October 15th is not a date that resonates with many Israelis but it is an existentially crucial date for the Sudanese refugee community in Israel. This is the date that Interior Minister Eli Yishai has decided that Sudanese refugees living in Israel must either leave by choice or incarcerated. Athough, it seems that for now the regional court in Jerusalem may have deemed this policy illegal. The entire community, largely based in south Tel Aviv, is waiting with bated breath to see how this plan will unfold. I don’t use the word community lightly. These people who came from many different regions and varied ethnic backgrounds in Sudan have over the years come together and developed internal leadership and self-help organizations. I met with leaders of one these organizations (officially recognized by Israel) and heard their plea directly. These are people who have undergone unspeakable horrors in their short lifetimes. They have witnessed massacres, experienced torture and near starvation, and have been separated from their families and loved ones for years. Despite the aforementioned experiences, right now, their distress is focused mainly on their treatment here in Israel. They feel victimized and humiliated not just by Israel’s policies towards them, but by the racism and verbal and physical abuses they experience here. At the moment, they feel powerless and without a voice. But they are demanding to be heard by anyone who is willing to listen.
There are two main arguments used in regard to the status of the Sudanese in Israel and these community leaders are acutely aware of them both. One is that they are not really refugees, rather they are “infiltrators” looking for better financial opportunities. To this the leaders of the organization have two main answers. On a legal level, they simply ask for a clear policy and an actual process of refugee claims. Israel has not developed a system to accurately check the status of the various migrants entering its borders. The current policy as passed in the Knesset this past January is to incarcerate all those who cross the border illegally without trial and regardless of their circumstances. The more existential response one leader of the community expressed is that ´” no one WANTS to be a refugee. Nobody truly wants this status”. They did not choose to leave their families to travel through deserts and to be exiled. They fear meeting their death back in Sudan as has happened to their friends who have returned. They did not choose this position. The cruel realities of their lives have directed them here. Now they are asking to be allowed to live with dignity.
Another major argument heard regarding this issue is that Israel simply does not have the capacity to incorporate all of these people. “We have enough of our own problems” is a common reaction. Economically it does not seem viable to incorporate thousands of refugees (some estimates put the number at 30,000). This is something that the refugees fully understand as well. They believe however, that there must be other solutions besides imprisonment or sending them to their deaths. Perhaps, there are deals that can be made with other countries that will accept them. They cannot believe that there are no humane solutions to be found. Israel’s policy of not having a policy to process their claims is detrimental both to them and to Israel.
Israel is quite demonized in Sudan, they tell me, but coming to Israel the refugees discovered a more realistic picture of Israeli society. There are some wonderful people here and there are some uglier sides to the country as well. They now understand that our history of persecution has, for some, made us more sensitive to people who experience persecution and genocide. They also experience blatant racism and cruel policies towards them. The answer they are waiting for now; who are we?
The High Holidays, a time of collective soul searching, have just passed. Many of us have been focused on our existential threats and concerns, such as Iran, but there is another question being asked of us. Not just will we survive, but who will we decide to be? In a country known for its creative technological solutions and advancements, can we approach moral and social dilemmas with the same zeal and ingenuity? We are not the only country dealing with this type of dilemma but perhaps we can lead the world in developing innovative solutions and not only in hi-tech solutions to first world problems.
October 15th is upon us and there is a community in South Tel Aviv whose lives are in the balance and are begging us for the answer to that very question.