Women and children wait to be registered prior to a food distribution carried out by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in Thonyor, Leer state, South Sudan, on Feb. 26. Photo by Siegfried Modola/Reuters

The Passover paradox


In early March, the United Nations announced that the world is facing — and this is not hyperbole — “the greatest humanitarian crisis since 1945.”

If you’re thinking Syria or European migrants, you’re wrong. Neither of those issues was mentioned once.

Right now, the great humanitarian crisis of our world is food insecurity — a condition afflicting tens of millions of people who have limited or uncertain access to nutritional and safe food. 

According to the U.N., an estimated 20 million people will face the threat of starvation and famine this year in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria. The New York Times devoted a special section on April 2 to the stories of 130,000 people forced from their homes by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, who have camped next to a highway in the Niger desert in search of food and water.

UNICEF is warning that “1.4 million children could starve to death this year.” And I hesitate to describe the accompanying pictures of children already in peril — their faces sunken, desperate, nearly deformed from malnourishment.

Now comes Pesach, a harvest festival. It arrives every spring when the earth is bursting with blooms, when crops are growing and nature renews itself, offering its bounty.

And yet, it forces us to confront hunger.

The relationship between hunger and the Passover seder is so central to the holiday that reiterating the connection is stating the obvious. Early on, before we do almost anything else, we hold up the matzo, and we sing “Ha Lachma Anya” — behold, the bread of affliction. The central symbol of Pesach literally is the poor man’s bread: It is the bread of the persecuted, degraded and displaced who could not afford to waste a single second letting dough rise when the moment for liberation came.

On Pesach, our task is to relive the experience of slavery and its infinite deprivations so deeply, so viscerally, it should be as if each one of us had personally gone out of Egypt.

And yet, when I think of the modern Jewish seder table, I think of abundance. Most of us probably enjoy multiple courses of food, flowing wine, crystal glasses, fine china, luxurious table linens. Others partake of popular Pesach “vacations” with kosher buffets so ample they could feed a king, a queen and their court. And I wonder if all of this abundance on the holiday when we are meant to recall deprivation is missing the point. Slavery is having to do without; but our seder tables sometimes are paradigms of excess.

The year 2016 was the second year in a row in which the Department of Housing and Urban Development named Los Angeles as the city with the most chronically homeless people in the country. An estimated 44,000 people sleep on the streets of our city each night. On Pesach, we’ll sing, “All who hunger, you are welcome here,” but how many of us will invite a hungry person to eat at our table? How many of us will welcome the stranger, the orphan, the refugee?

Our tradition is clear about our obligation, as Jews, to make the world better. We all understand this. That’s why we give to charities, and pay taxes, and support food kitchens, and engage in the fight for political equality and justice. The Shulchan Aruch demands that every Jewish community establish a kupa, a welfare fund to be distributed to those in need. It also prescribes a tamchui, a communal kitchen that provides food for the poor. 

But it doesn’t end there.

Our tradition also recognizes that something different happens when you invite a hungry person into your home. That it is spiritually elevating to break “bread” with someone who is not like you — who does not share your background, your skin color, your socioeconomic status. The holiday table can become an extraordinary equalizer in allowing us to realize our shared humanity. What makes us human is not what we have; it is what we have to give.

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to invite one of my mother’s former students to spend Shabbat with my family and me. He is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who lost nine family members in a horrendous slaughter. He and his brother, a former child soldier, and a young woman who also survived the conflict sat in my grandmother’s living room as we lit yahrzeit candles together and remembered all of the people we had lost. That night, we counted more dead among us than living. It was one of the most profound moments of human connection in my life. A Shabbat meal bound me to refugees as we ate, sang, shared and danced to real African drums.

What would it look like if more families modeled this kind of exchange the way my mother did for me? What is the point of digging into our formative pain as a people if it does not awaken us to the pain of others? It’s not enough just to tell the story.

Our communal destiny is to write a new one.

Chag sameach.


Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

A demonstrator holds a sign to protest against the refugee ban on Feb. 4. Photo by Tom Mihalek/Reuters

Embracing the Jewish community’s refugee roots


HIAS was established 135 years ago to protect Jewish refugees who were fleeing the pogroms of Czarist Russia. Today, we remain true to our original mission of refugee protection. We are helping people who have fled their countries because their lives were in jeopardy due to who they are or what they believe.

[Abraham H. Miller: HIAS should return to its roots]

When there are refugees who are Jewish, HIAS is still there to make sure they receive help. In the past year, HIAS brought Jews from Iran, the Middle East, Ukraine, and other parts of the former Soviet Union to safety and freedom in the United States.

Yet, some in our community continue to ask, why are we helping refugees fleeing genocide, even when they are not Jewish? Thankfully, the Torah provides us with a clear answer.

Our most sacred text delivers a universal message about Jewish commitment to human rights and refugee protection. We read 36 times about the commandment to love the stranger as ourselves, for we know the heart of a stranger, as we were once strangers in the land of Egypt.

Assisting refugees of all faiths and ethnicities is not just a fulfillment of the values imbued by our holiest scripture, it’s a recognition of our people’s own Exodus experiences. The American Jewish community’s very existence is rooted in the windows of time when the United States opened its doors to refugees. Remaining silent while others seek the same opportunity to live in safety would be morally reprehensible.

With the largest number of refugees and displaced persons in recorded history, our mission is as relevant as ever—because of our roots. That is the only reason HIAS does what it does. Not for profit, but out of love and a commitment to our Jewish-American values.

Yes, HIAS (along with eight other mostly faith-based agencies) does receive government funding to subsidize these efforts, but we do not make a profit. HIAS’ local resettlement sites receive $2,075 per refugee with which we must pay our staff and overhead while providing the refugee with transportation, a fully furnished apartment for three months, a kitchen stocked with food, English lessons and cultural orientation, a cash allowance, assistance with school enrollment, and job placement services. There is no profit; we rely heavily on local volunteers and private donations.

An America that does not welcome refugees is not an America that most American Jews recognize. Just ask the hundreds of congregationsnearly 2,000 rabbis, or thousands of supporters who attended our National Day of Jewish Action for Refugees.

We will not stand on the sidelines as Muslim refugees are turned away just for being Muslim, just as we could not stand idly by when the U.S. turned away Jewish refugees fleeing Europe during the 1930s and 40s. When we say, “Never again,” we mean never again for everyone.

We cannot protect ourselves by being only for ourselves. We can only protect ourselves by protecting and implementing universal principles of human rights. If we acted only when Jewish refugees were in danger, as opposed to constantly advocating for the protection of all refugees, it wouldn’t only wrong, it would be a rejection of our refugee roots.


Mark Hetfield is the President and CEO of HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees.

Regina Spektor discusses her Russian-Jewish reaction to the refugee ban


Interviewed Jan. 30 on the KCRW-FM show “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” Russian-Jewish indie songstress Regina Spektor described President Donald Trump’s executive order calling for a ban on refugees entering the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries as “pure insanity.”

“I came here with refugee status. My heart really goes out to all the people that are, this Muslim ban, I think it is just, it feels like pure insanity to me, and I came here as a Russian-Jewish refugee from a country that doesn’t even exist anymore — the Soviet Union,” she said in an interview with “Morning Becomes Eclectic” host Jason Bentley. “But my parents were, at least at that moment in time, we weren’t fleeing because our physical lives were in danger; we were fleeing because there was anti-Semitism and no freedom of religion.”

She continued: “Seeing how much my parents had to give up, how hard it was for them to come to a place without any money and without knowing the language, all the things they had to do to get here, I can’t imagine now, especially as a mother, what it feels like to be a parent of a child and be fleeing for physical safety, for food, for shelter,” she said. “It hurts that things are being done on our behalf as a people that don’t seem to reflect our progressive nature.”

During the interview, she attributed her pessimism about the future of American life under President Trump to, in part, her Russian-Jewish roots.

“I think there is a part of me that’s very much hopeful and then there’s a part of me that’s maybe the Soviet-slash-endless-row-of-generations-of-Jews-who-barely-survived-and-that’s-why-I’m-here kind of part, and it’s very sort of, I don’t know, kind of, suspicious and confused and deflated,” she said.

The conversation began with Bentley asking Spektor about what it was like for Spektor to perform at the Jan. 21 Women’s March in Los Angeles. Spektor performed a cover of Jewish icon Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” in front of a sea of people on a closed-down street in downtown Los Angeles.

“I wanted to find the right words to express the feeling I was having, so, of course, I went right to a human I really love so much and that’s Bob Dylan, and then I covered ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ I felt, I don’t know, it felt really right at that moment,” she told Bentley.

Spektor fled the Soviet Union at the age of 9 as one of 36,114 Jews who immigrated with the help of HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), the self-described “oldest international migration and refugee resettlement agency in the U.S … founded in 1881 originally to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe.”

Spektor, who will perform April 8 in support of her latest album, “Remember Us to Life,” at the Dolby Theatre, was one of several celebrities to appear at women’s marches on Jan. 21 across the country.

The entirety of the 42-minute “Morning Becomes Eclectic” interview and performance with Spektor is available at kcrw.com.

The many faces of the Jewish refugee


Since the global refugee crisis took over front pages and cable networks, a popular statistic in the Jewish world has been the number 36. It’s mentioned frequently by politically attuned and progressive-leaning clergy as the number of times, at minimum, Jews are commanded in the Torah to care for the stranger in their midst, for they were strangers in the land of Egypt.

But there’s no need to look as far back as the Exodus to remember a time when Jews were strangers in a strange land. The face of the modern refugee is kaleidoscopic: Syrian, Afghan, Rohingya, Yazidi, Sudanese, Congolese. This effect is found in miniature within the many colors of the Jewish refugee over the last century: Persians, Russians, Iraqis, Poles, Germans, Algerians, and others who have sought respite in America.

In the few days since President Donald Trump signed an executive order restricting refugee admissions, the anti-Nazi theologian Marvin Niemoller has enjoyed a new vogue for his verse: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out. … Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.” Today’s body politic has reimagined these lines as, “First they come for the Muslims, and then we said, ‘Not this time!’ ”

By compelling them to reach outward, to march for and alongside Muslims, the recent protests have caused American Jews to look inward and to draw on their own past. A look inside the very long — and yet very recent — history of Jewish refugees reveals a diversity that reflects today’s global refugee crisis, as well as its pervading narrative of persecution and hardship.

Collected below, edited for clarity and length, are six of these Jewish refugee stories, in their words.

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From left: Simon Ebrahimi, his daughter Maryam and wife, Nahid, in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, shortly after arriving from Iran. Below: the portrait for his 2012 novel.

cov-ebrahimi-useAfter a few months, we arrive at the New York airport. I’m with two little children and my wife. And my wife, who knows my temperament, she said, “You just don’t argue with anybody. Let’s go through this.” I said, “Fine.” So the guy calls me and says, “Why didn’t you let go of our hostages?” I said, “Excuse me?” “You Iranians,” he says. “Why didn’t you let go of our hostages?” … The third time, which is, you know, typical, he came and he said, “You still didn’t respond to me.” I said, “You know what, why don’t you and I go to Iran together and release the hostages? It’s a simple solution!” 

— Simon Ebrahimi, 79, Woodland Hills

 

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Milana Vayntrub as a toddler, newly arrived from Soviet Uzbekistan. As an adult, she has earned national fame in a series of AT&T commercials.

cov-milana-vayntrubThis is little me on the front steps of our apartment building in West Hollywood, in my coolest athletic gear. Most people living in that community were immigrants and it brought us so much closer together knowing we had this generous network of friends and babysitters we could rely on. A few years after arriving to America, my grandparents immigrated and moved in next door. My grandmother used to make Russian dumplings by hand and sell them to delis. She used her earnings to pay her way through school, where she studied English and accounting. Last year, she was able to comfortably retire. She’s a huge inspiration.

— Milana Vayntrub, 29, Hollywood

 

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Igor Mikhaylov (center) in 1983 with his family in Kiev. Below: Mikhaylov with his wife and sons in 2013.

cov-igor-mikhaylov-yom-kippur-2013-75-of-1My family and I left the Soviet Union in 1989 when I was 10. We were escaping anti-Semitism, which was rampant. Jewish refugees could not go directly to the U.S., and places like Austria, where we were initially settled, were overrun with refugees. The situation could get very heated, with Austrian protestors holding picket signs that said, “Shoot the Jews!“ and yelling “Sterben!” — “Die!” Later, we settled in a beautiful Italian coastal town, Santa Marinella. It had magnificent views of the Tyrrhenian Sea, palms, beach and a medieval castle, but none of it was really enjoyable since we were living in limbo. People had heart attacks, aneurisms, nervous breakdowns. Then came the vetting process and questions such as, “Were you ever members of the Communist party?” The only correct answer was “No!”  Who would check? How can you prove it?

— Igor Mikhaylov, 38, Granada Hills

 

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Penina Meghnagi Solomon (above, second from right) with her family in a refugee camp in Italy in 1967, after fleeing Libya. Below: in 2013.

cov-penina-nowI can remember the black sky from the burning. And we were in terror because they were looking for the Jews. … We lost everything. We had property, we had money in the banks. … I remember coming in [to the refugee camp in Italy] and not knowing where we’re going to sleep, what we’re going to eat, whatever. I was 17. And my mom was a widow at that time. … But maybe because my personality is I’m always looking to the positive on anything, I was happy to leave [Libya]. I was happy to leave to a place where I was subjugated to always worry, always with the head half turned back, you never know when you’re going to be pinched or someone’s going to try to kill you. So for me, we were on our way to freedom and it was a good feeling.

— Penina Meghnagi Solomon, 67, Valley Village

 

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Bob Geminder (right) with his brother George and cousin Muriel shortly after he arrived with his family in the U.S. after the Holocaust. Below: Geminder in Los Angeles in 2016.

cov-geminder-nowI was 12 years old. Knew no English pretty much, just some really bad words that the soldiers taught me at the German [displaced persons] camp. … This [photo above] was in East Orange, N.J. — that was kind of our first stop in America. … We were at that DP camp in Germany in Regensburg for about a year and a half, and that was kind of my first schooling. That’s where I learned the alphabet, I learned what two plus two is — you know, some math.. … The big joke in the Regensburg camp was, “Don’t worry about it — you’re going to find money on trees in America.” Me, being a foolish 12-year-old, I started looking at the trees.

— Bob Geminder, 81, Rancho Palos Verdes

 

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Tabby Refael (left) with her mother in the 1980s, shortly before emigrating from Iran. Below: Refael with her son in 2017.

cov-tabby-nowThe black-and-white photo features my mother and me in Iran in the mid-1980s. Iran printed the word “Jew” next to our names on our passports. Months later, on the same document, the Americans printed the three greatest words that have ever been written about us, stamped in a miraculous, indisputable promise: “Protected Refugee Status.” That alone should tell us something about the differences between repressive theocracies and redemptive democracies. I am eternally grateful to Congress and to HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) for the gift of a renewed life, as this photo of my son and me in America in 2017 conveys. It also captures my inner joy at not having had to wear a mandatory Muslim head covering in more than 28 years.

— Tabby Refael, 34, Pico-Robertson

Activists gather at Portland International Airport on Jan. 29. Photo by Steve Dipaola

Trump order flouts American principles


Like most Jews whose family history features flights from persecution, I have a soft spot for refugees, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” welcomed to our shores by Emma Lazarus’ famous poem engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. But there have always been those who felt differently.

