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The Strangers Among Us

Our government’s unfathomable incompetence in addressing the problem has turned public sentiment against asylum- and job-seekers.

I am almost ashamed to admit it, but I am looking at the roundup of African asylum-seekers with an equal mixture of heartbreak and relief.

Heartbreak because it goes against something deeply embedded inside every Jew to see a refugee who is seeking a better life jailed and deported; and relief because frankly, this complex situation has just become more than Israel and its citizens can handle.

It began about six years ago with African refugees from war-torn Sudan and poverty-stricken Eritrea desperately crossing the Sinai to find refuge from the horrors of their homelands. Exploited, raped and sometimes murdered by Bedouin who sold their organs, Africans who made it into Israel alive found a sympathetic ear among Israelis.

How could they not? We are the country with the single largest number of Holocaust survivors anywhere in the world; a country that has accepted and integrated millions of refugees fleeing life-threatening oppression. Perhaps that is why when Egyptian border guards were shooting to kill, we Israelis were putting up border camps to provide shelter and medical care to asylum-seekers, and finally, after a brief interrogation, busing them free of charge to Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park, where they were set free.

Now, six years later, that trickle has turned into a flood, the yearly number of asylum-seekers (dubbed “infiltrators”) doubling, tripling and quadrupling to close to 1,000 a month, from less than 3,000 a year in 2006. The accumulated total will soon equal the number of those making aliya. However much compassion we have, there is, finally, a widespread realization that if it is allowed to continue, this influx will drastically change the face of the Jewish state forever.

Our sense of the motivation of these new arrivals has also contributed to this change of heart. As Omar from Sudan recently told reporter Lior Avni in Zman Hadarom: “There is no work and no chance for a better life [in Eritrea]. Israel is much more modern. There’s much more money here. You can live better.”

Those interviewed at the initial border absorption facilities echoed these sentiments.

One Sudanese woman said her husband had worked briefly in Egypt where he received 30 NIS a month– the hourly wage in Israel for those taking odd jobs. In Eritrea all they can hope to earn is the equivalent of 120 NIS a month.

Indeed, part of the reason for the growing numbers making it successfully across the border is the well-oiled machine now in place in which Bedouin smugglers receive $3,000 a person, money sent ahead to refugees from earlier arrivals who have earned it working in Israel.

The growing concentration of these refugees in certain areas of the country is making life increasingly difficult for Israelis. While statistics show that the Africans are not responsible for greater incidences of crimes than natives, for any woman walking out in the evening, milling groups of single men are a perceived threat, no matter their nationality or color. In Ashdod, women are reportedly afraid to go out at all in the evening anymore. And the recent rape of a fifteen year old schoolgirl in Ashkelon by a Sudanese man who broke into the courtyard of her high school, as well as the gang rape of a young woman near the old Tel Aviv bus station by a group of Eritreans and Sudanese, has further inflamed nerves on edge for a number of much more mundane reasons.

For one thing, immigrants are flooding the rental housing market in certain key areas, paying landlords enormous sums as 20 or 30 share floor space, making it impossible for local housing-seekers to compete. The litter from these dwellings is overloading the city’s municipal cleaning and trash-collection squads, leaving squalor in its wake. Labor rooms in hospitals like Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon are overcrowded with African women, most of whom have no medical coverage, straining the city’s resources.

But beyond the normal problems of the influx of new residents looking for housing, work and medical care, the Africans pose another problem. According to the US State Department’s latest figures, Eritrea, which is the place of origin of three-fourths of all refugees in Israel, is now 50 percent Muslim. Given the delicate demographics in Israel, can we really afford to add thousands upon thousands of new immigrants, some of them Muslims, from countries like Sudan, which views Israel as its enemy?

Houston (Mr. Netanyahu’s government), we have a problem. A serious one, which government non-decisions and incompetence have finally brought to a head. Our belated attempts to solve it have come up with no wonderful solutions.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai, an Orthodox Jew, has further exacerbated the problem by making inflammatory, racist comments about how the asylum seekers “are all involved in crime and deserve to be jailed,” adding that he is determined to protect the “Jewish nature” of the state. I’d think the Torah concept of compassion for the stranger would have figured somewhere in his rhetoric, but no.

