A Crisis of Conscience Over Refugees in Israel

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 25, 2007

CAIRO, Aug. 24 -- Israel's decision to close its doors to asylum-seekers from Darfur and all other non-Jewish refugees has Israelis and Jews around the world struggling with their distinct identities of Israel: a Jewish state with a Jewish people, or a state born from the Holocaust with a determination to challenge future genocides and succor their victims.

Israeli refugee groups said this week that they would challenge in court Israel's new policy of blocking Africans who enter the country from Egypt. International and Israeli rights groups maintain that returning the would-be refugees without assessing their claims for asylum violates international accords, including the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, as well as Israeli law and government commitments.

In its decision announced last weekend, Israel also said it would expel to Egypt all but 500 people from Darfur already in the Jewish state. Since 2003, an Arab militia linked to the Sudanese government has led a campaign of violence in the western region of Sudan that has left as many as 450,000 African villagers dead and displaced 2.5 million, rights groups say.

Turning back the Darfur refugees "is unconscionable by any standard," columnist Evelyn Gordon wrote in the Jerusalem Post.

The issue has posed a quandary for many of the groups heading efforts to stop the killing in Darfur. Jewish groups in the United States have taken a leading role in raising awareness about the killing and in urging the United States and other entities to take action against Sudan. The American Jewish World Service and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum founded the Save Darfur Coalition, the biggest raiser of private funds for Darfur in the United States.

But international Jewish organizations that have spoken out against Sudan and against China, the United States and other governments for not doing more to help Darfur's people have remained silent on Israel's decision to shut its borders to the Darfur asylum-seekers or have defended the action.

"We don't have to solve every problem of the world," Efraim Zuroff, director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said by telephone. "This is creating all sorts of pressure on Israel which is really not justified.

"I'm 1,000 percent in favor of doing everything possible to stop the genocide," Zuroff said. But "Israel can't open the gates and turn this into a free-entry zone."

The Wiesenthal Center is promoting an Internet petition urging the U.N. Human Rights Council "to focus its attention away from resolutions bashing Israel and rather on what the U.N. itself has called the world's worst humanitarian crisis: Darfur."

"It's typical that too much of the response has been, 'Here's how I think Israel should have handled it, here's how Israel shouldn't handle it, here's why Israel should be criticized,' " said Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service, a member of the executive committee of the Save Darfur Coalition. "Darfur . . . is a world problem."

Messinger said she and others would begin an advocacy campaign encouraging the United States to take in more Darfur refugees. Immigration records indicate that the United States accepted fewer than 2,000 refugees from all of Sudan last year.

For Israel's part, she said, the country had an obligation to follow the law regarding refugees but needed more assistance from the U.N. refugee agency to do so.

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