President Donald Trump’s recent executive order suspending the State Department’s Refugee Assistance Program and restricting visa entry from seven Muslim-majority countries is one in a long line of racist, anti-immigrant measures, from the Naturalization Act of 1790 (limiting naturalization to whites) and Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (prohibiting Chinese laborers) to the Immigration Act of 1924 (enacting national origin quotas to reduce the number of Jews and Italians, and exclude Arabs and Asians), which have influenced our immigration policies up to the present day. As President Harry S. Truman said in vetoing the similarly problematic Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, “In no other realm of our national life are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration.” Congress overrode his veto. President John F. Kennedy was so disturbed by the racist and discriminatory nature of our immigration laws that he even wrote a book about it, “A Nation of Immigrants,” in which he warned that “emotions of xenophobia — hatred of foreigners — and of nativism — the policy of keeping America ‘pure’ … continue to thrive.”

Trump campaigned largely on xenophobic rhetoric aimed at Latinos, Asians and Muslims, here and abroad. For example, on Nov. 6, just days before the election, he called the community of 25,000 Somali refugees in Minnesota a “disaster,” and promised not to admit more refugees without the approval of the community. It is therefore hardly surprising that the new president used his broad executive authority to stop admitting refugees and restrict entry to the United States by individuals from countries like Somalia, which he believes may be sources of radical Islamic terrorism. I expect there will be many more of these types of orders in the days to come, and, in my view, the president likely will succeed in implementing these policies.

To be sure, Trump’s first executive order on immigration has caused a great outcry, even among those who generally support strong anti-terrorism efforts, mainly because it was so poorly conceived and executed. In just the first days, hundreds of travelers were caught in limbo, and attorneys working over the weekend obtained a temporary stay of certain elements of the order, some of which, like the refusal of entry to valid green card holders, may have already been retracted by the administration. There seem to be no exceptions made for properly vetted visitors, including students or scientists attending conferences on tourist visas, or even people who have assisted our armed forces. No doubt there will be protracted litigation over some of the more objectionable parts of the order, such as the instruction to prioritize refugee claims made by members of “a minority religion” (i.e., Christians). Singling out seven countries might also run afoul of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which barred discrimination against immigrants (but not visitors) on the basis of national origin (unless permitted by Congress). But the upshot is that Trump is pulling up the welcome mat. The huddled masses are no longer going to be welcome. That is the message he is sending to his constituents, and to those living abroad.

Rather than focus on the legality of Trump’s executive order, which has already disrupted the lives of thousands of people, we should be focusing on the underlying policy issue. Is this the country that we want to be? Do we really want to admit no students, no scientists, no tourists, no visiting family members, no artists, no musicians, and no skilled employees from these seven countries? What exactly was wrong with the existing vetting procedures? Why were these seven countries chosen, and not others, such as Saudi Arabia, with a history of exporting terrorists to our shores? A strict reading of the executive order would bar any non-American citizen “from” Iran from obtaining a tourist visa, meaning that many of the relatives of our Persian Jewish community living abroad in Israel or Europe can no longer come to visit. Does that make anyone safer?

With regard to refugees, there is an even more fundamental question. Should we close off our country to even the most persecuted refugees? There are thousands of refugees, families with children, who have been waiting for years while their applications were vetted and who now are blocked. Some argue that we need to set up high barriers to entry to prevent terrorists from entering the country. Almost 80 years ago, when the United States faced a far greater threat than we do today, and Jews were the ones clamoring to get in, Americans made the same argument. “How do we know there won’t be Nazi spies among the refugees?” they asked. Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long ordered all consular officials “to put every obstacle in the way” to delay and stop granting visas to Jewish refugees. As a result, 90 percent of the quota spots were left unfilled, and the Jews trapped in Europe, our relatives, were murdered.

I see little or no difference between the “America First” policy of President Trump, and the similarly named nativist policy that informed Breckinridge Long. We can do better, I think, than defying our own principles in the name of security.


RANDY SCHOENBERG is an attorney and a law lecturer at USC.

Rabbis, refugee agency deny report of Louisville synagogue resettling Syrian Jews


A report of a Conservative synagogue in Louisville resettling Jewish refugees from Syria is false, say a local refugee resettlement agency and the rabbis of the Kentucky city’s two Conservative synagogues.

On Friday, JTA received an anonymous report that an unnamed Conservative synagogue in the city had welcomed three Syrian Jewish families. The report provided the names and some personal details of the families, but did not name the synagogue. Other publications have since published the report.

But the rabbis at the two Conservative synagogues and a representative of a local refugee resettlement agency refuted the report.  While the city’s Jewish community of about 8,500 helped a Syrian Muslim family settle in the city, the rabbis said, their synagogues have not brought in any Jewish families.

“It’s a rumor. It’s not true,” Rabbi Robert Slosberg of Congregation Adath Jeshurun. told JTA. “There’s no Syrian refugee family that came to the Jewish community that anyone in the Jewish community that I’ve spoken to of authority knows about.”

Rabbi Michael Wolk of Keneseth Israel Congregation also told JTA the report “is not true at all.”

Rebecca Jordan, Kentucky state refugee coordinator for the Catholic Charities of Louisville, wrote in an email to JTA that the city’s refugee resettlement agencies “have neither resettled these families, [n]or have them as a families [sic] that they expect to arrive.”

Taking in refugees is good for America


We all intuitively understand that if your friend loses his house in a hurricane, the right thing to do is to invite him to stay with you. But what if 10 of your friends lose their houses? You might call on your other friends to help with the cost of hotel rooms. And if you don’t actually know the unfortunate souls who lost it all? You might still lend a hand through the many private charities that assist those in distress.

The same philosophy should apply today, as the American people decide whether to accept a portion of the estimated 4.2 million Syrian refugees currently trying to escape their civil war-torn nation. And yet resistance to the idea is strong.

In 2015, the United States admitted 70,000 refugees combined from countries such as Iraq, Iran, China and Indonesia. For 2016, President Barack Obama proposed increasing the ceiling to 85,000 — higher than at any time since he took office, but many fewer than the 207,116 refugees — mostly from Asia — that we welcomed into the country in 1980.

Obama also requested that 10,000 refugees from Syria be accepted — a number that barely begins to address the humanitarian needs of the millions displaced by war. It also pales in comparison to the 1.1 million Syrian refugees who have found a home in Lebanon and the 815,000 allowed to resettle in Turkey. Unfortunately, with the rise of radical Islamism and recent terrorist attacks in countries such as France and the United States, many Americans (and American presidential candidates) are concerned about the national security implications of allowing in any refugees from that region.

Protecting U.S. citizens is obviously a priority, and the government has a responsibility to vet refugees before letting them settle here. But this isn’t as easy as it sounds, because reliable background checks may be hard to obtain and people who have fled their homes may have a difficult time providing verifiable proof of their identities.

Those difficulties shouldn’t be deal breakers, however. Arguably, no act of terrorism has been committed in the last 40 years by refugees in the United States (though a tiny number of refugees have been arrested on terrorism-related charges, and depending on the precise definition of refugees used, the Boston Marathon bombing or other incidents may count). And the long wait time and high cost of entering the country as a refugee make that an extremely inefficient way for terrorists to get in.

Meanwhile, countries that refuse entry to refugees — forcing them to reside in terrible living conditions in camps near the theater of conflict — may inadvertently be facilitating recruitment by extremist groups. A 2013 study in the journal International Interactions shows that when large numbers of refugees are placed in countries that have historically had tensions with their country of origin, it increases the risk of terrorism. Georgetown University’s Anne Speckhard, who studies terrorist psychology, said: “Experience from many conflict zones teaches us that the longer these refugees are left to languish in despair in camps, the more prone they become to radicalization.” In other words, there are serious security downsides to not accepting refugees.

Resettlement in the United States is only the first step in the process, of course; assimilation is also important. Thankfully, past efforts on this front have met with positive results. “Refugees adapt quickly to the U.S. economy, complement existing workers and settle rapidly into their new homes,” argued Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration specialist at the Cato Institute.

Because refugees cannot return to their homeland as many economic migrants do, Nowrasteh explained, they tend to make serious long-term commitments to learning English and other relevant skills. The data confirm this point: A paper by Kalena E. Cortes, published in The Review of Economics and Statistics in May 2004, looked at how implicit differences in the time horizons of refugees and economic immigrants affected subsequent human capital investments. She found that a decade after their arrival, refugees who settled here between 1975 and 1980 earned 20 percent more in wages, worked 4 percent more hours, and had improved their English skills 11 percent more.

“Unlike other immigrants, refugees do have immediate access to some welfare programs,” Nowrasteh added, “but they generally leave them rapidly and are more likely to enter the workforce than natives or other immigrants.” This is a good thing, because the availability of welfare doesn’t do much to help assimilation and may even hinder refugees’ well-being.

A 2000 paper by Andrey Vinokurov, Dina Birman and Edison Trickett in International Migration Review looked at the psychological impact of working on 206 (mostly Jewish) Soviet refugees in the United States. It compared Russians who settled in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn to those who settled in the Washington, D.C., area.

The New York refugees had more access to welfare. However, the data show that those in the D.C. area were more satisfied with their lives and more upwardly mobile. The more the job matched  a refugee’s original skills, the more positive the impact. There was no real difference on the level of acculturation.

But what about the impact of these new entrants on Americans? Economists have shown that immigrants generally increase the host country’s overall gross domestic product (GDP). The result on GDP per capita is a source of debate, but the literature suggests that the effect depends on the relative skill set of refugees compared to the native population. Highly skilled refugees would add much more to the average per-person income than low-skilled ones. But does that mean that low-skilled refugees have a negative impact?

That doesn’t seem to be the case. In a well-known 1990 paper, economist David Card looked at the impact on the Miami economy of 125,000 Cuban refugees who arrived during the Mariel boatlift crisis. Although the immigrants increased Miami’s labor force by 7 percent — and were concentrated in less-skilled occupations — contrary to people’s fears, the influx had virtually no effect on the wages or unemployment rates of the city’s less-skilled workers, even among previous Cuban immigrants.

Low-skilled refugees, like other immigrants, tend to boost the employment opportunities of native workers, either by providing cheap child care services that enable women to increase their labor force participation or by pushing native workers to pursue more complex occupations and higher wages. A 2013 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by Mette Foged and Giovanni Peri, for instance, looked at the effect on Danish workers of a large inflow of non-European refugees between 1991 and 2008. It found real positive wage effects set in after five to six years, as the rest of the economy adjusted to the increase in workers, and the native laborers moved into more complex jobs. The flexibility of the Danish labor market played to everyone’s favor, much as the strong economy in the U.S. in the 1980s did.

Assuming these results hold true today, accepting more refugees is not just the moral thing to do. It’s in everyone’s best interest.


Veronique de Rugy is a columnist at Reason magazine and an economist at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Reprinted with permission from Reason.

This is what it takes to resettle a refugee


San Diego could hardly be more different from the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement.

When Sebazira Amatutule, a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, arrived in California on June 10, 2015, after spending nearly two decades in a refugee camp in Uganda, he found a world where the rules were foreign to him, often in ways that surprised and pleased him.

“In Africa, you can’t move,” he said in a recent interview. “You’re supposed to have your ID, and people are supposed to know where are you going. But here, you just have your bus pass, you board your bus, not even the driver is asking you where you’re going, you just stop, you go out and you reach home.”

Though thrilled with his newfound freedom, Amatutule at first found the new rules bewildering. He needed somebody to teach him how to cross the street, how to use the bus, how to shop at the market.

Amatutule is neither Iraqi nor Syrian. Nonetheless, his story is typical of the challenges and logistical acrobatics required in plucking an individual from one part of the world as a candidate for immigration to the United States.

Refugees hoping to come to the U.S. are heavily vetted before getting permission to enter; many wait three years for their application to be processed. According to officials, if Tashfeen Malik, the Pakistani-born San Bernardino terrorist who with her husband killed 14 people, had tried to enter the U.S. as a refugee rather than with a fiancée visa, she would have had a much longer wait and more than likely the vetting process would have disqualified her.

Settling refugees here can also be a yearslong commitment.

And that’s where Jewish Family Service (JFS) of San Diego comes in. Along with a handful of other Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, Jewish Family Service branches are offering crucial initial help to refugees — whether from Africa, Asia or Syria or Iraq — in finding homes and establishing a life for their families the U.S.

San Diego’s JFS is among those on the ground floor of an international operation seeking to resettle refugees currently living in dangerous or squalid conditions. When Amatutule arrived, for example, the nonprofit connected him with a case manager, who helped him enroll his two children in elementary school, enrolled him in temporary government aid programs and helped him find a job as a landscaper.

For many TV news viewers in the United States, the current refugee crisis seemed to begin last September, when grim news began to appear of massive numbers of migrants escaping Syria to Europe, many of them dying in waterlogged rafts or unventilated trucks.

The media frenzy erupted just in time for last fall’s High Holy Days, and rabbis took to the pulpit to encourage congregations to take note. By that time, Amatutule had already spent some 18 Yom Kippurs and Rosh Hashanahs displaced by war from his homeland, which he left because of its long-running civil war.

“Six months ago, we felt we were shouting into the wind trying to get people to understand there’s a refugee crisis,” Riva Silverman, vice president of external affairs for HIAS, a Jewish refugee aid organization, told congregants at a Shabbat lunch in January at Temple Beth Am on La Cienega Boulevard.

Silverman spoke at a crucial, if understated, moment for Jewish activism on the issue. Suddenly alert to the crisis, synagogues across the Southland are now trying to decide how, if it all, they can help.

HIAS was founded in 1881, originally as a group dedicated solely to Jewish refugees — thus its name, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. By the time the number of displaced Jews had trickled to a halt after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, HIAS’ leadership decided that rather than close up shop, it would continue by serving non-Jewish refugees.

Now, HIAS is part of the United States Refugee Admission Program, a roundtable of nine nonprofit organizations that together with the State Department form the government apparatus for refugee resettlement.

The refugee admission system varies greatly from country to country. In Canada, for example, a group of five or more people can sponsor a refugee or family of refugees to come settle in their area by taking full financial responsibility for those individuals.

The system in the United States is much more rigid. When the United Nations decides refugees should go to the United States, HIAS and the other eight nonprofits divide responsibility for the immigrants, then turn to local partners to coordinate their living arrangements.

The Refugee and Immigration Services office of JFS San Diego is one of those local partners; each month, it helps resettle about 30 refugees. (Los Angeles’ high cost of living means the government has excluded it as a destination for refugee placement, Silverman said.)

Thirty refugees may seem like a drop in the bucket when compared with the nearly 60 million refugees that today remain in international limbo. (This week, Austria came under criticism for taking only 80 refugees per day.) But for the people and organizations across North America who devote their time and resources to finding safe havens for these families, every drop counts.

“The only consolation we find is, ‘one person at a time,’ ” said Etleva Bejko, director of the JFS San Diego refugee office.

In fact, in San Diego, the diverse neighborhoods of City Heights and El Cajon have become home to robust and growing refugee communities.

For those refugees who do not have family in the region, JFS arranges airport pickup and leases them an apartment, stocking it with groceries and basic household goods. For those with families offering some help, the process starts the day after the refugees arrive, when a case manager briefs them on how resettlement works and determines their eligibility for a variety of government services.

Case manager Husam Salman, 30, likes to begin by telling clients those services are only temporary, so they are not shocked when government aid dwindles down the line.

