David Kaufman

Refugees and foreign policy

Having spent no little time advocating for Israel, as well as advocating for the people of Sudan and South Sudan to be able to live in freedom and security, I found it very painful to watch the recent spike of anti-immigrant, and specifically anti-Sudanese, sentiment in Israel. There are no people in the world who love Israel more than the South Sudanese. In Fact, I’ve written about it before for The Times of Israel.

While I understand the motivation of those who do not wish to encourage hundreds of thousands more to try to make the journey from Africa to Israel, who cannot but be bothered by the violence and hatred against those from Africa who in many cases suffer terrible hardship to reach the beacon light of Zion, only to find the Promised Land inhospitable? Would Israel have turned away the MS St. Louis too? There is something inherently problematic with saying “go away” to people fleeing persecution. I understand it. I don’t agree with it.

What I do not understand is why Israel is so focused on finding a way to resolve the situation in Tel Aviv instead of finding a way to help the people of South Sudan, Sudan, and Eritrea. Why does Israel not seem to have a foreign policy at all unless it involves the Mossad or the Air Force?

The problems in the three nations, South Sudan, Sudan, and Eritrea are all connected. The President of Sudan, Omar Bashir, is wanted on charges of genocide by the International Criminal Court for his actions in Darfur. Over the past year, the Khartoum regime has been bombing and attacking the peoples of South Kordofan and Blue Nile as well. They have also been bombing the border region with South Sudan. All of this is leading to hundreds of thousands of refugees being forced to flee with many trying to reach the safe haven of other countries.

What is not as well known, however, is that the Khartoum regime is working with the leadership of Eritrea as well. Sudanese President Omar Bashir met with Eritrean President Assais Afwerki just last week. The two nations have strong ties and both leaders seem to be expert at making life so bad for so many people that they flee in large numbers. This partnership is likely to lead to an increased flow of refugees to the north as Eritrea is able to act even more harshly against its population.

There will be lots more refugees coming.

What are possible solutions?

I am reminded of the story about town along a river where each day people are found floating helplessly down the river toward a deadly waterfall. Each day villagers rush to the waters to save them. Eventually, they assign lifeguards to watch the river to make sure that no one slips past. After doing this for a while, the villagers realized that there must be a better solution. They decide to place large nets across the river in front of the falls to stop the people who are floating down the river from getting past. One day, someone from another town comes by and looking at the nets and the people being saved asks, “Where are they coming from? Why don’t you try to stop them from getting into the river to begin with?”

Israel could try to respond to each individual refugee’s case when they show up at its borders or it could try to work to solve the problems that are causing them to make the journey in the first place. In the least, it could work to provide an easier alternative place for the refugees to go.

Could not Israel work to stem the tide of immigrants by helping to make it safer and better to remain in the region? Could it not help the rebels in the Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile to prevent the bombing of civilian areas that have resulted in the large scale refugee crisis that has resulted in many thousands wanting to walk, sometimes barefoot, for months across the rocky deserts and mountains to reach its borders?

Israel could extend its military influence to South Sudan and change the entire look of the region. Imagine Egypt having a military force allied with Israel to its Southwest. Imagine Israel with access to large scale oil resources that have not yet been developed. Imagine what would happen if refugees felt safe in South Sudan. Eritrean refugees might well head to South Sudan on a far easier journey. Would they choose instead to journey to Israel for months at risk of rape, torture, or death?

There is no good way for Israel to respond to those strangers, who like our people, have fled persecution and even slavery to arrive in the promised land other than to welcome them with open arms and say, “We understand. We will help.” If Israel wants to preserve its Jewish character, it needs to maintain its Jewish values. Helping the stranger is at the top of the list. The best way for Israel to do that is to turn its gaze from Tel Aviv to a bit further to its south and west, to the places from which the refugees come and to start acting like the regional power that it really should become. Not only will the flow of refugees slow to a trickle, but Israel’s influence in the region could change overnight.

Israel could suddenly have good friends all over Africa!

About the Author
Rabbi David Kaufman is the Rabbi of Temple B'nai Jeshurun in Des Moines, Iowa, a congregation affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism. He is also the President and Co-Founder of We Are For Israel, the home of "Centrist Advocates for Realistic Peace" and created the news site about the crisis in the Nuba Mountains, Rabbi Kaufman maintains an informational blog on which he posts sermons and other materials related to Jewish practice and belief at