Nevertheless, I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit to viewing with relief his initiative not to extend the temporary residence status for asylum-seekers and to return them to their native countries.

Israel is just too small to take in every African seeking a better life. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.

The Jerusalem District Court’s ruling against human rights groups protesting the plan to expel 1,500 citizens of South Sudan has now set the wheels in motion.

It was a reasonable decision. Things have changed drastically in the last year with the creation of a new country for these refugees, a country that even the UN refugee agencies admit is relatively at peace.

According to the plan, a call has gone out inviting such citizens to report voluntarily to receive a plane ticket home and a 1,000-euro stipend before being forcibly apprehended and expelled without any compensation. A bit draconian, I admit, but even worse, it leaves the major problem unsolved. It’s the Eritreans, not the Sudanese, who comprise three fourths of the African refugees seeking a home in Israel.

It’s not that I have no compassion for the Eritreans. I do. Eritrea is a devastatingly poor country ruled by a dictator with no sense of human rights. Forcible conscription has put most of its workforce into the army. Almost 1,000 Eritreans flee the country each month, despite its mined borders with Ethiopia and its shoot-to-kill policy toward emigrants.

Rounding up the Eritreans and sending them back to the mercies of President Isaias Afwerki is a terrible idea. Making them citizens of Israel and allowing hundreds of thousands to follow is even worse.

What then, must be done? An excellent suggestion was put forth in this newspaper on May 24 by Labor MK Isaac Herzog, who pointed out that Israel has full diplomatic relations with Eritrea and thus is in a position to handle the refugee problem through diplomatic channels. I agree with Herzog: let’s negotiate a treaty that would allow us to legally employ Eritreans for a limited time, and then have them welcomed back home with their earnings. A humane and fair suggestion if ever I heard one.

But if that doesn’t work out, unfortunately the problem will tolerate no further delay.

Our government’s unfathomable incompetence in addressing the problem for so long has clearly turned public sentiment against the asylum- and job-seekers.

The Knesset committee approved a law putting fines and jail terms for those hiring the asylum-seekers on par with those hiring illegal residents. Already, most of them have been fired, leaving them without any resources. A Jerusalem home rented to Eritreans was set on fire by arsonists, injuring four. Similar attacks have occurred against such apartments in Tel Aviv.

In the meantime, Israel is busily building a 200-kilometer barrier along the border with Egypt, which might be the most sensible long-term solution to this insoluble problem that pits our hearts against our heads, our near history against our present circumstances.

This article was published in the Jerusalem Post on 15 June 2012.

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11 comments on “The Strangers Among Us”

  1. David N

    I never understood how some Blacks could become converts to Islam (e.g., Elijah Muhamed) or enthusiastic Islamic supporters (never mind Islamofascism) since, a) it was Muslims who were principally responsible for Africans being captured in Africa, transported in abject conditions and sold into slavery around the world for hundereds of years, and b) are in actuality the worlds leading racists today (see Darfur/Southern Sudan etc.) Also read Eldridge Cleaver’s later works AFTER he “experienced Arabia” and soundly denounced not only Islam but also his own previously naive Pollyannistic beliefs about Islam based on propaganda targetting the unknowing masses.

    I also do not comprehend Americans and other Westerners (Europeans, Canadians and most sadly, leftsit Jews!) who do not understand that the West (including Israel) is under consistent attack from two strange political bedfellows: the Islamofascist right and the reborn communist/socialist left. The right attacks the West’s philosophical basis (Judeo-Christian infidel ethics in favour of Sharia tyrany) and ethical sense of identity (through U.N. Human Rights travesties etc.) while conveniently draining Western economies of resources via unethical oil revenues migrating eastward across the Atlantic to Riyahd. From there, western wealth is recycled to finance more anti-Western propaganda, homegrown terrorists and the frank buildup of anti-Western militaries such as in Egypt.