A non-practicing Muslim from Baghdad, Salman can speak from personal experience. In 2013, he arrived as a refugee, joining a sister who had settled in San Diego with the help of JFS.

At first, he, his sister and two brothers shared a studio apartment in El Cajon, east of San Diego. He struggled to find an apartment of his own without an income stream. Soon, though, JFS helped him get a job — first at a door-to-door advertising company and later at Walmart, where he made enough income to afford to live on his own.

Six months after starting work at Walmart, his cellphone rang during a work break. It was Becky Morines, then a JFS employment specialist, calling to offer him a job as a case manager.

Salman has a law degree from Iraq, and getting an office job was a palpable step up for him. But from the beginning, he felt the U.S. was a better fit than his native country, since the legal system here works fairly and, he said, “everybody is equal here.”

“I just feel I belonged to this country because it’s so fair,” he said during a recent interview at his office. “In our country, like, no, the logic is sick. The values are different — it’s upside down.”

Salman has become something of a poster child for JFS San Diego: gainfully employed and upwardly mobile.

Despite his degree, he never practiced law in Iraq, fearing that career would make him a target for violence. But now, he hopes to find a way to obtain credentials to practice here. Morines, who has since left JFS, offered to put him in touch with her husband, a lawyer, to assist with the process.

“It was so nice [of her],” Salman said. “It’s so nice to have friends.”

Salman’s current job is part social worker, part employment agent, part therapist and part friend.

JFS San Diego is a full-service family nonprofit, providing goods and services ranging from a food pantry to a “Big Pals” program for Jewish teens.

But the program generating the most buzz these days is the Refugee and Immigration Services office, which relocated in 2015 to a satellite office in Mission Gorge, a 10-minute drive from the JFS San Diego headquarters, to be closer to the immigrant communities the organization serves.

When Saad Dawood first immigrated to San Diego from Baghdad in 2010, his JFS case manager took on the role of an informational hotline on life in America.

“I was calling him and asking if I need, like, to go somewhere, how can I get there, how to use the bus, everything, all the questions you can think of,” he said.

A college graduate in computer engineering, Dawood had no desire to leave Iraq, but then he and his sister were victims of a car bomb in Baghdad, leaving him with shrapnel wounds in his neck. Shortly after that, he was injured again in yet another improvised explosive detonation.

“After that I said, ‘That’s it.’ I mean, ‘I have to leave,’ ” he said. He left Iraq for Turkey, spending a year and nine months there before being allowed to resettle in the United States.

Even then his transition to the U.S. was not an easy one: At first, he was able to find only menial jobs.

About a year ago, he applied for a position on Craigslist for an IT support job — at JFS San Diego. In 2015, he was named the JFS San Diego employee of the year.

“There’s a reason why he was selected the employee of the year, and it goes beyond that he does great work,” CEO Michael Hopkins told the Jewish Journal during a recent visit to JFS San Diego’s newly remodeled headquarters on Balboa Avenue, about 10 miles north of downtown.

“I think in so many ways he’s an example of the work that we do, and it’s almost a reminder, when he’s fixing our computer, what we do here,” he added.

Hopkins said JFS has been flooded of late with requests for its leaders to come speak at synagogues and other local organizations about the work JFS does with refugees.

“We have had more requests than ever to be speakers, to be presenters, to better understand what’s going on,” he said. “For me, that’s the sign that there’s conversations happening outside, in our community, and people want to have the facts.”

Likewise, in Los Angeles, some synagogues are taking steps to educate themselves on the crisis.

At Temple Beth Am, HIAS’ Silverman came from Connecticut to speak at the invitation of a synagogue committee established to coordinate a response to the refugee crisis.

Taking the pulpit to address a joint service of the temple’s two main minyanim on Jan. 23, Silverman emphasized the Jewish responsibility, both historical and scriptural, to care for strangers in their midst.

“The moment we began our lives as a free people, we were commanded to have empathy for others,” she said, citing that week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, which describes the escape from slavery in Egypt: “You shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Even as attention to the crisis runs high, HIAS is now hedging against a backlash. Silverman reminded the audience that 31 governors had pledged to bar refugees from their states, and, in Congress, the House of Representatives passed a bill in November that would increase hurdles for refugees from Iraq and Syria seeking entry to the United States (the Senate rejected the House bill in January).

Silverman urged the congregants to help counterbalance that political tide.

“If there is only one thing you take away from my remarks this morning, it is to please educate yourselves more about refugee issues and be a voice of reason and compassion in your community,” she told the congregants seated in the synagogue’s main sanctuary.

So far, Beth Am has taken little definitive action in response to the refugee crisis. Members of the ad hoc refugee committee said it is still determining exactly how it can best help.

A few blocks east on Olympic Boulevard, IKAR, the nondenominational congregation that meets for services at Shalhevet High School, is in a similar exploratory process.

“We’re very much awake to this issue right now, and we’re just planning in a very thoughtful way where we can have the most impact in a sustained way,” said Jason Lipeles, IKAR’s community organizer.

IKAR has been scouting partner organizations that can translate goodwill into education and action.

As at Temple Beth Am and elsewhere, IKAR’s activism began around the High Holy Days, galvanized by stark images such as the photograph of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless body washed up on a Turkish shore.

“All of the sudden, we are awake,” Rabbi Sharon Brous, the congregation’s founding rabbi, sermonized on Rosh Hashanah. “The world’s shofar blast. What all those numbers, stats, warnings couldn’t do — wake us up — the picture of Aylan did in an instant.”

The Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, which is independent of JFS San Diego although part of the same loosely affiliated national network, also has a long history of working with immigrant communities. Its current focus is on the Russian and Iranian immigrant communities, according to David Gershwin, a spokesman for JFS LA.

The L.A. nonprofit’s Immigrant and Resettlement Program will work to help any immigrant in need of social services, regardless of origin and religion, Gershwin said: “If they show up at our doorstep, we will help them.” But, he said, at this time they are not involved with an expansive refugee aid program of the sort being done in San Diego.

Even more refugee resettlement is going on in Canada, where immigration law allows for a group of five or more people to sponsor a refugee family by paying for the family’s expenses for one year.

If San Diego shows what can be done — albeit on a limited basis — to help refugees, a congregation in Vancouver, Canada, shows what can be done when the forces of government, faith and philanthropy align.

Rabbi Dan Moskovitz moved to Canada in 2013 from Temple Judea in Tarzana to take the post of senior rabbi at Temple Sholom in Vancouver.

Within 48 hours of Moskovitz’s 2015 Kol Nidrei sermon exhorting his congregation to respond to the refugee crisis, the congregation raised $40,000 — enough to sponsor one refugee family, he said. Subsequent fundraising matched that amount, enabling the synagogue to sponsor an additional family, as well.

The temple has entered into a partnership with the local Anglican Diocese, which was already a “Sponsorship Agreement Holder,” a status that enables it to invite refugees to resettle in the community after the Canadian government has vetted them.

On Dec. 1, 2015, congregants met the two families via Skype during a town hall meeting. At that point, Moskovitz said, any apprehensions they might have had about inviting strangers from an active war zone into their community evaporated.

“You could hear an audible sigh of relief, and you could hear people saying in a murmur, ‘They look just like us; they could be my neighbor,’ ” he said.

After completing some paperwork — several lawyers from the congregation pitched in, including an immigration lawyer — the synagogue won approval to host the families, and expects them to arrive sometime in the next three months.

Closer to their arrival, synagogue members will be called upon to assist with tasks ranging from furnishing apartments to teaching the children to ski and play hockey. “Good Canadian stuff,” Moskovitz said.

Among about 30 of the larger Reform congregations in Canada, roughly 20 have agreed to sponsor at least one family, according to Moskovitz.

“This is a mitzvah that’s repeated 36 times in the Torah, to love the stranger because we were once strangers in the land,” Moskovitz said in an interview. “I couldn’t fulfill that mitzvah in Los Angeles, but I can do it in Canada.”

Providing a welcoming countenance and a helping hand for strangers has long been part of the organizational DNA at JFS San Diego.

The organization was founded in 1918 to assist Jewish asylum-seekers fleeing the first world war in Europe, who showed up at the Mexican border with the United States, CEO Hopkins said.

About a year ago, JFS San Diego developed a strategic plan that included boosting its involvement in refugee resettlement.

“We’re actually aware of some JFS [branches] that because they are no longer resettling Jews, decided to get out of the resettlement business,” Hopkins said. “As a result of our strategic plan, we actually deepened our commitment to doing refugee work.”

He said he recognizes concerns from some community members about security, heightened by recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, but he said those fears generally arise from a mistaken notion that “there’s some quick way to get into the United States.”

“It’s a really arduous, long, tedious process with numerous checks along the way,” he said.

Certainly, it was no easy journey for Sebazira Amatutule. But less than a year after his arrival, he now has a regular job with a landscaping company, and his children — a fourth-grader and a seventh-grader — go to a school within walking distance of their home near El Cajon.

In fact, Amatutule now helps other refugees get acclimated to San Diego; relatives at the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement have circulated his telephone number, and now he sometimes gets calls from fellow refugees asking for assistance and information.

Recently, he got a call from an acquaintance from Kyangwali who said he was being resettled by JFS in Pennsylvania.

“I replied that you have a good chance,” he said. “Other people are crying, but you have a good chance. If they assisted you the way they assisted me, your life is going to be better.”

The real victims of Syrian migrants


We’ve all heard the fear mongering about how Syrian refugees are mostly men — which somehow makes them more susceptible to becoming terrorists, and therefore dangerous to the West.

“You look at the migration, it’s young, strong men,” Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump told Yahoo last November. “We cannot take a chance that the people coming over here are going to be ISIS-affiliated.” 

Speaking to Fox News host Sean Hannity, Trump further conveyed his distrust of his gender: “Where are the women? Where are the children? We’re taking in people we have no idea who they are. … So I think … you know, it could very well be the ultimate Trojan horse.”

This sort of talk got some people very excited, to the point where the State Department had to address the issue during a November briefing on refugee screening and admissions. At that briefing, Fox News correspondent William La Jeunesse asked for a demographic breakdown of all Syrian refugees already admitted to the U.S. 

“Half of the Syrian refugees brought to the U.S. so far have been children, and a quarter are adults over 60,” a senior administration official responded. The official continued, rather deliberately: “And I think you will have heard that only two percent are single males of combat age. So … there’s slightly more [men] … it’s roughly 50-50 men and women, slightly more men I would say, but not — not a lot more men.”

But if we look at Europe, where perhaps the larger population of migrants is more representative, we would see the gender disparity that politicians were talking about. Of the roughly 1 million refugees who arrived in Europe by sea in 2015 — mostly from Syria, but also from Afghanistan, Iraq and a handful of other “refugee-producing countries” — about 25 percent were children, 17 percent women and 58 percent men, according to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). I never thought I’d say this, but, in this one area, it seems Trump got his facts right. 

However, I part company with the calculus behind The Hair in this: So far, the most urgent threat Syrian migrant men pose is to their own women.

Based on interviews with dozens of migrant women at refugee shelters in Germany, The New York Times reported that the perils of the already hazardous refugee flight “are amplified for women.” 

When one husband ran out of money to pay the smugglers transporting his family, he offered his 30-year-old wife, a mother of four, as payment instead. “For three months, she was raped almost daily to earn her family’s onward journey,” the Times reported. Another woman, Samar, who said she had worked for the Syrian Finance Ministry, said, “Everybody knows there are two ways of paying the smugglers – [w]ith money or with your body.”

Another woman interviewed said she stopped washing during her journey and began dressing as a boy in order to fend off unwanted attention and aggression. Even in Europe, within the relative safety of refugee shelters, many women still find themselves feeling vulnerable or in danger; several reported pushing cupboards in front of their bedroom doors at night.

Sexual assault among migrants is an under-reported phenomenon, and it isn’t happening only among those fleeing the Middle East. In 2014, National Public Radio (NPR) reported on the widespread problem of sexual assault among female Mexican migrants while crossing the border into the United States. Again, here, women often were forced to pay smugglers with their bodies, and some wound up captives, sex slaves or prostitutes. Sexual assault is so prevalent among female migrants entering the U.S., many women actually expect to be raped or assaulted en route, and come prepared for the journey with birth control and condoms to at least minimize the risks of pregnancy and the spread of disease.

“When a woman is raped in remote stretches of the border region, it almost always goes unpunished,” NPR reported. The same could be said of the Syrian migrants in Europe — so many are in transition, living in temporary shelters, not knowing the local language and often unaware of civil protections. What recourse do women in these positions really have?

It is also worth asking: Do men who feel at ease abusing their wives or assaulting other women and girls become more likely to commit other types of violent crime? I like to think one of the best measures of a healthy society is how it treats its women.

But when society fails, Hollywood sometimes offers a good alternative. 

In the movie “Ex Machina,” about a tech billionaire who uses his fortune to create artificial intelligence, we meet Ava, a dream-droid who lives under the lock-and-key of her brilliant but demented creator. Alone in his remote, wooded compound, the god-like Nathan decides to sexualize his femme-bots — both so that he can “use” them, and so that they can elicit feelings from humans beings — a sign, Nathan believes, of their true power and intelligence. 

But as it turns out, female dream-droids are not very docile. The beautiful bot Ava, played by Alicia Vikander, whose performance could earn her a Golden Globe on Sunday, tires of the male-run prison in which she is tightly controlled and terribly confined. Her “intelligence” demands her autonomy. Ava soon outsmarts the men holding her captive, killing one and entrapping another, because she knows the unequal origins of her existence will always restrict her. She doesn’t want rescue; she wants liberation.

“Almost all men in the world are bad,” is the sad conclusion of the Syrian refugee and mother, Samar. 

It is also the conclusion of “Ex Machina.” Yet Ava is a heroine who needs no prince to save her. From slavery to self-determination, she saves herself. 

Welcome to the female liberation story of the future.

A man called Sheila Kuehl an anti-Semite, her response is awesome


An angry speaker called Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, a Jew, a “scumbag” and an “anti-Semite” for the city's decision to allow Syrian refugees during a recent City Council meeting.

Kuehl quickly shut him down – her response was awesome:

Following the outburst, Kuehl allowed the man his full speaking time – even allowing him to start his time over.

The lesson: Don't mess with Sheila Kuehl.

The refugee dilemma: Fighting to defend the defenseless


On Nov. 19, less than a week after the deadly series of terrorist attacks in Paris, Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, the 134-year-old refugee resettlement organization, was summoned to the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress. The topic was the swelling Syrian refugee crisis.

Hetfield, 48, a lawyer and policy specialist in refugee and immigration resettlement, had been tracking the Syrian crisis since it began in 2011. What started as a civil war between Syrian president Bashar Assad and a handful of rebel groups seeking to unseat him had morphed in large part into a religious war with the self-declared Islamic State (ISIS) leading the rebellion, internally displacing 11 million Syrians and pushing another 4.1 million out of the country.  

Hetfield hoped to convince Congress to take in 100,000 Syrian refugees “over and above” the United States’ annual refugee quota of 70,000, a number far exceeding the additional 10,000 Syrians President Barack Obama had already agreed to welcome. (In Hetfield’s address to Congress, he called the American gesture “tepid.”) Hetfield knew a green light was unlikely: In the week after the Paris attacks, the revelation that a fake or stolen Syrian passport may have been used by one of the terrorists to infiltrate the refugees streaming into Europe set off panic among some Americans that Syrian refugees are indistinguishable from the Islamic State terrorists they are fleeing. As the U.S. election cycle continues to heat up, the refugees have become a political flashpoint, with distortions and fear-mongering shifting focus away from their desperate situation.

