In 1939, my grandmother left Vienna with her sister, parents and the few belongings they could carry and headed by ship, east to Shanghai. They were among tens of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing the violence of Naziism who would make the city their home for the next several years. They lived in a single room packed with ten or more people and subsisted on rations provided by the Joint Distribution Committee and the generosity of others.
But they lived.
Eventually, like many other refugees, they made their way to Eretz Yisrael, where they began to rebuild their lives, but would never forget what happened to them.
This is my family’s story, but it’s also the story of many other Israelis whose families helped to build the early state. Folks who understood that “Never Again” wasn’t just an empty platitude. This impetus was the driving force behind one of Israel’s early international diplomatic successes, as their representatives actively drafted large portions of the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention, and Israel was the first nation to sign it. This text remains the key legal document that forms the basis of refugee work, defining the term “refugee” and outlining their rights and the obligations of states to protect them.
Sadly, the current Israeli government, and now the largest opposition party, find themselves in direct contravention to the spirit (if not also their legal responsibilities) of that same 1951 Refugee Convention.
Today, there are an estimated 39,000 asylum seekers in Israel, the majority fleeing war and dictatorship in Eritrea and Sudan. For years, in actions held to be illegal multiple times by the Israel’s Supreme Court, the Israeli government has arrested and placed these refugees in a detention center in the Negev and forcefully deported them to other African nations in exchange for money or favorable terms for weapons contracts and military training.
This past Sunday, in an attempt to get around the latest unfavorable Supreme Court ruling, the Israeli cabinet unanimously approved a proposal to force refugees to choose between being sent to Rwanda or being jailed indefinitely in Israel. On Monday, the new head of Israel’s center left Labour party convinced his fellow MKs not to oppose the measure because they “would pay a heavy price politically” if they were to do so.
Saving the lives of refugees ought not to be a political issue.
In 1977, as his first act of Prime Minister, Menachem Begin (who both Albert Einstein & Hannah Arendt years earlier said “headed a terrorist, right-wing, chauvinist organization” in a letter published in the New York Times) granted citizenship, full rights and government-subsidized apartments to Vietnamese refugees seeking freedom and stranded on boats in the South China Sea. Israel was the first nation to resettle them. In explaining why, Begin noted:
“We have never forgotten the lot of our people, persecuted, humiliated, ultimately physically destroyed. Therefore, it was natural that my first act as Prime Minister was to give those people a haven in the Land of Israel.”
Thirteen years ago, the attempt to stop genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan began in earnest. Synagogues across the country hung giant green banners emblazened with “a call to your conscience — Save Darfur.” Major Jewish organizations paid for full-page advertisements in The New York Times and sponsored rallies, handing out signs that read, “Never Again.” Eli Weisel was drafted to the cause to proclaim:
“Sudan has become today’s world capital of human pain, suffering and agony. There, one part of the population has been — and still is — subjected by another part, the dominating part, to humiliation, hunger and death. For a while, the so-called civilized world knew about it and preferred to look away. Now people know. And so they have no excuse for their passivity bordering on indifference.”
Today, the Israeli government and opposition are in favor of sending refugees from this “capital of human pain” back to Africa. The question remains whether we will continue to be silent and prefer to look away.
Russel Neiss is a Jewish educator, technologist and activist who builds critically acclaimed educational apps and experiences used by thousands of people each day.