Memory, Mercy, Bureaucracy

Published May 05, 2006, issue of May 05, 2006.

Of all the human and inhuman dramas to emerge from the Darfur crisis, none is more cruelly ironic than the fate of the 160 Sudanese refugees incarcerated in Israel as, of all things, security prisoners. They should be hosted as refugees, not locked up as enemies, but Israel’s famous bureaucracy can’t seem to tell the difference.

The refugees, most of them from Darfur, were among thousands of Sudanese who fled north into Egypt last year to escape their country’s genocidal militias. In the wake of a December protest in Cairo that turned into a police riot, one little group fled east in the forbidding sands of the Sinai desert, hoping to find shelter in Israel. It was an unlikely journey for a group of war-bedraggled African Muslims — not unlike, say, a group of Brazilian Marranos fleeing the Portuguese Reconquista and ending up somewhere like Dutch New Amsterdam.

As first reported last week on our Web site by columnist Kathleen Peratis, Israel greeted the refugees by classifying them as enemy infiltrators — Muslims from a hostile Arab state who slipped over the border illegally — and clapped them in prison, where nearly all of them have languished ever since.

To treat refugees from persecution as though they were agents of the tyrants they fled is ludicrous, of course. But the refugees cannot make their case in court; under Israeli law, suspected infiltrators have no right of judicial review. And so they sit behind bars and wait.

Israel should know better. It was Israel, after all, that pressed hardest for provisions in the 1949 Geneva Conventions to outlaw such mistreatment of refugees. At the time, memories were still fresh of the nightmare that faced German Jews who sought refuge in Allied nations, only to find themselves viewed with suspicion, incarcerated as enemy aliens — or worse, sent back to Germany. Alas, memory fades, even Jewish memory.

Jerusalem is savvy enough to know that the Darfur refugees cannot be sent back to certain death in Sudan, but it is not wise enough to set them free and offer them refuge. Inquiries by concerned outsiders, including several major American Jewish organizations, have produced only muddled promises to search for a solution. That’s not enough.

There is a simpler way. Israel confronted a comparable dilemma in 1977, when a boatload of homeless Vietnamese refugees was plucked out of the South China Sea by an Israeli commercial ship. Menachem Begin, in one of his first acts as prime minister, invited them to settle in Israel and ordered his bureaucrats to take whatever steps were needed to welcome them. Those refugees have lived in Israel ever since as loyal, useful, contributing citizens and an enduring symbol of Israeli compassion.

Israel’s newest prime minister, Ehud Olmert, could begin to secure his place as Begin’s worthy heir by doing the right thing, cutting through the bureaucracy and ending the shameful incarceration of Israel’s Sudanese refugees.

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