As civil discourse last week descended into talk of Muslim registries and permitting only Syrian Christians to enter the U.S., Hetfield prepared to fight the toxic political climate of xenophobia and fear. 

“Politicians who fixate on the refugee crisis — it’s perplexing,” Hetfield said from his office in New York the night before his hearing. “They do it because it’s easy. Refugees are defenseless; they don’t have a constituency, they don’t vote. And it’s lot easier dealing with refugees than it is dealing with ISIS.”

The day before Hetfield testified, a number of U.S. governors had announced that their states would not host Syrian refugees, prompting a bill in Congress that would make passage into the United States even harder (the bill later passed, although President Obama has promised to veto it). National polling revealed that a majority of Americans were overwhelmingly opposed to taking in any Syrian refugees.

“It’s totally unacceptable and irrational to us,” Hetfield said. He was especially disappointed in the governors. “They just haven’t done their research,” he said. “Every refugee [admitted to the U.S.] is vetted right side up, upside down and sideways — they’re vetting these people to death. It would be so painful and so difficult and so slow for [a terrorist] to go through that, they’d have to be nuts. There are so many other, easier ways to get into this country.”

Hetfield earned his law degree from Georgetown University and practiced immigration law at a Washington, D.C., law firm before moving to the nonprofit sector. He joined HIAS in 1989, where he has spent the majority of his career, working in Rome, New York and now Washington. His credentials in refugee resettlement work also include a stint as senior adviser for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, where he directed a study on the treatment of asylum seekers. He also worked for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington and Haiti. 

Hetfield said the current Syrian crisis is among the worst humanitarian disasters he has seen in his 25-year career. Most Syrian refugees not only have the requisite “well-founded fear of persecution,” they have a well-founded fear of slavery, torture or death. Desperate to flee Islamic State barbarism, as well as Assad’s indiscriminate bombing and air strikes by the U.S., Russia and other Western countries, many families braved the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe. This year alone, an estimated 3,329 people died journeying toward freedom. 

At the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security hearing, Hetfield pointedly described HIAS (formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) as an “agency of the American Jewish community.” Founded in 1881, HIAS was created to help Jews fleeing pogroms and other acts of violence in Russia and Eastern Europe, and calls itself the oldest refugee protection agency in the world. Although the matter of allowing Syrian refugees to immigrate to the U.S. has found both support and antipathy among American Jews, Hetfield believes Jews have a moral obligation to help. 

“Let’s face it, people turned away [refugees] because they were Jewish in the 1930s,” he said. “Refugees were not desirable, and it was specifically Jewish refugees that were not desirable.”

A Syrian refugee boy is seen shortly after arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos in a raft overcrowded with migrants and refugees, Nov. 20, 2015. Photo by Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

The current crisis has inspired a wave of comparisons between the plight of Syrian refugees and Jews fleeing Nazism. The Washington Post unearthed a 1938 article from the British Daily Mail archives lamenting, “The way stateless Jews and Germans are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage.” The Guardian noted the “rabid intolerance” with which Great Britain treated Jewish refugees in need. And in the U.S., the American Institute of Public Opinion found that, in 1939, 61 percent of Americans were opposed to taking in even 10,000 Jewish children. The same sort of xenophobia that has accompanied talk of Syrian refugees — conflating their identity as Muslims with terrorism — also afflicted the Jews. 

“Part of [the] hostility [toward Jews] was fueled … by stereotypes of the refugees as harbingers of a dangerous ideology,” The Washington Post reported, noting that many Europeans perceived Jews to be inclined toward communism and “anarchist violence.”

“Perhaps as many as half a million German Jewish asylum seekers were turned away by authorities ahead of the outbreak of World War II,” the Post reported. According to the Guardian, the only countries that took in Jewish refugees were Canada (5,000), Australia (10,000), South Africa (6,000) and the U.S. (33,000 before the war; 124,000 during the war), bringing the total to less than 200,000, while 6 million perished in the Holocaust.

“So, oddly enough, we find ourselves to be in solidarity with Muslim refugees,” Hetfield said. “Particularly when they’re targeted because they are Muslim. That makes us even more sympathetic, as a Jewish agency, to their plight.”

Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) President E. Randol Schoenberg, an attorney specializing in the reclamation of Jewish goods stolen by the Nazis and a central character in the recent film “Woman in Gold,” wrote a Facebook post citing connections between the Jewish plight of the 20th century and the Syrian plight of today.

“Whenever there is anti-immigrant rhetoric, I am reminded of how our country refused entry to so many Jews during the Holocaust,” Schoenberg wrote. “Our own State Department instructed American consulates to withhold even the limited visas permitted under our strict immigration quotas. … ”

Schoenberg recalled, in particular, a satirical ad film director and producer Ben Hecht took out in the Los Angeles Times declaring, “For Sale to Humanity: 70,000 Jews” — that is on display at LAMOTH. Published in 1943, the ad called for the U.S. to rescue 70,000 Jews from Romania, promising, facetiously, that there would be “no spies smuggled in among these Jews.” “If there are,” read the ad copy, “you can shoot them.”

Then, as now, the stateless refugee was considered a dangerous threat. 

“Obviously, many American[s] in 1943 felt the same as many do today — that we cannot risk admitting enemy agents among the throng of refugees,” Schoenberg wrote. “During World War II, this type of fear meant that millions of honest, innocent people were unable to escape their murderers. … I hope we don’t make the same mistake again.”

After the Paris attacks, Bruno Stagno Ugarte, the French-based Human Rights Watch executive director for advocacy, took to the airwaves to debunk the myth that one of the Paris attackers was Syrian. “That’s a false association,” he told MSNBC. “The evidence points to the fact that … this ghastly attack here on [Nov. 13] was homegrown terrorism. It was planned, organized and executed by people born and raised in Europe [and] does not discredit the hundreds of thousands of refugees that are fleeing violence. These are people that need our compassion; these are people that need international protection.”

“It simply does not make sense for U.S. lawmakers to react to the situation in Paris by proposing drastic legislative changes to the U.S. refugee resettlement program.” — Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS

In Congress, however, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) declared a need for caution. “This is a moment where it is better to be safe than to be sorry,” he said. “[S]o we think the prudent, the responsible thing is to take a pause in this particular aspect of this refugee program in order to verify that terrorists are not trying to infiltrate the refugee population.”

Already, all refugees hoping to enter the U.S. are subjected to rigorous security screenings that can take from 18 months to two years to complete. Much of this is the result of a program overhaul that took place after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when the Department of Homeland Security inherited the refugee program from the Justice Department’s immigration office. “Their entire focus is on making sure we’re safe,” Hetfield said of Homeland Security. 

The typical refugee screening includes a series of intensive, detail-oriented interviews that are recorded and sent to Washington, where each is vetted for consistency and truthfulness. Refugees are also required to submit a set of fingerprints, which are checked against law enforcement databases and intelligence agencies, international and domestic. “The [Paris terrorist] with the Syrian passport was actually French, and he was a criminal,” Hetfield said, noting differences in the procedures for U.S. refugees versus European ones. “In [the U.S.], a case like that would have been picked up. In Europe, [migrants] are showing up uninvited — they’re asylum seekers. So they can’t be vetted until after they are already on European soil.” 

According to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, the U.S. has taken in 784,000 refugees since 9/11. “Only three have been arrested subsequently on terrorism related charges,” Canadian politician and historian Michael Ignatieff wrote in the New York Review of Books.

“Refugees who arrive in the United States have undergone extensive security vetting prior to setting foot on U.S. soil,” Hetfield told Congress. “Refugees to Europe are not screened until after they enter. This is the distinction. It simply does not make sense for U.S. lawmakers to react to the situation in Paris by proposing drastic legislative changes to the U.S. refugee resettlement program.” 

In 2013, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) introduced eye scans of the iris into the refugee program, mainly for identification purposes in the distribution of aid. These days, however, Hetfield said the practice can also serve other important identification and tracking purposes — with nearly 100 percent accuracy. By this point, the scrupulousness of U.S refugee screenings has severely slowed, or in worse cases stopped, the ability to process refugees. Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, only 1,854 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the U.S. “So they’re not, like, pouring in,” Hetfield told the Journal.

He was blunt in his address to Congress: “[T]he security protocols in place [today] are stronger than anything I have seen in my 26 years of working in this field. So strong that it has made the refugee resettlement program into more fortress than ambulance, causing massive backlogs of holds of legitimately deserving and unnecessarily suffering refugees.” 

Where else can refugees go? Camps in Jordan and Turkey are massively overwhelmed, and aid is dwindling. An underfunded World Food Program has forced food rations down to 50 cents per person per day, and the UNHCR has amassed only half its projected budget for Syrian needs. A cease-fire in Syria does not seem likely anytime soon (a prospect Ignatieff’s New York Review of Books piece called a “cruel mirage”), and even if one comes, the country has been ravaged, leaving little left to return to in Syria.

Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis, 1939.

If U.S. allies such as France and Germany are left alone to shoulder the majority burden of the refugee crisis, that, too, could lead to disaster, empowering far-right nationalist groups such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front that are calling for closed borders. “If Europe closes its borders, if the frontline states can no longer cope, the U.S. and the West will face millions of stateless people who will never forget that they were denied the right to have rights,” Ignatieff wrote.

The UNHCR has asked the U.S. to take in half of the 130,000 most vulnerable refugees they’ve identified at a Turkish camp — among them orphans, disabled and the badly injured. But in the current climate, as calls to monitor Muslim immigrants or accept only non-Muslims into the country have grown, this request seems unlikely to be fulfilled any time soon. 

The path is brighter after refugees are inside the U.S. Despite protests from Congress and governors, only the president and the Department of Homeland Security can determine a refugee’s path once he or she is resettled in America. State legislators cannot refuse refugees placed by Homeland Security in their state. And even if a state is hostile to refugees, refusing aid or other subsidies available through the refugee program (such as federal money for public education), they are still obligated to help refugees, who have legal protections and can ultimately decide to live wherever they want.

“Refugees have rights,” Hetfield said. “Unlike an undocumented immigrant, a refugee has the right to be here, and they have access to certain public benefits that other noncitizens may not have access to.” 

In Hetfield’s view, the problem with hostile rhetoric, particularly when it comes from state leaders, is that it sets the tone for the state. 

“We’re seeing a similar thing in Israel,” Hetfield said, “where the Israeli government sets the tone for asylum seekers they’re getting from Africa, calling them ‘infiltrators’ and ‘illegal work migrants.’ That tone trickles down and has an impact on way people are treated. Our concern is that you’re going to see a similar thing happen here, now that governors are say[ing] ‘Muslims are terrorists until proven otherwise — particularly Syrian Muslims.’ It creates a very poisonous environment.” 

Last week, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington issued a statement drawing parallels between World War II and today, calling on Americans “to avoid condemning today’s refugees as a group.”

“Acutely aware of the consequences to Jews who were unable to flee Nazism … we should not turn our backs on the thousands of legitimate refugees.

“It is important to remember that many are fleeing because they have been targeted by the Assad regime and ISIS for persecution and in some cases elimination on the basis of their identity.”

But even in the United States, distrust exists between Jews and Muslims. Hetfield does not deny this tension. “I don’t want to be totally Pollyannaish about it. Some Muslims we work with make assumptions about us,” he said, citing occasional verbal clashes between right-leaning Jews and pro-BDS Muslims who accuse Jews of oppressing Palestinians. “Those two sides reinforce one another,” he added. But antagonism “is definitely the exception, not the rule.” 

Hetfield said he is not bothered by the idea of helping Muslims. “We resettle people who need help. We do it on the basis of their protection needs, and that’s it. That’s the criteria of a refugee.”

What he fears most is that all this xenophobia is playing directly into the hands of the so-called Islamic State. “That’s a tactic of ISIS,” Hetfield said. “They’re trying to turn us against helping these refugees; they’re trying to make it look like the West hates all Muslims, to make them more vulnerable to recruitment and susceptible to that psychological warfare. They want to terrorize us; they want to scare us; they want to make us hate Muslims.

“That’s the most dangerous thing being done right now. The real threat to our national security and national character is the xenophobia and anti-Islam rhetoric that all these leaders are spewing.”

#WeAreNext


The campaign to keep Syrian refugees out of the United States represents a complete lack of faith — not just in Syrian refugees, and not just in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, but in America itself.

I would like to be able to say such a campaign is un-American, but there has always been a fearful, xenophobic strain infecting the U.S. body politic. The anti-Chinese movement of the 19th century, the calls to keep Jewish refugees out on the eve of the Holocaust, the internment of Japanese-Americans, and now the move to block people suffering from the horrors of Bashar Assad and radical Islam in Syria.

Just before Thanksgiving — the holiday that celebrates our Pilgrim immigrant forebears — Donald Trump, grandson of immigrants, brought the debate to a new low calling for a registry of Muslim Americans.

“Singling out any ethnic or faith group to register with the government is morally repugnant, not to mention unconstitutional,” American Jewish Committee (AJC) Executive Director David Harris said in a statement. “What Mr. Trump proposes, in this case targeting all Muslims, is a horror movie that we Jews are quite familiar with.”

In response to the latest round of xenophobia, non-Muslims have adopted the Twitter hashtag #IAmMuslim. And why not? Once it becomes acceptable to single out people based on their ethnicity or religion, all of us are vulnerable, Jews more than others. Perhaps a more accurate protest would be #WeAreNext.

America was founded by, and to a great degree for, immigrants. Without immigrants, our great country would be just above average, an oversized Scotland. No offense to Scotland.

The fact that both these insights are cliché just makes them easier to ignore and take for granted. Immigration is an economic and cultural driver. Europe didn’t fling its doors open to Muslims solely out of the goodness of its heart. Old Europe needs young blood. Otherwise it can never compete with countries like, say, America.

It is no coincidence that the governors of the states thriving the least economically are the most steadfast against admitting the Syrian refugees. States that welcome immigrants, like California, do better.  

I get that the Republican and Democratic representatives who voted to support a bill putting a hold on the processing of 10,000 Syrian refugees don’t understand the nature of civil war, Islamic extremism or Islam.

But more disturbing is that they don’t seem to understand America.

America does immigration so well, because America does assimilation so well. America does integration like Jews do shivah. We just excel at it. The banlieues of Paris are festering sores of isolated Muslim youth who feel, justly, as French officials readily admit, that they don’t belong in France.

But America at its best and most commonplace accepts all comers and enables them to become proud hyphenates. That’s why the elevator in the Journal’s Koreatown office building is filled with Ethiopians, Koreans, Sri Lankans, Salvadorans — Muslim, Jewish, Christian — it makes the United Nations look homogeneous. 

America has a race problem, but it never has an immigration problem — until some people try to foment one.

And keep in mind, the facts do not support their arguments.

“If a potential terrorist is determined to enter America to do harm,” an Oct. 18 article in the Economist says, “there are easier and faster ways to get there than by going through the complex refugee resettlement process. Of the almost 750,000 refugees who have been admitted to America since 9/11, only two Iraqis have been arrested on terrorist charges; they had not planned an attack in America, but aided al-Qaeda at home.”

