Israel’s demise would be a tragedy — not just for the Jewish people — but also for countless others who have depended on Israel for safe refuge from a cruel world.
If you were a member of a minority group in the Middle East, where would you want to live? It turns out that Israel might be your only safe haven.
The Ahmadis are a small Muslim sect of 20 million people that had its origins in Punjab, British India, in the late nineteenth century (now Pakistan). Their messiah was Mirza Ghulam Ahmad who founded the movement in 1889.
The Ahmadis preach tolerance and non-violence. In 1927 they came to Israel and settled in the small village of Kababir at the southern end of the Jewish city of Haifa. Today Kababir, with a population of 20,000 residents, is 70 per cent Ahmadi.
Ahmadis’ beliefs differ from those of other Muslims. According to Ahmadis they have been divinely appointed to lead a revival and peaceful spread of Islam. The hostility toward the Ahmadis by other Muslims may owe to their efforts to reform Islam. As a result they are persecuted throughout the Middle East.
According to the current leader of the community, “Ahmadis in Arab countries in the Middle East suffer a lot….They are not allowed to have mosques or minarets, and they go to jail for their beliefs and are persecuted against.” In Pakistan they cannot use their religious symbols or even their traditional greeting.
In Israel they have complete religious freedom. Their mosque in Kababir, the only Ahmadi mosque in the Middle East, opened in 1934 and is still thriving today.
Reading about the Ahmadis in Israel reminded me of the reason I support Israel: It is an island of freedom, tolerance and safety in a region where these qualities are rarely found.
Many other groups have found refuge in Israel. The list is long. What follows is a brief summary.
Ten percent of Egypt’s population is Coptic Christian. Many people don’t know that Egypt was a Christian country prior to the Arab invasions of the seventh century. Today Egyptian Copts face widespread discrimination and episodes of violence. Recently, radical Islamists carried out a vicious attack against a Coptic church. Many other Coptic churches in Egypt have been attacked and adherents harassed. Coptic leaders complain that Egyptian authorities do not do enough to protect the vulnerable Coptic community.
In the Middle East, apart from Israel, Christian communities have faced massive ethnic cleansing. Some Christian leaders have predicted that the Middle East may soon have few Christians left. With the help of Iran and Russia, Syria’s Assad regime has attacked Christian and other minority communities, forcing millions to flee. They often are replaced with Shi’ite populations that will help to secure Assad’s rule.
In Israel, under Jewish rule, the Arab Christian population has grown. That was also true in the territories, at least until the Palestinian Authority took over. For example, the formerly majority Christian city of Bethlehem has seen its Christian population shrink under PA rule. This is at least partly due to Muslim harassment and threats against Christians and challenges to their property rights. It is also due to the Arab intifadas. Many tourism-related businesses were owned by Christians. When Intifada-related violence damaged the tourist industry, many Christians lost their livelihood, leading them to emigrate.
In the mid-1800s, Baha’i prophet and founder, Baha’u’llah, established the Baha’i faith in Tehran based on creating unity among all people through understanding the oneness of humanity.
Baha’u’llah faced years of exile in Bagdad and Constantinople. He was later sent to a penal colony in Acco, which is today a small city in Israel north of Haifa. The Baha’i survived Ottoman and British rule in Palestine, and then became Israeli citizens after Israel’s War of Independence in 1948-1949. Even before the fighting ended, the Jewish independence movement affixed a notice to the Baha’i shrine, declaring that it was a “Holy Place” that would be respected by all Jews. Since that day the Baha’i in Israel have enjoyed good relations with the Israeli state. Israel has granted the group official legal recognition.
Today’s visitors to Haifa can tour the magnificent world headquarters of the Baha’i faith that sits atop Mount Carmel with stunning views of the Mediterranean and the lands below. As evidence of its multicultural reach, the Baha’i Center is staffed by 700 volunteers from all over the world.
The Druze are members of a secretive religion that evolved from a branch of Islam. There are about 130,000 Druze living in Israel today. They fight in the Israeli army and are loyal to the state. In Israel the Druze are a respected and safeguarded minority.
