This Purim, Israelis will share a tradition with Muslim and Christian genocide survivors.
This week, as millions of Jews celebrate the holiday of Purim, a group of yeshiva students from Jerusalem will mark the holiday in a special way.
One of the most important mitzvot of Purim is to spread happiness by granting goody baskets (known in Hebrew as mishloach manot). These young Israeli students will hand out dozens of such packages in a site called Ketziot, about an hour’s drive south of Beersheva.
If you’ve never heard of the place, don’t be surprised; it’s not usually on most tourists’ itinerary. Ketziot is a prison in the Negev desert, and the temporary home of some 60 Sudanese refugees, who had entered Israel over the past two years.
One doesn’t need a powerful imagination to see the incredible idiosyncrasy of a scene that can only happen in Israel: Orthodox kids – some of them grandchildren of Holocaust survivors – will share a Jewish tradition with dozens of Muslim and Christian victims of genocide.
The students – who call themselves ‘Haed’, which is Hebrew for ‘The Witness’ – are part of a small, but rapidly growing, grass-roots movement that is raising Israeli awareness to the refugees of Sudan. Bringing together human-rights activists and religious students, Holocaust scholars and legal experts, this coalition of sorts is Israel’s most recent contribution to the global campaign for Darfur.
But while in the United States or Europe the emphasis is on the hundreds of thousands displaced in Africa, the Israeli activists have a much more specific goal: helping the 300 Sudanese who have entered Israel, and been under arrest ever since.
The arrival of these refugees began several years ago. Shortly after the crisis in Darfur erupted, Sudanese refugees started making their way to Egypt to escape the atrocities committed in their country. Suffering from great poverty, social isolation, and in some cases harassment by Egyptian authorities, several hundred decided to continue their flight to the north, and entered Israel illegally by crossing the country’s southern border.
By escaping to Israel, they had hoped to receive refugee status; instead, they were arrested and detained as enemy nationals. While the Israeli legal system grants asylum for a small number of political refugees every year, the fact that the Sudanese come from a country that harbors anti-Israeli terrorism, puts them in a different category. They are unable to gain legal status in Israel, and are issued a warrant for their deportation. However, there is nowhere to deport them to. Re-entering Sudan would mean an immediate death sentence, Egypt isn’t safe either, and no other country wants to take them in. They are thus caught between the (Negev) rock and a very hard place: locked up, unable to contact their families back home, and uncertain of what will happen to them.
The refugees’ incarceration could technically last indefinitely, if it wasn’t for the work of several Israeli NGOs and individuals who care: people like the volunteers of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, who oversee the wellbeing of foreign laborers in Israel, took upon themselves to supply humanitarian assistance to the Sudanese in prison. The Clinic for Refugee Rights at Tel Aviv University petitioned the Supreme Court on behalf of the detained Sudanese, and this past summer celebrated a victory as the state agreed to substitute the refugees’ prison term with life on a kibbutz or moshav until a long-term solution is found.
And with the recent formation of a new umbrella organization – CARD (The Committee for Advancement of Refugees of Darfur) – to coordinate various media and humanitarian efforts – the campaign for the Sudanese refugees is now more apparent than ever in Israeli public discourse. A lobby in the Knesset – headed by MKs Gilad Erdan of the Likud and Professor Avishai Braverman of the Labor Party – is drafting legislation that will pull the refugees out of the legal loophole they are in. Large and established organizations – such as the Israeli office of the American Jewish Committee – are donating money to help the refugees still detained. And the Israeli media has been covering the issue extensively.
It is hard to say what the long-term solution for this troubling issue will be. One thing, however, is clear: from being a non-issue just a short while ago, the problem of Sudanese refugees in Israel has become a topic that generates headlines and mobilizes volunteers and protesters. That is not to say that the end of the problem is near; but in a county like Israel, where public opinion does play a role in decision-making, it ensures that a solution to the problem will eventually be found.