The threat to America’s wellbeing from 10,000 Syrian refugees pales in comparison to the threat of turning into a hateful, closed-door society where any of our families could be the next ones kept out, and any of us could be the next ones forced to register.

That fear is why the Anti-Defamation League, AJC and nine other Jewish organizations have joined with 81 other groups in sending a letter to Congressmembers urging them not to roll back plans to accept Syrian refugees into the United States.

“It would send a demoralizing and dangerous message to the world that the United States makes judgments about people based on the country they come from and their religion,” the letter states.

This is one appropriate response to the surge in one of America’s ugliest and most forgetful impulses. Another is to join with groups such as the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief and the Democracy Council, which is holding a fundraiser Dec. 13 in Los Angeles to help bring teachers and services to the Syrian refugees.

On the list of supporters for the fundraiser are Christians, Jews and Muslims. 

But what else would you expect? That’s America.

And for that we can all be very grateful.

Happy Thanksgiving

Rob Eshman is on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.

For more information on the Democracy Council fundraiser for Syrian relief, click here.

This is not my America. Is it yours?


Two scary tweets fell into my feed yesterday. In the first, Linda Sarsour, a Brooklyn mom and activist shared, “When ur kids sends u a text w/ a link to a mayor invoking Japanese internment camps. ‘You think they would do that?’ OMG. My heart.”
 
In a reply, Suroor Raziuddin, a local mom (and self professed “Valley Girl” by way of Jersey) shared, “My kids ask me “Will they make us leave?” used 2 think telling them we were born here was enough. Now? I'm not so confident.”


They should be confident. I'm confident.
 Her rights are my rights.
Her children's rights are my children's rights.
If you are an American, these rights are your rights too.

The language in response to an immigration “crisis” that is being run up the flagpoles of so many politicians is not merely the instigation and amplification of knee-jerk xenophobia. Worse, it is malicious fear mongering, a conscious attempt at stoking anti-immigrant and Islamophobic feelings into rage, inciting action of a specific voter base while raising support for isolationist policies. This is the politics of fear, plain and simple. I denounce the engendering of fear in the hearts and minds of the American people during this political cycle. This is not my America. Is it yours?

I want my leaders to inspire greatness in every American, and celebrate that our nation has always been a society of immigrants. My America is a welcoming social experiment. A success where all new Americans, born here or naturalized, are granted the same rights to freedom of speech, religious tolerance, and pursuit of happiness.

Thursday’s bill passed by the House of Representatives is a blustery piling on that does not address a real threat. “Not a single refugee has been convicted of an act of terror on U.S. soil… of the one million plus we’ve let in post 9/11,” Maya Berry of the Arab American Institute said on KCRW’s “To The Point” on Nov. 18.

Callbacks to the Japanese internment camps of the 1940s in reference to a current onslaught of xenophobia and bigotry facing Syrian refugees by Mayor David Bowers of Roanoke, Va. gives me great pause. The Jewish diaspora and anti-Semitism are not, in and of themselves, unique. Jews were turned away at borders in times of great need. Jews have been rounded up into ghettos, forced into labor and starvation, and marched along our own trail of tears.

Have you ever wondered what the biggest indicator of Islamophobic sentiment is? It is the holding of anti-Semitic beliefs. “In fact, contempt for Jews makes a person “about 32 times as likely to report the same level of prejudice toward Muslims,” James Carroll wrote in The Daily Beast in an article titled, “How to Spot an Islamophobe,” in 2010, quoting a 2010 Gallop World Religion Survey.

Publicly protecting the rights of all Americans, native born, naturalized, and the refugee that we welcome is our duty as Americans, and as Jews. By protecting everyone, we forcefully protect ourselves from once again falling victim to a society’s nationalist zeal. This is Tikkun Olam. This is a way to make our world a better place for all people, and set an example for all societies in our shared global community.

When we are triggered, it is our responsibility to acknowledge and move past our knee-jerk feelings of fear, and then repair the world with the gift of our love, acceptance and work towards a pluralistic society.

Linda, Suroor, you are my fellow Americans, and I welcome your contributions to our great nation. Your children and mine share the same liberté, égalité, and fraternité that all of us hold so dear. We will not allow fear to destroy the ongoing pursuit of social justice.

Dear reader, will you?


Howard Seth Cohen is a local actor, artist, and activist. He created “72 Virgins” a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that fights xenophobia one mocktail at a time. http://72bebidas.com @HSCactor

‘They’ll think we are the enemy’: refugees in Germany fear backlash


Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Germany fear that the attacks in Paris could further shift public opinion against the Berlin government's welcoming asylum policy.

About a dozen men, smoking heavily, discussed the deadliest attacks in Europe since 2004 outside Berlin's Tempelhof airport, an imposing structure built by Hitler to showcase Nazi power and now functioning as a shelter for asylum-seekers.

The backdrop to their conversation on Monday was a chorus of demands by right-wing European politicians to halt the flow of migrants into Europe, which some see as providing ideal cover for Islamic State to smuggle in militants — even if there is as yet no proof. 

Nabil, 27, a Syrian from Islamic State's self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, finds it hard to believe a Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the Paris gunmen. He believes this was a conspiracy, a common thought in the Arab world.

“And France is known for having extremists. I worry about public opinion,” he added, tucking his hands into the pockets of his red jacket on a cold evening, as two children aged no more than six walked past in shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops.

Nizar Basal, a Syrian from a town near Hama, was surprisingly frank.

“There are of course ticking bombs coming in with the refugees,” said the 49-year-old, who worked as a private teacher of computer science in Abu Dhabi before coming to Germany last month.

“But the question is, what will happen to us? What will people think about us? They will think we are the enemy.”

The German government said after the attacks, in which at least 129 people were killed on Friday night, that its security agencies had intensified monitoring of radical right-wing activists, fearing a backlash against refugees.

German media also reported that the government wants to tighten security at refugee shelters. German police have detained an Algerian man at one shelter in connection with the Paris attacks, officials said on Monday. 

There have been more than 690 arson and other attacks on refugee centres so far this year, as Germany expects up to one million asylum seekers. The influx has increased pressure on the government to reverse some of its welcoming policies and strained German Chancellor Angel Merkel's coalition. 

Mohammad, 31, who worked in a sweet shop in Syria before the war there, fears a hardening of German public opinion.

“We fled death, we don't want anyone to die. This is a problem that will affect the refugees,” he said.

Falah, 48, who owned a watch shop in Baghdad before fleeing to Turkey, put things into perspective.

“There is a suicide bombing every 15 minutes in Iraq,” he said. He then pointed to a picture of Merkel on his mobile phone and said: “She is our hope.”

Basal, the teacher, said he would have attended a weekend vigil in Berlin for the Paris attack victims if he had heard about it in advance. 

“We don't have much time to think about it. There are no showers here, we haven't had a shower for two weeks.”

Republican Rand Paul to offer bill to halt U.S. visas for refugees


Republican presidential candidate and Sen. Rand Paul said on Monday he would introduce a bill to put an immediate moratorium on U.S. visas for refugees fleeing extremist groups.

Paul, speaking after attacks in Paris last week linked to Islamic State militants, said he would halt visas for people from about 30 countries with major jihadist activity and impose a waiting period for people coming from countries that have visa waiver agreements with the United States.

German anti-Islam protest swells on fears about refugee influx


The German anti-Islam movement PEGIDA staged its biggest rally in months on Monday, sparked into fresh life on its first anniversary by anger at the government's decision to take in hundreds of thousands of migrants from the Middle East.

PEGIDA, or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, almost fizzled out earlier this year when its leader resigned after a photo was published of him posing as Hitler.

But it has swelled again as Germany implements Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to accept a tide of refugees that could exceed a million this year, as she argues that Germany can not only cope but, with its aging population, will benefit in the long term.

Police declined to estimate the number of protesters but media put it at 15-20,000, somewhat below a peak of around 25,000 in January. Around 14,000 counter-demonstrators urged people to welcome refugees rather than whip up opposition.

PEGIDA supporters waved the national flag and carried posters bearing slogans such as “Hell comes with fake refugees” and “Every people should have its country, not every people a piece of Germany”.

Gathering outside Dresden's historic opera house, the Semperoper, PEGIDA supporters chanted “Deport! Deport!” and “Merkel must go!”.

“We're just normal people who are scared of what's coming,” said 37-year-old Patrick, a car mechanic. “As a German citizen who pays taxes, you feel like you're being taken for a ride.”

Lutz Bachmann, the leader who resigned, told the rally: “Politicians attack and defame us and the lowest tricks are used to keep our mouths shut. We are threatened with death, there are attacks on our vehicles and houses and we are dragged through the mud, but we are still here … And we will triumph!”

COUNTER-DEMONSTRATION

The counter-demonstrators marched through the town chanting: “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here!”

As many German municipalities struggle to house and support the wave of migrants, criticism of Merkel's policy has grown, her ratings have slipped, and there have been arson attacks on refugee centers.

Simone Peter, leader of the Greens party and one of the counter-demonstrators, told Reuters: “We're for diversity and an open, colorful society, not hatred and violence … the people who incite with right-wing slogans add fuel to the fire of the arsonists.”

PEGIDA has more than 172,000 'Likes' on its Facebook page and wants Germany to stop taking asylum seekers immediately.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said on Sunday that PEGIDA's organizers were “hard right-wing extremists” and everyone who attended their demonstrations “should know that they are running after rat catchers”.

Thomas Jaeger, political scientist at Cologne University, said PEGIDA and the right-wing Alternative for Germany party were being allowed by the government to define how the refugee crisis was perceived by many people.

“What seems to be worrying a lot of people now is that people from different cultures are coming here, and they don't know how they will integrate, and that's quite a diffuse fear, and that's now being exploited by some political forces.”

Local groups rally support for Syrian refugees


With the number of Syrian refugees climbing above 4 million, local Jewish organizations are taking note and reaching out.

Jewish World Watch (JWW), whose mission is fighting genocide, recently launched a fundraising campaign that has collected about $10,000 to help fund fully vetted organizations that are aiding refugees, JWW president and co-founder, Janice Kamenir-Reznik, said.

And The Markaz Arts Center for the Greater Middle East, previously known as the Levantine Cultural Center, is organizing an Oct. 10 fundraiser, Soup for Syria, Food and Arts Festival. 

Jordan Elgrably, executive director at The Markaz, said he expects the event to raise $50,000 and to draw around 300 people. 

Kamenir-Reznik said in an Oct. 1 phone interview that images produced by the Syrian refugee crisis of “trapped people overloading train stations and people with nowhere to go” are too reminiscent of the Holocaust to ignore.

“Not only are the metaphors of the Holocaust poignant to us, but people did feel there was an atrocity in the making,” she said. 

The new JWW campaign marks the first time that the Encino-based organization, which was founded in 2004 and focuses the bulk of its work in African countries, has involved itself in the Middle East. 

For Elgrably, the motivation was humanitarianism. The Markaz’s event near downtown Los Angeles will benefit more than “1,000 Syrian refugees, under the auspices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), and the Karam Foundation — an American nonprofit that has been working in Syria for nearly a decade,” according to the center’s website.

“We see this as a human crisis, not as an Arab, Jewish-American or Middle Eastern one. … We’re doing it at the Pico Union Project. It’s [musician and producer] Craig Taubman’s place. It’s a synagogue and multicultural interfaith space, and I think it’s a good location for what this is about,” Elgraby said in an Oct. 5 phone interview.

The event borrows its title from Lebanese-American editor Barbara Abdeni Massaad’s 2015 cookbook, “Soup for Syria,” which features contributions from food writer Mark Bittman, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and others. The book will be on sale at the fundraiser, with proceeds from book sales benefiting UNHCR. Other revenues at the event will benefit the Karam Foundation, according to the Markaz website. Meanwhile, Elgrably said singer-songwriter Norah Jones has tentatively agreed to perform at the gathering. 

“This is an opportunity for The Markaz to be on the record doing something for Syrian refugees,” he said.

L.A. Jews for Peace, Muslims for Progressive Values and CodePink are among the organizations sponsoring the event, whose details are available at themarkaz.org.

“I would say Jews are pretty well represented in this effort,” Elgrably said.

Neither JWW nor The Markaz plans on tackling events happening inside of Syria, however.

“We specifically did not agree to mobilize with respect as to what’s going on inside of Syria. … We try to stick to clear-cut situations, to help the most vulnerable,” Kamenir-Reznik said. “It’s not controversial to say these refugees are in a vulnerable situation and, from just a human point-of-view, need assistance and advocacy. We’re not equipped to get involved in a multiparty civil war [that involves] terrorist organizations.”

JWW has posted a message about the crisis on its website (jewishworldwatch.org) and has provided a link where people can donate to the campaign. It has also sent out an email with a message about the campaign to its membership base. 

And while it may not be getting involved in Syria’s internal situation, JWW is demanding that the U.S. increase the number of actual Syrian immigrants allowed into the country, which has committed $4.5 billion in assistance for refugees. President Barack Obama has pledged to take in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year, but that pales in comparison to the 800,000 that Germany has agreed to accept. 

“We don’t think it’s adequate, in light of the enormous amount of refugees being taken in by everybody else,” Kamenir-Reznik said of America’s response.

“That’s the extent of our campaign, that type of advocacy: mobilizing support for people who are in not-so-different circumstances [from what] Jews have been in throughout history, fleeing disaster in their own country and having nowhere to go.”

Wide awake: A spiritual response to the collapse of compassion


Four facts:

1. In the last 4½ years, the war in Syria has killed about 240,000 people, including 20,000 children.

2. 11.6 million people have been displaced, 4 million of whom are now refugees.

3. Half of the refugees, vulnerable to starvation, disease, abuse and exploitation, are children.

4. None of these facts matter much to any of us.

In fact, and I say this not to be cruel or needlessly provocative, we have known all of this for the past several years. Aside from the fact that the numbers grow steadily each day, nothing has really changed here – until last week, when everything changed.

Everything changed when a photo came out of three year old Aylan Kurdi washed up on the Turkish shore with his tiny sneakers and his sweet head cocked to the side like my son’s when he sleeps. Except that this boy was not asleep, he was dead. Drowned, along with his 5 year old brother and mother when his desperate father could no longer keep their three heads above the water, having been battered by unrelenting 15 foot waves that their rubber raft simply could not sustain.

This small Kurdish boy tore into our consciousness, a boy who, at three years old, spent his entire life in the crosshairs of a battle between heinous criminality and utter depravity. This boy who pulled our hearts right out of our chests, who never got a chance to kick a soccer ball or lose his first tooth or beg his parents for an ice cream from the guy with the cart in the park. He never went to school, didn’t get to learn to read, never wrestled with a difficult math problem, didn’t get to fall in love or cut class or go on a hike or learn to hate cilantro. I stared at his sweet, tiny body like we all did, wanting nothing more than to be able to hug this boy back to life.

And all of the sudden, we are awake. The world’s shofar blast. What all those numbers, stats, warnings couldn’t do – wake us up – the picture of Aylan did in an instant. Like a knife through the collective heart.

Paul Slovic of University of Oregon told us years ago that numbers don’t affect us. Hearing about the millions of displaced Syrians does nothing to awaken the human heart. In fact, ironically, the greater the numbers, the less likely we are to respond. It’s what he calls psychophysical numbing – in which we make a fateful calculation: I can’t do everything, so I’ll do nothing. But one child, one small boy washed up on the shore crumbles the whole façade. Without warning, we are thrust to the depths of sorrow, consumed by a tragedy that hundreds of thousands of deaths couldn’t awaken us to.