    The “mirror-image” left attacks the West from the economic perspective to prevent prosperity and undermine the West’s economic identity, capitalism. Anything short of politically correct but hopelessly unrealistic ecological energy alternatives is deemed “unethical” including the fracking process which by all expert accounts, is environmentally benign and has the capacity to render the USA and many Westren countires entirely energy self-sufficient. Despite a solid case against clear excesses and an inexcusable kleptocracy on the part of some Wall Street players, the so-called “Occupy Movement”, “Anarchists” and other unclassified malcontents, neer-do-wells and professional agitators, are collectively bereft of any ideas for soundly running a progressive economy or society. The “Tea-Party” is ridiculed by the left despite its sound goal of identifying and eliminating governmental kleptocracy practices but also has a vision for a country returning and adhering to principles ensconsed in the U.S. Constitution. So far, none of it’s opponents have produced a superior alternative. Curiously, the extreme left opposes any energy solutions that would mitigate America’s addictive dependence on truly unethical Middle-East oil (e.g., opposition to the job-creating Keystone oil pipeline). Oil mega-wealth insures that the Riyahd-based Sunnis/Salafist extremists will continue to have mega-resources to finance anti-West think tanks, support radicalizing diaspora mandrasas across the globe, and even buy off countless university administrations to pervert the minds of professors and graduate students in Saudi financed “Departments of Middle-Eastern Studies” (see Yale University as one example.) Indeed, American leftist organizations are pouring mega-greenbacks into Canada to subvert our democratic processes through bogus “stakeholder” groups, pseudo-environmentalists etc. Ironically, it is the leftists who are among the first to be slaughtered when Sharia replaces other forms of government. Turning Lenin’s table around, the leftists are indeed the contemporary “Useful Idiots” in service of 21st century Islamofascists.

    I observe that the adminsitration presently running the United States possesses the worst possible mental set to counter these twin threats to our society (with all of its undeniable warts) from the left and the right. Barak “Hussein” Obama has clear “Oedipal” issues with Islam and will do nothing to interfere in a meaningful way with Iran’s construction of nuclear weapons. He actually facilitated the downfall of “our son of a bitch” (in LBJ’s inimicable term), Mubarak as he did with a militarily and politcially neutered Ghaddafi that enabled the ascension of the Muslem Brotherhood in Egypt and Libya respectively. This included military action in the latter case. In contrast he was curiously non-committal in the case of the nascent but short-lived Iranian spring when the Persian (Iranian) population was actively seeking the overthrow of the fanatical and hated Shiite regime of monsters. The clear message, “your on your own, boys and girls” was enough to dishearten true moderate Persian patriots who received no air or moral support form this supposed leader of the West.

    Historically, Obama is also a political and economic leftsist with bona fide anti-capitalistic credentials. His opposition to the keystone pipeline solidifies America’s dependence on Saudi oil while again curiously depriving American workers of jobs in a sluggish and depressing economy. Prime Minister Harper was wise in immediately proposing that the pipeline be diverted westward to supply Asian markets who, to Canad’s advantage, would not benefit from a North American “home discount”.

    Should you have an alternative way of “connecting the dots”, please let me know. However, if you look at what is going on around the world (Europe, Middle East, Far East, Africa, South America, and now QUEBEC,) and if you care about the world that will be left to your children and grandchildren, speak up and speak out.

  2. Belinda

    Naomi, I am glad that the Israeli government is waking up at last. Its duty should be, first and foremost, to its citizens and their welfare. Compassion has its limits, and nobody, anywhere, who heard of the recent vicious attack upon and rape of an innocent young girl as her boyfriend was forced to watch, could fail to be horrified at the kind of culture that would allow this to happen.

    Here in the UK we have seen our young non Muslim girls groomed and pimped by Muslims who view them as commodities. They are unapologetic because they believe their religion entitles them to do this, and the authorities still refuse to believe there is a racist element to this. For years the Police and social services have ignored this heinous crime, and the problem of a community in our midst that wants to impose its way of life and laws on us, a number of whom want to kill us. They are becoming emboldened by the lack of action, and what is worse for us Jews – they are openly and actively anti-Semitic.

  3. M Hyman

    Naomi writes, “Given the delicate demographics in Israel, can we really afford to add thousands upon thousands of new immigrants, some of them Muslims, from countries like Sudan, which views Israel as its enemy?”

    Clearly, the answer is NO!

    I cannot remember who said it, but years ago someone proposed that one day, Israel’s biggest challenge will be to decide whether it will remain the Jewish State or to simply allow itself to degenerate into another little welfare haven, taking up space in the Mediterranean–with not a Jew in sight. I am glad to see that Israel has chosen–for a change–to think about what’s necessary for its own survival.

