May 2010 Journal

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Letter from Israel

Refugees. That word means many different things to many different people.

First of all, of course, the readership of this journal is loosely defined as having once fallen into that category. By today, however, most of those who once sought refuge from a life-threatening situation have settled into the comfortable existence that their adopted homeland offers. Many have gone on to achieve great things, even garnering honours on the way, and both they and their host countries are to be congratulated for that.

Here in Israel, the word refugees is immediately associated with those Arabs, defined today as Palestinians, who left their homes, whether voluntarily or forcibly, as a result of the fighting that erupted after the 1947 UN resolution sanctioning the creation of a Jewish state in part of what is now Israel. It is common knowledge that those hostilities were instigated by a coalition of eight Arab countries determined to put an end to Israel’s very existence. Not long after those Palestinians left their homes, a roughly equivalent number of Jews living in Arab countries were forced to abandon their homes and businesses and flee for their lives. A large proportion of these made their way to the newly-created state. This occurred at a time when the core population of the country was tiny, causing considerable hardship to the entire nation. Nonetheless, every effort was made to accommodate the newcomers, and today most of them and their descendants are well established and constitute an integral part of Israeli society.

While Israel accepted, and did its utmost to assimilate, its Jewish refugees, the Arab countries refused to contemplate integrating their brethren, preferring to leave them stateless and homeless in order to perpetuate their plight and put pressure on the international community to solve their problem. The UN established a special unit, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA), in 1949 to help Palestinian refugees, bestowing refugee status on future descendants of the original refugees, thereby perpetuating the suffering of people who could quite easily have been absorbed in host Arab countries without further ado. This issue still besets any attempt to find a solution to the conflict in the Middle East.

Now, countries all over the world are facing a growing tide of people from disadvantaged parts of the globe seeking to gain entry into more prosperous countries which could offer them a better future. The Americans have built a barrier to prevent impoverished Mexicans from entering their country. Although England is protected by the Channel, it has still seen fit to demand that France control its coastal areas more vigorously to prevent refugees from Africa finding their way into the UK. Spain, Italy and France patrol their coasts in a vain attempt to prevent refugees from entering.

Now that problem is confronting Israel too. Refugees from Africa are prepared to endure the risks and hardships of travelling on foot across Egypt and the Sinai desert, as well as paying enormous sums to smugglers, to try and get into Israel. On a recent tour of the southern border area, Prime Minister Netanyahu was surprised to hear that about 500 Africans were managing to infiltrate into Israel each week. Media reports stressed that they could represent an economic, demographic and security threat, though this claim does not have a firm factual basis.

So once again Israel is confronted with a moral dilemma. Should it build a physical barrier to prevent any more African refugees entering Israel, or is it more appropriate for us as Jews to refer back to our own history of flight and persecution and offer shelter to those fleeing from a similar plight?


Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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