How we have failed you, Aylan. What could we have done to avert the catastrophe that would eventually lead to the end of your too short life? What if we had had the courage, the will to see what was happening in your country years ago – what then would your life have been like?

What if we had demanded a repair to our crippled refugee and asylum system years ago? Instead, we allowed legitimate but vague security concerns to eclipse the human tragedy unfolding before our eyes. Even in our beloved Israel – we watched the leadership shamelessly claim the country lacks the “demographic and geographic depth” to take in refugees, leaving them to die at the border. No room for a thousand children, orphaned by war? One hundred? Have we forgotten so quickly that Jewish refugees – fleeing for their lives – were denied entry by this country and so many others under the very same set of justifications and excuses? A couple of weeks ago, Jon and Wendy brought their new baby up for an aliyah and spoke of how they chose her name. When Jon’s father came to the US from Germany, much of his family stayed behind, including his first cousin, Deiter. Deiter was among those who boarded the SS St. Louis to flee Germany in 1939, along with 900 other Jewish passengers. They made their way across the ocean, only to be denied entry by Cuba, then the United States, then Canada. The ship was sent all the way back to Europe and Dieter, like so many of the passengers of the St. Louis, was deported to a death camp. He was five years old when he died. “When our baby grows a little older,” Jon said, “we’ll tell her that she’s named after a very special little boy who never had a chance in life.” I’m not talking about opening floodgates. I’m talking about making room for children and their parents, running for their lives, who want nothing more than the chance to try to build beyond the ashes of their past.

But here we are. Awakened too late to the horrors of a crisis fueled by our own indifference.

We’ve been here before. We woke up to the insanity of this country’s gun culture after parents and grandparents had to bury their childrens’ little bodies, stuffed animals and dreams when they were shot down in their classroom in Sandy Hook. It was too awful, too vivid to sleep through. But even then, we were lulled back asleep all too quickly. Again and again we revert to complacent disengagement. We did after Virginia Tech. And Tuscon. Aurora. Oak Creek. Fort Hood. Isla Vista. Charleston.

Asleep, awake, asleep again.

Just like when we all suddenly started talking about the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow when Trayvon was killed and the law didn’t blink. Of course we dozed off again until Michael Brown’s lifeless body lay on the streets of Ferguson for four hours. Then Eric Garner died in a strangle-hold for the crime of selling loose cigarettes without a permit, or, more accurately, for the crime of Walking While Black. Again, no indictment. No charges. For a moment, we were outraged, until we fell asleep again. Then Tamir Rice, who was 12 years old when he was shot while holding a toy gun. Walter Scott in N. Charleston, shot like a deer in hunting season after being stopped because his brake light wasn’t functioning properly. Freddie Gray, shoved into a police van with such blunt force and callous disregard that he suffered spinal cord injury and ultimately death.

Asleep. Awake. Asleep.

Just like we cared – but only momentarily – when we learned of the massacre of the Yazidis, and heard that more than 5,000 Yazidi girls and women were kidnapped by ISIS last year, sentenced to life as sex slaves. We then fell back asleep, of course, until their story hit the front page of the New York Times.

It is a cruel and unending cycle: we wake, we sleep, we wake, we sleep. Wouldn’t the world be so much simpler if all we had to worry about was Private vs. Charter, heels vs. wedges, Wildwood vs. Oakwood, 6 vs. 6 Plus. And yet here comes Aylan’s image in my inbox once again – shattering the complacency, forcing me to pause, for just a moment, to remember how fragile it all is.

The blasts of the shofar come this year to save our lives – to pull us from the hell of paralysis. Presumed powerlessness. Meaninglessness. To save us from a life of sleepy disconnect, of privileged detachment from the triumphs and tragedies of the human community. Listen to Rambam:

Uru y’shenim – Wake up, you sleepers, from your sleep! Get up, you slumberers, from your slumber! Look at yourselves – you can do better. Zikhru bora’akhem – Remember Your Creator [or: Where You Came From]! You – you who forget, again and again what truly matters, you spend your years in pursuit of shadows, yearning for vanity and emptiness that will not help anyone nor will it save anyone, including you. Look at your souls! Contemplate deeply your actions – you can do better! Each one of you – abandon your bad behavior and your narrow thinking. It’s no good for you! (MT Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4)

But could Rambam have understood the enormity, the ubiquity of the suffering we encounter now every day? Think of how many news alerts we receive in the course of a morning. Could Rambam have fathomed the spiritual confusion that comes when we carry tiny screens with us everywhere, notifying us in real time to every attack, every violent protest, every shooting? Never before have we had access to so much input. How could we possibly hold it all? A corollary to Slovic’s psychic numbing, there’s talk now of the collapse of compassion. There is a natural human resistance to encountering overwhelming need. As a result, we shut down preemptively so as not to have to deal with our own inability to respond adequately. If I don’t feel your pain, I won’t feel bad about not helping you.

What is the breaking point? At what point do we disengage? It’s not once there are 1000 victims, or even 100. Students in one study were asked if they’d be willing to donate back $5 of their earnings from participating in the study to feed a small starving girl from Mali named Rokia – and they were showed a picture of her sweet face. Nearly everyone agreed to do so. But when asked if participants would be willing to donate the same $5 to feed both Rokia and her brother Moussa, showing their pictures together, the response rate fell by nearly 50%. There is a very low saturation point at which we no longer have the will or capacity to take in more, and all we want to do is shop Nordstrom online or kick back and watch Monday night football. I mean, who doesn’t want to see if Sam Bradford’s knee will hold up?

Today, Lord knows we have reached the saturation point. Our compassion has officially collapsed. No surprise, then, the growing backlash to the world’s newfound sensitivity to refugees. We humans are so predictable.

I was asked, on a panel of rabbis this spring, if the world was better or worse off now than one hundred years ago. Is our trajectory one of progress or regress?

I immediately thought of the midrash – perfect for this Day of Creation – in which the Holy One, preparing to create Adam haRishon, the first person, sees the ministering angels break into factions and start arguing:

The Angel embodying LOVE argues: “Let them be created – they will perform acts of love!”

TRUTH responds: “Let them not be created – they will all be liars!”

JUSTICE says: “Let them be created – they will fight for justice!”

PEACE shouts: “Let them not be created – they will only make war!”

God, irritated, thrusts the Angel of Truth to earth, creating a 2 to 1 majority in favor of humanity (a technique, incidentally, that would pass for democracy in some parts of the world…). And so Adam is created. “Now stop fighting!” the Holy One shouts. “The matter is resolved” (Midrash Rabbah 8:5).

Have human beings made the world better or worse? The rabbi seated to my left says that, sadly, we are worse now than a century ago. He speaks of the atrocities – millions dead to war, hatred, fascism, now religious extremism and terror. The only thing the past century brought was better technology to weaponize our hatred and kill more efficiently and effectively than in years past.

And he’s right. The 20th century was unforgiving: world wars and genocides and famines that took hundreds of millions of lives. Oppression, repression, suppression. Outbreaks, epidemics, pandemics. Terrorism, violent crackdowns, exploitation, enslavement. These have been dark times, to be sure.  

The rabbi to my right takes the opposite approach. He is clearly enamored by the advances of the past century. He lauds our new understandings of the body, our unprecedented ability to treat illnesses – so much so that some deadly diseases, like smallpox, have even been effectively eradicated.

And he’s right too. The 20th century saw outstanding advances in science, medicine and technology, breakthroughs in biology, chemistry, physiology and pharmacology. Think of the accelerated rate of progress: how quickly – in the scheme of things – we moved from cars to electric cars to driverless cars, from planes to commercial space travel, from radio to TV to color TV Ultra HD. From Texas Instruments and Atari to universal wifi and little devices on our beings at all time – including watches some of you are wearing now that tell you when to walk around the room to keep the blood flowing and deliver email to your wrist. God forbid we should leave the smartphone at home one day we wouldn’t be smart enough to know where to go, how to get there, who we’re meeting or why we’re even going. The other day I got into the car late for a meeting, put the address in Waze and just started to drive, while toggling between two work calls. It occurred to me at some point that I was driving further north than I thought I needed to go, but, as we say in our family, “In Waze We Trust.” Twenty minutes later I ended up miles from my destination and now really late. It seems I neglected to put in the SOUTH part of the address before the street name. Telling my kids the story that night, I explained that we used to have a street map library in our house growing up (the NJ equivalent of the Thomas Guide), and whenever we went on the road we’d lay out the map and plot our route. They laughed and laughed – as if I was explaining that we used to make fire from rubbing sticks together.

So are we better or worse off than we were one hundred years ago?

This rabbi is right, and this rabbi is right. And I sit right in the middle.

            I see the progress. And I see the pain.

            I see expansive potential, and I see a dangerous narrowing of the heart.

I see the enormity of the tragedies unfolding even as we speak, and I see that we wake up to them only to quickly lull ourselves back to sleep.

In the past century we have figured out how to tap into vast sources of energy with flick of a switch. We are 3D printing prosthetics – bioengineers are working now on kidneys and livers. We have figured out how to safely perform full face transplants: jaws, teeth, and tongue.

But we have not yet figured out how to deal with the legacy of slavery and this country’s original sin – racism. How to address the fact that African American community still suffers from economic inequality, lack of opportunity, stigmatization and isolation, that African Americans make up 15% of the general population but nearly 60% of the prison population, and that there still exist in this country, in 2015, extremists intoxicated by a racialized ideology, hell bent on starting a race war and willing to spill the blood of parishioners in a church Bible study to prove it.

Did you hear? Just last week scientists discovered a galaxy 13.3 billion years old. Forty-six years after we landed on the moon, we’re now preparing to establish a base on Mars!

And yet we render ourselves completely powerless – fresh out of ideas – as to how to protect children in our classrooms and malls and theaters from disturbed young men armed with weapons of war.

Tell me – how is it possible that we have discovered ice volcanos and geysers on Pluto and brought species back from the brink of extinction…

But we can’t muster the collective will to care for the world’s most vulnerable: refugee children, leaving them no choice but to venture into a raging sea on broken inflatable rafts?

Astonishingly, our abundant resources, ever-increasing competence and immense capacity have done little to improve our overall lot as a human community. Our exceptional achievements in science and technology in some ways only make our moral failures more damning. Now it’s undeniable: we can do almost anything, and yet we so easily throw up our hands when it comes to human tragedy, as though we can do nothing at all.

We have the ability. What we lack is the will.

We are the most powerful people alive, convinced of our powerlessness.

When it comes to human suffering, we’d rather roll over and hit snooze.

That is the definition of a MORAL CRISIS.

Rosh Hashanah bursts into our September with a vengeance this year. Sleeping soundly while the world burns – or drowns – is simply not an option.

Remember the Israelites, standing at the edge of the Sea. Five days have passed since they left enslavement in Egypt. Five days, and already Pharaoh’s troops are bearing down on them – determined to bring them back as slaves or lead them to the slaughter. The people panic. They cry out to God and to Moses: Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the Wilderness? (Ex 14:11-14)

What does Moses do? He prays and prays. And then prays more. Nothing happens. Until finally the Holy One gives him some hard love: Ma titzak elai? Why are you crying out to me? My children are on the verge of drowning in the sea. There is a time to be longwinded, exceedingly deliberative, slow to action – and there is a time to get to the point. There is only one thing to do right now, Moses: speak to the Children of Israel and tell them to start walking. (Shemot Rabbah 21:8)

Ma titzak elai? Don’t just cry there… do something!

Empathy is a critical first step. But it must be paired with moral action for it to make a damn bit of difference to the children at the other end of the barrel, or those holding on for dear life to a raft that has no business crossing the rough sea. Or to the parents who fear that their children won’t make it home from school alive.

The purely righteous people do not complain about evil; they add justice.

They do not complain about heresy; they add faith.

They do not complain about ignorance; they add wisdom. (Rav Kook, Arpelei Tohar, p 39)

The only thing to do is to start walking. Fight the inevitable backpedal. Mobilize now – before there is another beautiful dead child all over our FB feed.

In 1967 at an interfaith conference in Washington, DC protesting the War in Vietnam, Abraham Joshua Heschel told a story about his first encounter – as a seven year old – with the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, which we’ll read tomorrow morning. He is sitting in class, reading the story from the Book of Genesis. When the moment comes that Abraham holds the knife over his son’s throat, Heschel begins to weep. By the time the angel cries out: Abraham, Abraham, lay not your hand on the child! Heschel is sobbing uncontrollably, overcome with terror. 'Why are you crying?' the Rabbi asks him. 'You know that Isaac was not killed!' ‘But rabbi,’ he says, ‘supposing the angel had come a second too late?’ The Rabbi comforts him, explaining that an angel cannot come late. “My friends,” Heschel concludes decades later, “an angel cannot be late. But we, made of flesh and blood, we may come too late.”

Across the world, one little boy has stopped time. One precious child of God, who showed us all so vividly the brutality of war and our own silent complicity. We all remember – it was just last week. But his image is already starting to fade. We’re already late. The question is: will we do something now or will we doze off once again?

The answer to the crisis in Syria is not resettlement of every person in the country – it is an end to war. That, clearly, is not something you or I – with all the best intentions – could make happen. But as long as there remains a political crisis, there will be an equally devastating humanitarian crisis. And rather than sit ensnared in rage and despair, awaiting the inevitable return to apathy, it’s time for those of us who heed the call of the shofar, who are awake today, to start the new year by stepping up and doing something.

I am asking today that we honor of the memory of Aylan Kurdi by taking a few tangible steps in response to this crisis.

First, HIAS – Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society – is leading an advocacy effort to get the US to raise its refugee quota, given the urgency and immediacy of the moment. We can and should support this effort by signing their petition as soon as yontif ends.

Second, Germany – as you know – has brought in 800,000 refugees. I reached out to Rabbi Gisa Ederberg in Berlin to see how we can help. There is a Catholic Hospital just behind the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue. A few months ago, they finished building a new wing to the hospital and decided to dedicate it to use as a refugee shelter. A critical side note: this hospital is located just next to the Jewish Home for the Elderly. Under the Nazis, that very same Jewish Home for the Elderly was a collection point for deportation to the camps. During one round up, some Jews managed to escape from the building and the nuns at the Catholic Hospital next door took them in, wrapped them in bandages and put them in beds, simulating an intensive care unit. It saved their lives. Today, the Jewish community is working in that same Catholic hospital to bring hope and healing to Muslim and Christian refugees. They need our partnership and support – we can make contributions to Masorti Olami, earmarked for this relief project.

Finally, there is a growing interfaith interest in organizing a kindertransport for Syrian children who have been orphaned by war, who may be able to enter the United States with fewer security barriers than adults. We’ll need strong leadership from community members to work on assessing the feasibility of this path. IKAR can play a significant leadership role in this effort.

Each year we ask every person in our community, during these days of contemplation and reflection, to make a spiritual pledge – a commitment to turn our best intentions into meaningful action. This year, I’m asking us to act, rather than fall back asleep. Take out your pledge card and grab a sticker. Make a commitment to participate in one or more of our Minyan Tzedek paths: either Feeing Our Neighbors – direct action in response to hunger and homelessness in Los Angeles, or Green Action – our environmental justice and sustainability group, or the Organizing Path – which is focused this year on mass incarceration and criminal justice reform, or Global Partnership – which will now include not only our work in Katira, Uganda, but will also be the home address for our refugee response.