Recently the Israeli Druze community has asked for Israel’s assistance in protecting their Druze brethren across the border in Syria. Although the Syrian Druze have in the past been loyal to the Assad regime, they recently refused Assad’s request to send thousands of Druze men to fight for the regime. As a result, Syrian President Assad has withdrawn his forces from the Druze Village of Sweida, leaving it open to attack by ISIS fighters. This is an example of the insecurity that Druze communities in Syria face in the midst of Syria’s long, complex civil war.
About a year ago a group of Druze came to my town and talked about their experience of living in Israel. Among many topics discussed, I recall these folks explaining why, when they were young students, they chose to attend Jewish, rather than Arab schools in Israel. They told us, “In the Arab schools we were treated with disdain and hostility. In the Jewish school, we were treated just like every other student.”
Circassians are a small sect of Sunni Muslims. The Circassian community in Israel today numbers about 4000. They are originally from the Caucasus region of Eastern Europe. In the mid- to late-19th century they lost a war to Russia which resulted in the Russian massacre of 1.5 million Circassians. Another million were expelled from the Caucasus. The Ottoman Empire resettled the survivors in sparsely populated areas, including the Galilee, then part of the Ottoman Empire, but today part of northern Israel.
Circassians are loyal to the state of Israel and they serve in the Israel Defense Forces. They have their own educational system, approved by the state. Despite some instances of discrimination, they have all rights of Israeli citizens, such as the right to vote and to be elected to public office.
Black African Refugees
In recent years, Black Africans, mostly from Somalia and Eritrea, have entered illegally into Israel. Today there are an estimated 40,000 such refugees. The Israeli government recently passed a controversial law requiring many of these refugees to relocate to Uganda or Rwanda. This has led to great controversy among the Israeli public and the worldwide Jewish community.
The plight of refugees is a sensitive issue for Israelis. As a result of European and Arab anti-Semitism and then the Holocaust, millions of Jews were themselves refugees. Many Jewish leaders have admonished Israel to remember our own desperation and do whatever we can to help other refugees. Jewish scriptures also call upon Jews to remember that “we were once slaves in Egypt.” Jews all over the world are reminded of this every year at the Passover Seder, which commemorates our liberation from slavery in Egypt during the time of the Pharos.
A lot has been written recently about the African refugees in Israel. Many have criticized Israel’s policies as unduly harsh and even illegal under the Refugee Convention signed by Israel in the 1950s.
I believe that much of the press coverage of this issue has been incomplete and therefore distorted.
These refugees chose to come to Israel, a country that does not share a border with Eritrea or Somalia. On their way to Israel they pass through other Arab countries but never remain there. This is due to the brutal treatment these refugees experience in Arab countries, where they face kidnapping, extortion, theft, rape and other violence from Bedouin smugglers, police and the army. Many of the refugees, kidnapped by extortionists, have been sold into slave markets in Libya where they are sold again as slave laborers to the highest bidder.
That Eritreans and Somalis chose to risk their lives to come to Israel is also an indication of their knowledge that once in Israel, they will be treated decently. Israel has provided them with safety and the basics of survival such as housing, food and medical care, as well as education for the children and Hebrew language classes for adults. Non-profit organizations chip in with goods and social services.
Despite the objections of many critical observers, Israel has not deported refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan where they face real persecution and possible massacre. Israel also has not deported children or adults accompanied by children.
Israel has only approved the asylum applications of a small minority. It is unclear if this is due to Israel’s desire to deport people they don’t want, or to the simple fact that most of the refugees do not meet international requirements for refugee status. Many or most of the Eritreans are fleeing an onerous military draft that requires many years of service. Others are simply trying to better their economic opportunities. Israel needs to devise a more accurate and efficient system to screen these refugees.
In the end, I believe that those who are true refugees will be allowed to remain in Israel.
Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries
No list of those who have found safe refuge in Israel would be complete without mentioning the 850,000 Jews who were expelled or fled Arab countries after Israel was founded. These Jews had no choice but to flee due to anti-Jewish violence and severe anti-Jewish policies. In almost every Arab country, the Jewish populations dated back centuries. In Iraq, for example, the Jewish community had its origins in the Babylonian exile of the sixth century BCE.
Today the Arab world is nearly free of Jews. Remnant Jewish populations remain in only two Arab countries. Morocco, which once had the Arab world’s largest Jewish population of 265,000, today has only about 5,000 Jews. Tunisia’s pre-1948 Jewish population of 105,000 is today down to just about 1,500.
Israel continues to be a haven for persecuted Jewish communities around the world. Most recently, thousands of French Jews have made Aliyah (immigration) to Israel. They have come, and continue to come, because of increasing anti-Jewish violence, most of it committed by French Muslims.
Syrian Refugees and Others
The Syrian civil war began in 2011 when President Bashar Assad ruthlessly suppressed street demonstrations by Syrians fed up with repression, corruption and poor economic conditions under his rule. Assad’s actions unleashed a brutal civil war that has pitted many of Syria’s ethnic, religious and tribal communities against each other. Iran, Turkey, the US and its allies, Saudi Arabia, and more recently Israel, have all become involved, sending fighters, supplies and cash to opposing sides in the conflict. The result has been a bloodbath and a remaking of Syria’s ethnic map.
As many as half a million Syrians have died in the conflict and half the country’s population has been displaced, some internally, and many to Jordan, Turkey and Europe. Worse yet, there is no end in sight to the fighting.
Syria is an enemy state. Israel and Syria are still technically at war. For almost two decades after Israel became a nation, and on a regular basis, Syrian forces on the Golan Heights rained mortars down upon Israeli agricultural communities. In recent years Syria has hosted Iranian forces that are establishing a new terrorist front against Israel. Last week the Iranians violated Israeli airspace when they launched an unmanned drone from a base in Syria.
Despite all this, since the start of the Syrian civil war, Israel has provided humanitarian and medical aid to about 5,000 wounded, ill, hungry and desperate Syrian civilians. Israel began by establishing a field hospital to treat Syrians who arrived at the border desperately seeking help for their war wounds. Seriously wounded Syrians are transported to hospitals in northern Israel for life-saving surgeries and intensive treatment. Children in need are given hearing aids, crutches, physical therapy, and assistive devices. Israeli Arab mentors befriend these children, who fear Israelis when they arrive because of what they have been told about “evil Jews.” They quickly overcome these negative attitudes.
The Israelis never ask these people to identify themselves. No doubt some or many of the patients are terrorists or anti-Israel militia members. They are triaged and treated as if they were civilians. Israel has also provided many tons of humanitarian aid such as medicine, baby supplies, food and water.
For many years, long before the Syrian civil war, Israelis also provided medical care to Arabs from Judea, Samaria, and even Gaza, which is ruled by the terrorist organization, Hamas. Israel has even treated several family members of prominent Gaza terrorist leaders.
As in the Syria situation, Israelis provide this care even at the risk of their own lives. This was illustrated by the case of a Gazan woman, burned at home in a cooking gas explosion, who came regularly to an Israeli hospital for treatment. As she passed through a checkpoint on one of her trips to the hospital, Israeli inspectors found an explosives belt concealed under her clothes. Her plan was to murder the doctors and nurses who had cared for her, and who she had come to know over the months of her treatment.
Despite instances such as these, Israeli doctors and hospitals continue to provide care to needy Arab patients from areas hostile to Israel.
Lesbians and Gay Men
Gay men and women in the West Bank and Gaza face a grim future.
Homosexuality is not illegal in the West Bank; it is in Gaza. But in practice, a person whose gay identity becomes known faces severe consequences. Gay people are intimidated and blackmailed by Palestinian Authority police into becoming informants. Some have been given prison sentences just for being gay. Worse yet, they are subject to the ancient cultural practice of “honor killing.”
