By Yifat Mukades
In part 1 of this two-part series, I shared ways to start a conversation with your students about the Refugee Crises throughout the world. By virtually visiting a refugee camp (which is perceived by our brain as if we are actually there), and using multiple senses though this new kind of experience, students are able to feel an additional level of empathy when we introduce the presence of a crisis in Israel. In Part 2 I’ll explore what role Israel takes when helping refugees from the northern border, and how it deals with its own crises of refugees entering from the south. We’ll take a look at Israeli history and pinpoint when and how this crisis began and why Israel has since changed its policies toward refugees.
Israel as Humanitarian Aid
When examining refugees fleeing to Israel, there are two lenses we should look through. One is the role of Israel as Humanitarian providing aid to refugees coming from Syria via the northern border. As the civil war in Syria continues to push hundreds of civilians out of their country, an impromptu camp has sprung up near the northern border of Israel. While Israel and Syria are official enemies, injured refugees who are in need of immediate medical attention are welcomed in Israeli hospitals. Israel has been treating wounded Syrian civilians and rebel fighters at Ziv Medical Center in Sefad (as well as other hospitals in the north of the country) for some time now. As of December 2016, Ziv Medical Center alone has treated over 2,500 Syrians.
The government is not the only source of help: IsraAid is an Israeli organization taking a lead in helping with refugees, as well as with other crises around the world. IsraAid is currently on the shores of Lesbos, Greece helping Syrian refugees as they land in Greece and resettle in in their new country.
Israel’s Own Refugee Crises
This brings us to the other lens we should look through: For many years the State of Israel has been dealing with a much larger refugee situation on its southern border. While Prime Minister Netanyahu is dedicated to finding solutions that offer support to Syrian refugees in the north, not much is happening for the African refugees from Sudan and Eritrea who seek asylum in Israel. Refugees from Sudan were forced to leave their homes due to persecution, civil wars and genocide while Eritrea is a country ruled by an authoritarian regime in which human rights violations are widespread. In 2015 a United Nations report accused the Eritrean government of crimes against humanity, and Human Rights Watch considers Eritrea’s human rights record among the worst in the world. Since Eritrea is located north of Ethiopia and west of Sudan, escaping into Israel via the desert or the Red Sea seems appealing to many. Though welcomed in the past, the number of refugees crossing the border and settling in Israel illegally swelled into tens of thousands. The refugee population is now considered by many to be a crisis.
In the early 2000s, African refugees seeking asylum in Israel started to settle in Israeli towns pushing out its local residents. This created bubbles, or mini-urban “refugee camps” which attracted more refugees. Some would call these areas another “third world country”. For example, the Old Bus Station in South Tel Aviv in the Neve Sha-anan neighborhood was taken over by Eritrean refugees. As their numbers grew and children were born, the local authorities eventually had to take them into the system. Since the children were born in Israel they are Israeli citizens while their parents are not, which creates new difficulties. With the rise of poverty, violence, high crime-rates and health issues within this community, the locals started to oppose refugees settling in their backyard. Many Israelis (not just the locals who have been affected by their new neighbors) have asked the government to deport and send the refugees back to their own countries. Others made the argument that, as Jews, we too sought refuge escaping countries in Europe. We can look to the Torah where in previous weeks Parashot and each year when we tell the Passover story, we are reminded that we too were ”Ger” in Egypt.
So, how did Israel become such a desirable destination for refugees? And how have its policies shifted from welcoming refugees and immigrants to that of today’s harsher approach?
The Beginning – Israel Welcoming Refugees
The beginning of the current Israeli refugee policy started 40 years ago in June 1977, when 66 Vietnamese refugees were stranded at sea and rescued by Israel. It was the first order given by Menachem Begin as Prime Minister, and he discussed it at length in his inauguration speech. For Begin, a Holocaust survivor, saving and helping people escaping their country in search of a better future was a no-brainer. He ordered the Zim cargo ship to bring the refugees to Israel and immediately granted them permanent status in Israel. The word-of-mouth about Israel’s decision to welcome the 66 Vietnamese refugees started a ripple-effect of refugees emigrating to Israel. Menachem Begin’s act also demonstrated to the world how people looking for a home should be treated (unlike the countries that turned away refugees from Europe during the Holocaust). Though originally welcoming, Israel has since changed its policies toward and its reception of refugees.
Today, the matter of refugees living in Israel is a prominent political issue and raises many questions about Israel’s humanitarianism. Israel is struggling with the number of refugees who request asylum. It is important to remember that welcoming and assimilating 66 Vietnamese refugees is much easier and less threatening to a country and its people than doing the same for 50,000 war-torn immigrants, which forces the Israeli government and local authorities to deal with their effect on its communities and culture. As the war in Syria continues, a new concern is being raised as to how Israel should deal with Syrian refugees seeking asylum and medical assistance.
This two-part article, providing interactive tools and virtual tours of refugee camps, was designed to help you engage your students in a conversion about refugees around the world, while also providing background into the dual role Israel currently plays when dealing with refugees from its northern and southern borders. Looking into the past can provide one answer on how this crisis began and insight into the cultural and social differences between the two events. Though this is “Not Your Typical Israel Education” topic, I encourage you to expose your students to all sides and aspects of this issue (there are many more that this article can contain). I leave it up to you which sides of Israel you choose to highlight for your students.
Yifat Mukades, MA.Ed. graduated from AJU in Spring, 2016. She is passionate about Israel education and is an iFellow with the iCenter, receiving their Master’s Concentration in Israel Education. She was one of Camp Alonim’s Jewish Education Directors this past summer, and currently serves as Assistant Director at Valley Beth Shalom Etz Chaim Learning Center in Los Angeles where she is responsible for creating educational experiences using emerging technologies for its Technology Academy students.
Israeli Channel 1 News, February 28, 2016. www.youtube.com/watch?v=dXebnZmrl9Y&feature=youtu.be
The Jewish Press, Published February 29, 2016 www.jewishpress.com/news/report-new-syrian-refugee-camps-on-israels-lebanon-border-video/2016/02/29/
The Times of Israel. Published April 7th, 2016 www.timesofisrael.com/israeli-doctors-spies-rally-to-save-5-year-old-syrian-girl/
Haaterz – Netanyahu increase aid to Syrian refugees: www.haaretz.com/israel-news/1.760333
Eritrea country profile – www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13349078
Haaretz article about Holot – www.haaretz.co.il/news/education/.premium-1.3149830
Assaf – Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel. assaf.org.il/en/
Ynet (1.21.14) www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4478835,00.html
ARDC (African Refugee Development Center) ardc-israel.org/en/content/refugees-israel
BBC (2.3.15) www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35475403
Begin Helps the Vietnamese Refugees: www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4478835,00.html