The bizarre lobby to get Israel to take in Syrian refugees

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

“My love for Israel has been taken by shame,” they cry.  “This is not how a Jewish state treats refugees,” writes Don Futterman, program director for Israel of the Moriah Fund.  Hebrew University Holocaust researcher Daniel Blatman claims that Israel is not “worthy to be called enlightened,” a country infused with “Israeli wickedness.”

This all came about because some Israelis and Jews in the diaspora became aware of the Syrian refugee crises after the death of the Kurdish boy Aylan Kurdi.  Former Education Minister Yossi Sarid claimed that he was ashamed on the eve of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur “because of its [Israel’s] locked gates when refugees from all over the world are begging for a gate to open.” He praised German Chanceller Angela Merkel for saying Germany would “not limit the number of refugees to enter…suddenly they [Germans] sound like Jews, and we like Germans,” he wrote on September 11.  Futterman highlighted the plight of “Ali”, a refugee from Sudan who “tragically made the decision to flee through Egypt to Israel because of AMerican Jewish support for the Save Darfur campaign.  He mistakenly believed that Israeli Jews would show the same empathy for victims of persecution as their American brethren.”

Blatman also drew Holocaust parallels, claiming that Israel not taking in refugees was behaving akin to the Evian conference of 1938 that didn’t find a solution to Jews flees Europe.  He claims that Israel was akin the closed-door policies of Hungary and Slovakia today in the EU, that are not taking in Syrians, that Israel won’t even behave like Holland, Denmark and Switzerland, and their “humane policy…even that much humanism is not possible in Israel. No one would dream of accepting refugees,” he wrote on September 21 in Haaretz.

The writers’ caricature of Europe is as ham-handed as their caricature of Israel.  Denmark, for instance, is seen as incredibly hostile by refugees passing through. Denmark even suspended rail links to Germany.  On September 14th Germany reversed its pledge to take in all refugees.  One by one more countries are building fences and pushing refugees out.  Migrants are stranded in Croatia.  Similarly when the writers claim “no one” wants to take in refugees, that seems belied by their own colleague-writers who all claim to support refugees.

The psychology of false support for refugees

When you read these articles ostensibly supporting refugees in Israel and castigating the country for not taking more in, it’s worth looking at the language employed.  “This is not how a Jewish state” treats people.  My “love” for Israel is replaced by shame. Israel does sound “like Jews” but rather “like Germans.”  Israeli Jews aren’t living up to the standards of their “American brethren.”  This is an intensely Jewish discussion.  It is Jewish-only.  When people write about Israel and “Jewish values” and “Jewish state”, they don’t mean the 1.5 million Arabs in Israel.  They are talking about Jewish-only Israel.  This is a Jewish-centric discussion that is predicated only on what is right for a “a Jew” to do. What is a “Jewish” policy.

Of course these writers and others wouldn’t want to mention Arabs in Israel because it might bring to mind another group of refugees: Palestinians.  When they write about “Syrian refugees”, they don’t want to mention the thousands of Palestinians in Yarmouk camp, under siege and dying.  Why don’t they want to mention the millions of Palestinian refugees?  Because those are the wrong refugees.  After all, the “Jewish state” of “Jewish values” when Yossi Sarid was education minister, had a chance to take in Palestinian refugees.  It had a chance in 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954….through to 2015.  Each year it didn’t.  But the lobby that says “Syrian refugees” thinks that they should jump to the head of the line, after 67 years where Israel ignored Palestinian refugee claims?

The psychology of false support for refugees has more to do with lip-service than with policy.  Israel has had 45,000 refugee and asylum-seekers from Africa for a decade in the country that it has been unable to re-settle or allow to live normal lives.  The call goes out to take Syrian refugees, when existing Eritrean and Darfur refugees are living in squalor or the open-desert prison of Holot.  The desire to take more refugees is directly tied to the failure to regularize the life of the existing refugees.  The concept of “helping” means to invite refugees and turn them into permanent second-class citizens.  No work permits, no citizenship, just permanent beggars at the table of “tikkun olam.”  And that is an enviable position to be in as a member of the moral elite who lobby for refugees.  “Help them.”  But how best to help them? If one says “make them citizens,” the same refugee lobby doesn’t want that.  It wants a “Jewish” solution.  The concept is to explore “Jewish tradition” and “how they can inform us on how to encounter refugees.”  The refugees are turned into a biblical caricature and concept called “strangers in the land.”  They are stripped of their essential human quality as equals and the relationship becomes one of Jewish paternalism helping a “stranger.”