“I do not want future generations to spit on our graves,” Heschel said in 1964, “saying: ‘Here lies a community which living in comfort and prosperity, kept silent while millions of their brothers [and sisters] were exposed to spiritual extermination” (Heschel, A Declaration of Conscience, 1964) 

Uru y’shenim – Wake up, sleepers, from your sleep! Wakefulness does not demand of us asceticism or self-abnegation. There’s time for family dinners and theater and even football games. And private vs. charter is no small matter. And yes, there are people in our own community and our own homes who desperately need our love and attention and resources too. There is room in our hearts to hold all of this.

We’re wide awake now. A sweet boy in a red t-shirt woke us up. Together, let’s turn our best intentions now into moral action.

Please stand and pray with me.

El Rahum v’Hanun – God of Mercy and Love-

This year, help us remain awake.

Help us remember that while we come together during these holy days to pray and learn, dance and cry, You have called us to turn our holy tears into action.

Help us dedicate our vast expertise, experience and resources, our brilliance, creativity and exceptional privilege into not only life-saving advances in medicine, technology and science – but also into life-saving advances in human dignity.

Help us find our power this year, God, and help us use it to bring justice, light, hope and peace to all of Your children.

Shanah Tovah.

Why Europe is so woefully unprepared for the new refugee crisis


No time is a good time for an epic humanitarian crisis. But Europe today seems woefully unprepared for the human wave from the Maghreb, the Horn of Africa and lands reaching all the way to Afghanistan.

I was overseas for much of the last few weeks and had a chance to watch Al Jazeera and BBC coverage. In the early phase of this mass movement of people, great pains were made to depict them as migrants, not refugees, who had the legal right to relocate to Europe.

All that changed with the horrific revelations of dozens of these “migrants” found suffocated in a truck in Austria, hundreds more perishing at sea, and the photo of a dead boy from Syria, who drowned along with his mother.

It is not only the huge numbers that cause the crisis, although the mention by Chancellor Angela Merkel of 800,000 potential refugees being absorbed into Germany sent shockwaves across the political and social landscape of the continent.

It is not only security concerns, though European Intelligence agencies must be alarmed at the thought of taking in thousands of unvetted refugees from the ground zero of terrorism and sectarian violence when they are already staggering under the burden of some 8,000 European citizens trained by al-Qaida and ISIS in the Middle East who returned home poised to unleash more terrorist attacks like those in Paris and Brussels.

It is not only about the lack of political will and social cohesion. For even as French, British and German leaders talk about evenly distributing the burden, others such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban have made it brutally clear that they want no part of the migrant/refugee wave; they simply want them gone. If it means constructing barbed-wire fences, posting a phalanx of police at the central train station in Budapest and duping refugees to board trains to camps, so be it.

Of course, when we see people so desperate to escape their homes that they knowingly put themselves and their children in harm’s way, when we see the lifeless body of a drowned child, we Jews are reminded of another era in Europe.

Why then is Europe so unprepared for this challenge?

It is precisely because the European Union (EU) has failed to evolve into a true “union.”

It has failed to articulate what 21st-century European social values are.

It never has addressed the failure to integrate the millions of Muslims already living in Europe.

Its foreign policy has failed to stem the killings and dislocation of Bashar Assad’s Syria. It has failed to stop ISIS.

It attempted to stop Libyans from leaving their country by removing Muammar Gadhafi. The results? The disintegration of a country and even more boat people perishing in the Mediterranean.

But are Europeans exclusively to blame for all of this? What about the United States? Tragically, the policies of “leading from behind” and “no boots on the ground” may mean fewer Americans in harm’s way in the Middle East, but the leadership vacuum has left millions of innocent people to fend for themselves with corrupt and dangerous governments who can’t even pick up the garbage.

There is one other gaping hole in the leadership of the EU: 70 years after the Shoah, rabid anti-Semitism and hate for the Jewish state infect an estimated 150 million Europeans. Seven decades after the defeat of Nazism, European governments and nongovernmental organizations have been silent over the ethnic cleansing, murder and serial rape of tens of thousands of Christians and other minorities across the Middle East.

It seems that Europe’s elite may have learned to mark their calendar to remember dead Jews one day a year, but too many have failed to internalize or apply any lessons from the Nazi era as to how to treat living Jews and other minorities.

There are no easy solutions to this crisis, but as Jews who come to pray for the wellbeing and safety of the entire world on Rosh Hashanah, we must find ways to do our share to help all legitimate refugees, be they Christian, Muslims or Yazidis.


Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Leaving Israel, Africans face detention, possibly death


“When the conflict started in the Darfur region and we came to Israel, all the people knew why,” said Yeman Adam, a 30-year-old Sudanese asylum seeker who fled to Israel in 2008. “The media was making comparisons between the Holocaust and Darfur genocide, and the Israeli government accepted us.”

As he spoke, Adam sat in the underground headquarters for the group he founded, the Dakaraw Termenan Organization: a freshly painted white room in South Tel Aviv lined in shut-down computers and fringed in royal-blue curtains. The room was empty except for Adam and two friends. They all come from the Masalit tribe, one of various Darfuri tribes targeted by the Sudanese government.

“We used to have hundreds of people in this office. You couldn’t find a chair to sit here,” Adam continued. But now, thousands of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers are being pushed out of Tel Aviv — some returning to Africa, and others moving to the Holot detention facility in southern Israel, the new prison complex constructed near the border with the Sinai desert.

Adam and the handful of Masalit tribe members still living in Tel Aviv have been trying to get in touch with seven men in their tribe, all of whom departed Israel for Sudan’s Khartoum International Airport within the last few weeks.

They’ve all gone missing.

Those seven missing Masalit are part of a growing crisis. Since the exodus began in December, almost 3,000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers, of approximately 55,000 who had settled in Israel and are now facing prison, have chosen instead to depart to either Sudan, Eritrea or a third African country — namely, Uganda or Rwanda.

From left: Feisel Adam, Hassan Rahima and Yeman Adam, Sudanese community organizers, met at their office in South Tel Aviv.

Abdulmalik Abdalla, a dimply 30-year-old who worked at hotels across Israel for the last few years, is on the Masalit tribe’s disappearance list. On Feb. 18, the day before he left for Sudan, he and his friends shared a bottle of whiskey and a giant platter of chicken wings in a closet-sized apartment in the run-down Neve Sha’anan neighborhood of South Tel Aviv. A cloth hanging over the room’s small window fluttered on an unusually warm winter breeze. Abdalla’s eyes watered some as he talked about how excited he was to see his family, from which he had been separated for more than a decade.

Abdalla still hasn’t gotten that chance. Sudanese security officials told a friend who came to meet Abdalla at the airport that Abdalla had been taken into custody.

No one has heard from Abdalla since he departed Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport on Feb. 19.

“We’re hearing about hundreds of people being arrested” upon arrival to Sudan, said Rami Gudovitch, a longtime advocate for African refugees in Israel who also teaches philosophy at Haifa University and the Interdisciplinary Center. Gudovitch has been compiling data based on testimony from his hundreds of contacts in the refugee community; he estimates that a minimum of 500 asylum seekers who returned to Sudan from Israel are behind bars.

Seven of those Sudanese men, he said, are believed to be dead.

Hundreds of African asylum seekers waited outside an extension office for the Israeli Ministry of Interior, hoping to renew their visas, on March 4.

This botched African exodus from Israel is the result of a plan revealed by Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar last August. According to Israeli news site Ynet.com, Sa’ar said in a government meeting that “a wide-scale deportation campaign will begin following the coming holidays,” starting with a period of “willing deportation” and ending with the mass cancellation of visas and forced expulsion.

Come December 2013, as promised, the plan entered its first stage, and the Ministry of Interior began offering $3,500 to any asylum seeker who agreed to relocate.

In accordance with United Nations guidelines, Israel is not forcibly deporting any Eritrean or Sudanese nationals back to their volatile home countries. At a press conference on March 4, Sa’ar stressed that “everyone who leaves, whether to his country of origin or a third country, leaves of his own free will.”

But according to dozens of asylum seekers who spoke to the Jewish Journal, the decision to depart to Sudan and Eritrea, as well as Uganda and Rwanda, is made under intense pressure.

“The fact that they’re taking the money and going back does not make them less of refugees,” said Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator for Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Israel’s oldest nonprofit assisting the Africans. “It only means that the life here is so horrible that they will take the risk with the hope of finding another country that will protect them.”

Sudanese and Eritrean nationals staying in Israel face two options: indefinite detention at Holot, the remote desert prison, or life under constant fear of losing their visas (and therefore their livelihood). Thousands are turning in applications for asylum, but the Ministry of Interior has only reported three approvals. As reporter Michael Omer-Man pointed out in Israel’s liberal +972 Magazine, government authorities have provided asylum seekers “the most basic protection — against deportation to their home countries — but in all other ways treated them like infiltrators.”

Filmon Ghide, 20, was forced to sleep in South Tel Aviv's central Levinsky Park when the Ministry of Interior wouldn't renew his visa so he could work.

Since the Holot detention facility was unveiled in early December, around 3,500 asylum seekers, seemingly the ones who’ve been in Israel the longest, have been summoned to the prison without trial for the crime of illegally crossing the border.

Food and medicine at the prison are severely lacking, as evidenced by cellphone photos snapped by prisoners inside. “If we complain, [prison staffers] tell us, 'Then why don't you go home?’ ” Muhamad Musa, formerly a jewelry shop owner in Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station, told the Journal. Other prisoners said jail officials constantly pressure them to accept the government’s offer of $3,500 and a flight out.

Life isn’t much easier for those who remain in the city. On a recent Tuesday, what looked to be about 800 Africans, including women and children, crowded around the gates to a newly opened Ministry of Interior building especially for African migrants. The offices, tucked between warehouses and office buildings on a hidden alley in North Tel Aviv, opened just last week — an alternative to the much more visible Ministry of Interior building nearby, situated at a major intersection across from the Azrieli Center mall.

“Why did they change places? Because there are 700 people in line, and everybody will pass by and see the problem,” said Eritrean asylum seeker Filmon Ghide. (The ministry did not respond to a request for comment.)

“They are kicking me like a soccer ball from office to office,” he said.

Approximately 1,000 asylum seekers protested outside the Holot detention facility for “illegal infiltrators” in the Israeli desert on Feb. 17.

On that Tuesday, a cluster of asylum seekers quickly formed around a reporter who had come to check out the new location. “Every day I come here [to the Ministry of Interior]. I am not yet sleeping here, but some are,” said Fitsum Tesfasilase, 36, who has been attempting — unsuccessfully — to renew his visa for more than a month. “We can’t make our rent. We can’t feed ourselves. Before, I worked cleaning the streets — black work. But now I can’t support my wife and my child.” Because Tesfasilase escaped forced, indefinite military service in Eritrea after 13 years as a soldier, he said he would likely face life in prison, or worse, if he returned to Eritrea.

Semere Abraham, 24, another Eritrean waiting in the line-turned-mob, said that a close friend of his named Merhawe had accepted Israel’s offer to fly to Uganda about two weeks ago. However, he said, the plan went terribly wrong: Merhawe was detained at the Uganda airport, flown to Egypt, detained again, and then sent against his wishes to Eritrea. “I was calling to his house [in Eritrea], and his mother was crying,” Abraham said. “He’s in the prison now.”

Last summer, Israeli officials announced that Uganda had agreed to accept some of Israel’s unwanted Africans. Ugandan officials, however, quickly denied the deal — and have denied it ever since. Musa Ecweru, who heads refugee affairs at Uganda’s Ministry for Relief and Disaster Preparedness, told the Journal: “I have not been formally informed of this. I just heard in the news.”

Ecweru added: “I don’t know why they would even want to come here and not relocate to Eritrea.”

And Yolande Makolo, a spokeswoman in Rwanda’s Office of the President, said: “That’s really interesting. This is the first I’m hearing of this. Let me get back to you.” Makolo did not respond to multiple attempts to follow up.

Israel’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority has become equally tight-lipped. “The only thing we can confirm is that there are some of them who are flying to another country and not their homeland,” a spokeswoman said via e-mail.

A waiting room on the seventh floor of the Population, Immigration and Border Authority building in South Tel Aviv is plastered with dozens of signs that say “No Exit Through Window.”

However, according to multiple Eritrean and Sudanese men who have been trying to renew their visas at the Israeli Ministry of Interior, government staffers are telling them that they have the option to be relocated not only to Uganda but also to next-door Rwanda.

This is incredibly distressing, said Dismas Nkunda of the International Refugee Rights Initiative — not to mention, he said, “absolutely illegal by both Israel” and the other countries.

Uganda and Rwanda are still dealing with their own refugee crises, and without a formal relocation overseen by the United Nations, according to Nkunda and other human-rights experts, there is no guarantee that Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers will receive the protection they need.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has yet to intervene. However, a UNHCR spokesman issued a statement to the Journal demanding that any state, including Israel, “refrain from any future measure that could directly or indirectly lead to the return of a person to a country where his or her life or freedom would be threatened.”

In a series of interviews, Eritrean asylum seeker Ghide, 20, said five of his friends received $3,500 each from the Israeli government to board a plane to Rwanda in the past three weeks. Over the phone from Rwanda, his friends now tell him that around 30 asylum seekers from Israel are in the Central African country; in addition, according to Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, a plane carrying more of them to Rwanda departed Tuesday night.

Ghide said he would never accept the deal. His own father has been imprisoned for years under the current dictator, Isaias Afewerki, for worshipping and preaching as a Protestant Christian, and he’s afraid that Eritrean government would kidnap him from Uganda or Rwanda and shut him, too, in an underground jail. Nevertheless, the young Eritrean said, he understands his friends’ decision.

“Jail in your own country can be better than living in another country as a prisoner,” he said, “because maybe you will find a guard or something to send a message to your mother or father. And after six or seven years, maybe they will release you.”

Hundreds of African asylum seekers waited outside an extension office for the Israeli Ministry of Interior, hoping to renew their visas, on March 4.

Ghide said his friends in Rwanda also told him by phone that an anonymous official met them at the airport and gave them money to stay at a hotel for a couple of nights. But now they’re panicking, he said, because “they cannot get work and nobody is helping them. They are so worried about it.”

Another group of seven asylum seekers from Sudan spoke to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz from Uganda after leaving Israel in mid-February.

NGOs are having trouble keeping up with this chaotic scattering of Israel’s asylum seekers across Africa. Rozen at Hotline for Refugees and Migrants said she received information from the UNHCR that one Eritrean man whom Israel tried to relocate to Rwanda was immediately put on a plane to Eritrea by Rwandan authorities.

“There are a lot of weird stories — there’s one story about a group that ended up finding themselves in Chad,” said Gudovitch. The Israeli activist is scrambling to compile a comprehensive list of the departed by early April, when the Supreme Court of Israel is set to review a petition against the law allowing indefinite detention at Holot.

According to those tracking the departures, Eritrea has seen the fewest voluntary returns. Although the nation is not as globally infamous as, say, Darfur, asylum seekers say life under authoritarian rule has become intolerable. In December 2010, the U.S. ambassador to Asmara, Eritrea’s capital city, wrote in a leaked embassy cable: “Young Eritreans are fleeing their country in droves, the economy appears to be in a death spiral, Eritrea's prisons are overflowing, and the country's unhinged dictator remains cruel and defiant.” Every year since 2007, Eritrea has placed dead last on Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index; the organization writes that “the few journalists who dare to criticize the regime are thrown in prison.” Swedish-Eritrean journalist Meron Estefanos has called it “the North Korea of Africa.”