In traditional Arab culture, a gay family member is a dishonor and humiliation, not just to immediate family members, but to the clan. Westerners have a difficult time understanding the motivation of honor killings. Losing the clan’s honor due to a gay family member is a catastrophe, one that subjects not just the parents, but the whole clan to shaming, loss of respect, and in times not long past, to violence from other clans. In order to wipe this stain from the clan and to restore its honor, a male clan member, often a parent or older brother, will murder the gay person. This is considered an honorable act. Until recently, the authorities did not prosecute these murderers. Even today, the perpetrator of an honor killing is likely to avoid any substantial punishment.
In a puzzling display of stupidity, many gay groups in the US take the Arab side against the Jews in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These misguided gays accuse Israel of “pinkwashing,” that is, using Israel’s stellar human rights record on gays, to distract attention from alleged human rights abuses of Arabs. Remarkably, they give the Arabs a free pass on their horrific persecution of gay people.
I imagine that few of these anti-Israel gays are aware that many gay men and women, facing repression and death, often flee Palestinian areas. Some of those fleeing come from Arab villages in Israel and others from Arab communities in Palestinian Authority-controlled areas in the West Bank. The Israeli LGBT organization Aguda reports that, at any given time, about 2000 gay Palestinians from the West Bank live in Tel Aviv. For reasons of security, Israeli authorities are reluctant to grant legal residency in Israel to these people. Yet, caught between possible murder at home and insecure legal status in Israel, these people often remain in Israel. For these men and women, Israel has literally saved their lives.
One such gay man, who assumed the very non-Arab name of John Calvin, fled to Israel from a Hamas affiliated family in the territories. Due to Israeli security concerns, Israel was unable to offer him refuge, which he finally found in the US. When asked by an interviewer what he would have experienced had he remained in his Arab town, he responded, “Certain death.” He was not exaggerating.
Today, in Israel, there are political and social service organizations, as well as religious institutions, that help gays and lesbians to come out and to navigate a gay identity. These institutions are rare in Muslim-majority countries. The best known and oldest Israeli gay rights group is the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance. It has been in operation since 1997. For a time it was the only gay rights organization available to desperate gay Arabs fleeing persecution in their Arab towns and cities. Since 2001 Open House has had Arab, as well as Jewish members. And today there are two Arab LGBT support groups. Both operate in Israel, not in the West Bank. I am not aware of any gay rights group that is able to operate openly in Palestinian-controlled areas.
LGBT people have every right to be proud of Israel. Today gay people in Israel have most, if not all, the civil rights of heterosexuals. In Israel’s armed forces gays and lesbians serve openly and their same-sex partners are recognized as family members entitled to all benefits of married persons. Israel recognizes same-sex marriage performed abroad. (This is on a par with heterosexual couples, many of whom marry abroad in order to avoid constraints foisted on the state by conservative religious political parties.) LGBT couples have adoption rights, and gay spouses qualify for full inheritance rights. Workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians is illegal.
Other Targets for Honor Killings
Several years ago I became aware of a situation in an Israeli Bedouin community in which a young unmarried woman faced a life and death situation.
Unknown to her family she had become pregnant. Because she came from a conservative Bedouin family, pre-marital sex, unwed-pregnancy and abortion were highly prohibited. Her social worker was concerned not only for the safety of the girl, but also for his own personal safety if the family found out about the pregnancy and his assistance to the girl.
The social worker‘s life-saving intervention was to concoct a story that the girl had contracted a contagious disease and needed to be taken for medical care away from the village. The girl was then placed in a shelter to await the birth and a planned adoption of the infant. The infant died of health complications three days after the birth. At this point the girl was able to return home, with her family none-the-wiser.
I don’t know how the girl might have fared in an Arab country. But I do know that Israel has many family planning services, easy access to health care for everyone, and a network of shelters and social services for unwed mothers. For this girl and her social worker, Israel did indeed provide life-saving refuge.
Israel is unique among nations in having a world-wide chorus of critics who would like nothing better than to see its demise. Of course if these critics had their way it would be a tragedy for the Jewish people.
It would also be a tragedy for countless others who have depended on Israel for safe refuge from a cruel world.