A Syrian refugee in Macedonia (Seth J. Frantzman)

A Syrian refugee in Macedonia (Seth J. Frantzman)

If you read between the lines the concept is not really about helping refugees, it is actually about helping oneself.  It is about the personal relationship of Jews with the Jewish state and what “values” that state should have.  It is about the Holocaust and not wanting Jews to be “like Germans.”  They have re-defined Judaism as a kind of moral superiority and the state as a superior “light unto the nations,” which casts the refugees as essentially inferior, as a mere element to assuage the moral superiority and biblical injunctions.  The conclusion is:  We aren’t helping you because you are a refugee, we are helping ourselves.

Syrian refugees don’t want to come to Israel 

The supposition of the refugee lobby is that Syrian refugees want to come to Israel.  The “gates are closed” to them.  Syrian refugees, who I have spent time with, do not want to come to Israel.  Syrian refugees are equal individuals and human beings and just as smart as Israelis.  They have decided to spend money to get to Greece.  They have decided to find their way north through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, and other states to get to Germany or Scandinavia.  You’ll notice, that none of the Israeli voices who talk about Syrian refugees coming to Israel has ever apparently met a Syrian or interviewed one.  If Syrian refugees can skirt Hungarian border fences, why aren’t they clamoring on Israel’s border fences?  In 2011 thousands of Syrians did actually try to break through the Golan heights fences into Israel to mark Nakba Day.  Not only were the usual refugee lobby voices absent from advocating to let them in, but it is clear that since then, with ample opportunity to try to get into Israel, few if any have wanted to.

The Israelis who advocate for Syrian refugees don’t fully discuss them as people but as a monolith.  Because their debate is really about an internal struggle with their Judaism and their “Jewish state,” they don’t want to ask Syrians what Syrians want.  In fact, very few have asked African asylum seekers whether they want to remain in Israel.  Many of them escaped torture camps and mass rape in Sinai after being kidnapped by Bedouin.  But that doesn’t mean they were dreaming of Israel as a final destination.  Given the choice would they want to go to the UK or the US?  Perhaps if that was a preferable destination, then why not get US Jewish groups to lobby for re-settlement of Eritreans in the US from Israel?  Perhaps the real help that Jews who want to help Syrians can do, is to lobby Europe or the US to take them in and ease their travel.  That would actually help them.  But the refugee lobby is not about helping, truly, it is about making Israel “better.”  It is basically a nationalist, Zionist, Jewish focused program, that is all about Israel’s image and Jewish religion and making Jewish “values” better in Israel.  There is nothing wrong with strengthening the moral character of the state of Israel, but it shouldn’t be done in the false name of the Syrian refugees.  It doesn’t teach people in Israel anything, when Syrian refugees are caricatured and not asked what they want.

A show of a refugee near the Hungarian border (Seth J. Frantzman)

A show of a refugee near the Hungarian border (Seth J. Frantzman)

Some people say “but refugees who are fleeing will take anything.”  That’s not true.  Many Syrian refugees have spent four years in camps.  They are not specifically fleeing war at this moment, they are seeking a new life.  Israel can’t give them a new life.  They don’t want to live in Israel.  It presents them no opportunities.  Why would they want to be refugees in Israel, second-class citizens, with no way to fit into society?  Can they move to the gated communities that many Israelis, even authors of the refugee lobby opeds, live on?  No.  Israel is a dead end for them.  They can’t go back to Syria or the Middle East after.  Why would they want Israel, when they can have Europe?  If they wanted to be in Israel they would be at the fences, like they are in Hungary, demanding to come in.  The irony is that the one group of refugees who do want to come back to Israel, Palestinians, have no friends in the refugee lobby.  Which merely shines a light on the utter hypocrisy of this psychology of “helping” refugees.

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