  4. Ethel

    Yes, it is a complex problem. But Africa’s many problems are largely caused by European colonialism and imperialism as their countries left behind poverty and artificial nations with deliberately distorted boundaries separating tribes and throwing together antagonists to weaken them.
    So Israel should send these infiltrators to the Brits, the French, the Belgians and others so they can reap what their ancestors sowed.
    Israel should also expel the other illegals, especially Eastern Europeans, who’ve been coming.
    And Israelis should learn from the hard working Thais and Filipinos and do their jobs. An honest job is better than a handout.

    • Rabbi Fleishig

      Africa was an illiterate, backward and poverty stricken society long before the arrival of the rapacious European and Muslim slave traders and colonists. Fifty years after the departure of their colonial masters and almost 200 years after the abolition of the slave trade, I’d say it’s high time for Africans to stop blaming their former tormentors for their problems. If distorted borders are the issue, then that problem can be solved, except for the inconvenient fact that it’s no more possible to draw tidy borders around Africa’s numerous ethnic groups than it is to do the same in Belgium or in Moldavia. People just have to learn to live with each other in peace, and until they do they will go on blaming their former colonial masters. In fact, a good case can be made that what’s holding Africa back today is the army of NGOs doing everything possible to impose a no-growth green agenda on African economies.
      I know it’s hard to expel people whose only crime is that they want to make a decent living, but we can’t assume the responsibilities they have abdicated. They should work to establish the same sort of prosperous democratic societies in their own countries that we have in ours, instead of just running away to make a dollar elsewhere. And let’s not forget that by coming here they are taking away jobs from our own indigenous class of unskilled and semi-educated, our indolent yeshiva students.

  5. Christchurchtourist

    Even compassion has limits; and given the squalor that Ms. Ragen describes, its no wonder Israelis are suffering from “compassion exhaustion.” I saw the squalor and dirt of Levinsky street up close on a recent visit to Israel; however, as she says, there are no simple and easy solutions.

    • ronnie

      It was frightening for one who walked the Tel Aviv streets at all hours,unafraid, to now read of an attack and rape by illegals where I had just been.

  6. ronnie

    Thank you Naomi for a complete picture of the problem it’s heartache and complexities.

  7. Avi

    Israel can’t solve any problems by bringing all the oppressed of the world into Israel. It is an unfortunate reality. But Israel has to clean up its own house first and make sure that it maintains the safety and future of its citizens and character as the only Jewish state in the world.
    The Torah’s idea of compassion to the stranger applies to the ger toshav, the non-Jew who lives among you and who has chosen to abide by your laws and respect your way if life. The crimes you’ve described don’t follow that criteria. And an intolerant Muslim lifestyle doesn’t follow it either.
    I am sorry that you feel heartbroken for what Israel has chosen to do. I feel badly that Israel allowed the situation to come to this. But Israel’s refugees were always Jews (JEWISH state), and as much as I do believe refugees deserve a better chance than they have where they are running from, Israel need not put its future in jeopardy. For a small and young country, Israel has sacrificed way too much that is detrimental to its survival over the last 60+ years.

  8. Jeannette Noteboom

    The problem is well put: “the democratic countries can not solve all the problems of the whole world”.
    An important fact to be considered is that the muslims will not adapt, but will wait until they outnumber their hosts and will force their culture on us.
    I see it happen where I live (Belgium). Our care and compassion are now being used against us. They take avantage of our judeo-christian way of thinking. It is ok
    to rob a Jew or a Christian, that is their religion.
    Israel should learn from all that is happening in Western Europe and not make the same mistakes!

  9. Desmond

    My country, South Africa, is seeing the same problem, despite being much larger than Israel. There are an estimated 6,000,000 Zimbabeans plus other people from all over Africa seeking the “good life” which we set up and which the present government is busy destroying. Layabouts mean crime. My father-in-law is an example: took pity on a “fellow-Zimbabean” gave him work and food for 2 years. Then the man murdered him in his garden using his own belt to strangle the 84 year old. 3 female members of my family were bound and gagged in their home, which was then ransacked. My wife and sons now live with me in Spain. Be warned Israel. You do not owe the wold a living!

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