torture and death at the hand of Sinai smugglers who murder refugees in order to reportedly harvest and traffic their organs. In order to save those two women and a child, they basically sacrificed their lives.
According to an Associated Press report about Israel’s rescue of the Vietnamese boat people, Menachem Begin agreed to take them in and grant them citizenship after Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong had refused to accept them. He called their refusal “shameful.” Former prime minister Golda Meir added, “Would one not rescue a stray dog or a wounded bird?”
As far as I know, none of the major Jewish organizations have called the Israeli government to task for its deeply shameful and cruel treatment of a little band of Eritrean refugees.”
Nor is anyone raising the roof in Israel to demand shelter for some of the million or more Syrian refugees in flight from a land in which over 90,000 have recently died, even when those refugees threaten the viability of neighbouring hosts such as Jordan, in an ever more volatile region. One can only surmise that this lack of commitment comes as a response to the changing demography, in which Israel, although more powerful by far in the Israel-Palestine equation, sees itself as the victim, weak, threatened by millions of hostile neighbours and its agenda dominated by military “wisdom” which increasingly makes us racist, xenophobic, in denial and inhumane.
While Europe and the United States are seen as our mother countries, we long since have turned our backs, with our Iron Wall-, fortress- or ghetto- mentality, on neighbours of the Middle East, whose goings on might as well be taking place on another planet. Indeed, our ghetto mentality precludes involvement in the big bad world around us – far safer to stay alone, hunkered down, sure in the knowledge that they all hate us.
Maybe talkbacks to this article will argue against the impression that no one’s pointing out this folly. Israeli activists work with African refugee or migrant worker communities to defend their rights, as indeed does the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees in Tel Aviv. Yet public silence reigns about the need to host Syrian neighbours urgently in need of haven; if a ’quake struck Damascus, would we not send rescue dogs and field hospitals? Don’t ask.
Working with Bedouin refugees from 1951, currently threatened with ongoing forced displacement, one is well aware of traditional hospitality whose greeting “Ahalan wa sahalan” means “our home is your home.” But no, Israel 2013 is a state of rejectionism. Just leave us alone. Don’t remind us that the status quo is unsustainable, that the world around us is in flux. It’s all too much. Just leave us alone to keep on muddling through, miserable in our muddle, with no clarity or leadership to lead us to the promised land. Go look somewhere else, so we can pass the buck. And keep on displacing our own internal refugees, while the international community talks grave breaches, war crimes or crimes against humanity. While we shoot down the messengers of chutzpah, such as UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the OPT, Prof. Richard Falk, for doing his job.