Meanwhile, Israeli government officials have boasted about the thousands of 2014 departures without acknowledging the dangers facing refugees. “Every week now, there are fewer infiltrators in Israel,” Sa’ar announced at his March 4 press conference.

Filmon Ghide, far right, helped translate for fellow Eritrean asylum seeker Fitsum Tesfasilase outside Tel Aviv's new visa office. “I was forced to serve in the military for 13 years as a slave, and I ran away in the night,” Tesfasilase said in his native language of Tegrinyia.

Massive asylum-seeker rallies against Sa’ar’s policies in January and February have dwindled in recent weeks. “The government of Israel has done a tremendous job convincing the Israeli public that all these people are work infiltrators, and that we should keep them away as quickly as possible,” said Rozen with Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. “This is actually our main problem.”

A skit staged by three asylum seekers in Holot’s front parking lot on March 8, with two busloads of Tel Aviv visitors as audience, poked fun at Israel’s deportation tactics. One Sudanese actor, pretending to be an Israeli government worker, whispered temptations into community leader Anwar Suliman’s ear — telling him how peaceful Sudan had become and how great it would be to see his family. After a few minutes of these sweet lies, to wild laughter, Suliman scribbled his signature onto the voluntary return form and threw his hands up in defeat.

In reality, Sudan is still incredibly dangerous, said 38-year-old Hassan Rahima, a widely respected community leader and head of the Organization of Sudanese Refugees in Israel, an umbrella organization for various tribal groups. “I cannot go back. I lost before my whole family: I was in my area in the Nuba Mountains, and my mother, my brother and my sister were all killed in front of my eyes. I was in jail for three months. Then the boss of the jail took me to where he lived and kept me as his slave for three years. I was cleaning the house and washing the clothes. I brought water to the house from the river on my back. All the time, they sent me to get water.”

The government that would meet him at the Khartoum International Airport, Rahima said, “is the same government who committed these crimes in the Nuba Mountains.”

African asylum seekers battle fear in South Tel Aviv


Over the past two weeks, Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers have staged the largest uprising in their eight-year history in Israel.

On Jan. 5, the first day of the protests, police estimate that more than 20,000 African asylum seekers — of the approximately 55,000 who have crossed Israel’s southern border since 2006 — refused to report for work and congregated on the Levinsky Park green, their main hangout and meeting spot in South Tel Aviv. They intended to stage a labor strike that would last until Israel agreed either to review their requests for asylum or turn the task over to the United Nations.

A few of the community’s emerging leaders took to the megaphone and rallied the crowd. Although the protesters come from different African nations and circumstances, they have lived through common hardships — years of compulsory, indefinite military service in Eritrea, ethnic cleansing and genocide in Sudan, rocky travel and torture by Bedouin gangs in the Sinai desert. Now, all of them face poverty and uncertainty in Tel Aviv, or in Israel’s desert prison camp for “illegal infiltrators” down south.

Protesters were warned they would be under intense scrutiny in the coming days. “Nobody do violence,” one speaker said. “If you meet racist people … respect them. It is very important to get our rights in a peaceful way.”

Ignited by unprecedented unity and hope, the group marched 20 minutes to the more upscale north side of Tel Aviv, filling Rabin Square to its brim and forcing cafe-goers to witness their fight. “We have been treated as criminals,” Sumaya Nedey, the movement’s head female activist, told protesters at the square. But with the strike, she said, “We will show the people of Israel that we are a strong part of the economy and the community in Tel Aviv.”

Yet, by the third day of protests, as the crowd’s energy peaked outside the front gates of the Knesset building in Jerusalem — and as Israeli employers began to hurt from the workers’ absence in the country’s hotels and kitchens — government officials shut down the historic protests with the ease of flipping a switch.

Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein denied eight leaders of the refugee movement the opportunity to speak with Israeli politicians. He did not allow them even to enter the building, citing “the backdrop of the tension and general public atmosphere, as well the fear that granting the infiltrators access will cause provocations in the parliament.”

Israel’s conservative Channel 7 painted the protests in a similar light, saying they raised “fears of violence, especially as the infiltrators have brought rampant crime to Israel and, in particular, to southern Tel Aviv.”

Mutasim Ali, a 26-year-old asylum seeker from Darfur whose strong, gentle speaking voice and excellent Hebrew have propelled him to the front of the movement, later wrote in an op-ed for left-wing daily Haaretz: “They want to portray us as violent and dangerous, but we explained to them and to the whole world that we’re non-violent people, that we respect law and order.”

Police confirmed that the week’s demonstrations had been extraordinarily low-key. “There were no injuries, no disturbances, no incidents whatsoever” over three days of mass protest, said Micky Rosenfeld, foreign press spokesman for the Israel Police. (At one point during the Jerusalem rally, this reporter witnessed one protester chide another for climbing into a tree.)

Many of the strikers had no choice but to return to work this week, no longer able to pay for their basic needs. And as a consequence of the strike, some have been turned away by their former employers.

Still, small yet undeniable shifts in the public consciousness may prove the efforts were not entirely in vain.

Over days of protest, Israelis in central and northern Tel Aviv who normally avoid the south part of the city like a toxic waste dump have now glimpsed Israel’s mysterious “infiltrators” up close, as something more than a shadow people waiting to mug them and dilute the Jewish state.

And while during the marches, some onlookers yelled, “Go home!” and “Back to Africa!” as asylum seekers flooded city streets and sidewalks, others, non-Africans, jeered back at the hecklers. Still others yelled or whistled in support of the protesters, or honked their car horns longer and louder than usual. 

On Jan. 10, after a roller-coaster week of protests, Channel 2 aired a topical skit set in South Tel Aviv.

In it, Dr. Yogev Shafir, a fictional host for the Israeli comedy show “Eretz Nehederet,” ventures into Tel Aviv’s low-income Levinsky Park neighborhood, dressed in dorky cargo khakis and a safari hat, to meet some real live Africans on the mean streets of South Tel Aviv.

Before helping serve lunch to asylum seekers at the Levinsky Soup Kitchen, Shafir takes care to tether his bike to a lamppost with a mess of chains, barbed wire and a “Beware of Tiger” sign. He then tries to spruce up the refugees’ diet by serving them some organic alfalfa salad.

And for the show’s awkward finale, Shafir visits three Sudanese men in their cramped Levinsky-area apartment, mosquito net in tow. After some small talk, he halts the meet-and-greet to point out that his iPhone is missing; one dramatic storm of accusations later, the audience sees the phone light up in his own cargo pocket.

So the joke is on him — this armchair liberal who politely pitied the asylum seekers from afar, but, in the end, knew nothing about them, stereotypes aside. 

The skit aired a very real prejudice and fear inside many Israelis who find themselves traveling (briskly) through South Tel Aviv at night: They cling more tightly to their purses, burrow their wallets deeper into their pockets and keep their heads down.

But the skit also indicated the mainstreaming of this self-awareness. “Eretz Nehederet“ was once labeled by CNN “the country‘s single most popular and influential television comedy,” and it is viewed by millions each season. If the funnymen of Channel 2 think Tel Aviv’s asylum seekers deserve a second chance, the Israeli public may not be far behind.

In the wake of the uprising, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, too, has changed his tone, seeking in an official statement to be more inclusive. Huldai, part of the center-left Labor Party, said: “The protests of the migrant workers that we have seen are just the beginning of a process. … The Israeli government must determine a governmental policy and a professional work plan while allocating budgets and resources to take care of the latitude of problems including immigration policy, education, welfare, personal security and employment.”

The South Tel Aviv neighborhood in which the asylum seekers live has earned a nationwide reputation as an African crime pot. Anecdotes about theft and assault in the area, while very real and unshakable for their victims, often become larger than life. Two rapes by African migrants in early 2012 — of thousands in the country each year — riled such fury within the Jewish community that fiery race riots broke out on the streets of South Tel Aviv that May. Dozens of Africans were reportedly injured by the rioters.

Just this month, Bat-El Asher, a young Israeli woman, described on her Facebook page being violently mugged by a Sudanese man. “Until yesterday, I was their No. 1 defense attorney,” she wrote of the migrants. “The romantic view I lived with until yesterday … [that] everyone deserves a chance for a stable and better life … even refugees … died yesterday at 20:30.”

Asher’s story was shared more than 500 times on Facebook. “A liberal is simply a conservative who has yet to be mugged,” one commenter wrote.

But asylum seekers have grown equally afraid of being attacked in Tel Aviv’s neglected south. Two days after Asher was mugged, an Israeli man stabbed an Eritrean baby in the head with a pair of scissors as the baby’s mother walked out of the Central Bus Station. The infant reportedly suffered brain damage from the attack; her 50-year-old assailant has since been arrested and hospitalized at Israel’s central mental institution. 

A MarketWatch poll from last summer found that 60 percent of Israelis believed the asylum seekers posed a danger to Israeli society.

Crime statistics from 2010, however — presented at a Knesset meeting and reported by the Hotline for Migrant Workers — showed that, overall, the crime rate among Israel’s general population was more than double the crime rate among foreigners. “The level of security, or the level of crime, in the southern part of Tel Aviv is not higher on a national level than other places in the country,” police spokesman Rosenfeld told the Journal.

Further turning the Israeli public against asylum seekers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other politicians on the right have declared the Africans — almost a quarter of whom are Muslim and speak Arabic — a major threat to the state’s Jewishness. 

To date, no Eritrean or Sudanese nationals have been granted asylum by the Israeli government. Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, in charge of approving asylum requests, recently told Israel Hayom: “As far as Jewish identity and the desire to blur it are concerned, whether or not that is the intention of those who support the foreigners, that will be the result. The state will change its character if it gives up and allows illegal entry into its territory. This is not a passing wave. If we allow those who are already here to stay and work, that will be a clear statement to anyone who is looking for a destination, and it will have immediate repercussions.”

A new, nearly $400 million border fence has cut off the influx of Africans almost entirely, yet the fear that more will come has pushed many locals into the “Go home!” camp — especially those who have never met any of their Eritrean or Sudanese neighbors.

“The government continues to lie to the public and tell them we are not refugees and we are making trouble,” Mulgeta Tumuzgi, an Eritrean who has lived in Israel for six years, said at a press conference at the height of the strike. “The Israeli government wants the people to fear us. If you are afraid of someone, you want them to get away. We want to say to the Israeli people: ‘Don’t be afraid of us. We are not coming here to harm you. We are not your enemy. We only ask that you can give us shelter until we can go back to our home.’ ”

For better or worse, Eritrean and Sudanese families today are an inextricable part of the city’s culture. The scent of their traditional stews and flatbreads mix with shawarma grease in the air; high-energy African songs and dialects stream from dozens of migrant-run businesses clustered around Tel Aviv’s hulking Central Bus Station; African children run to school in braids and backpacks to learn Hebrew alongside the locals. So, in addition to protests, local NGOs have been organizing events, such as African cooking workshops and concerts, to show Tel Aviv that — just like in the rest of the world’s great cities — diversity can be a blessing.

As Haaretz financial editor Sami Peretz recently wrote of his own personal, yet very universal dilemma: “We Israelis always love to see ourselves dealing with a disaster that has taken place in some distant land (for example, in Haiti or the Philippines). … 

“It is much harder,” he wrote, “to see ourselves as cruel racists when we deal with the African migrants who are filling Tel Aviv’s streets or are sent to prison in southern Israel, and who bring out all the poison and fears inside us.”

‘You’ll be free. Welcome!’: Seeking asylum


Daniel Angosom was just 18 when he escaped a lifetime of compulsory army service in Eritrea, fleeing to Sudan through his country’s northern border. It was in Sudan, while working as a cattle herder, that Angosom — like thousands of African asylum seekers before him — was kidnapped and sold to Bedouin gangs in the Sinai desert.

“They covered my eyes with a cloth and burned my head and neck with metal rods,” Angosom, now a lanky 21-year-old with a shadow of a mustache, remembered of his time as a Bedouin captive.

After months of torture and near-starvation, his family back in Eritrea was able to scrape together $35,000 for his ransom: “My mother sold her gold, and we sold all our cattle,” he said. So his captors dumped him at the Israeli border fence, where he expected to be taken in as a refugee. (About three-quarters of Eritreans and Sudanese who apply for asylum in countries that signed the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention, like Israel, are approved.)

Instead, Angosom was jailed for entering the country illegally. He is now being held at the Holot detention facility, the newest jail within Israel’s expanding desert prison compound for “illegal infiltrators.” He spoke to the Journal while sitting at a freshly painted red picnic bench just outside prison grounds; the desert stretched for miles in every direction, cold and silent.

“When I first entered inside Israel, I was very happy because it’s a democratic country,” said Filmon Mengstab, 27, Angosom’s closest friend at Holot. Long, spindly scars mark his arms and legs where bandits branded him with red-hot iron and extinguished their cigarettes into his flesh. Mengstab said his Bedouin captors also forced him to have sex with other prisoners and raped Eritrean women in front of him.

When he got to Israel, Mengstab said, “The army told me, ‘You will be free. Welcome.’ ”

Yet, Mengstab and Angosom have been behind bars in Israel’s desolate south for over a year now, alongside thousands of their peers. First, they were held at Saharonim, a closed jail with a capacity of about 3,000 prisoners, including women and children. But under a new Israeli law passed in December, male prisoners are now transferred to Holot after a year of good behavior at Saharonim — and can be held there indefinitely.

The Israel Prison Service has labeled Holot an “open facility” because prisoners can walk freely in- and outside the barbed prison fence. They can’t go far, though, because they must check in with guards three times per day.

“I don’t do anything — I just eat and sleep,” said Haspel Karim Youssef, 22, of Darfur. He’s been in prison for 15 months. “Every day, every hour, the same.”

Migrants living in Tel Aviv can also be sent to the prison complex, without trial, after any run-in with the cops. Micky Rosenfeld, foreign press spokesman for the Israel Police, said that if, during questioning, police find out that an African migrant has no residency papers or refugee status, he will be arrested and “transferred down south to Holot.”

Darfuri theater troupe actor and barbershop worker Babi Ibrahim, for example, was reportedly arrested in July when he couldn’t provide a receipt for a bicycle parked outside his shop. And according to the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, another woman was detained when she reported being raped.

Since December, some 500 to 1,000 asylum seekers living in Israel have been summoned to Holot while trying to reapply for visas, a spokeswoman for the Hotline said. (The Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration did not respond to multiple requests for confirmation of this statistic.)

“Israeli authorities have detained and invited our husbands, fathers and sons to go to Holot,” Sudanese activist Sumaya Nedey said at a recent protest. “They put us in detention in order to break our minds.”

Afraid of running into immigration police, she said, “We fear to go to work and meet with friends. Fear has taken the streets of Tel Aviv.”

The majority of African asylum seekers in Israel come from Eritrea. “Eritrea is known as the North Korea of Africa,” Sweden-based Eritrean activist and journalist Meron Estefanos said. “Every kid knows that you are the property of the state. By the time you’re 17, you know you’re going to go to the military camp … and you will be stuck doing national service for the rest of your life. The only way to get out is by leaving the country.” Temesghen Haile, 34, another prisoner at Holot, confirmed this, saying he served more than 10 years as a guard along the Ethiopian border before escaping Eritrea. Haile was under orders to shoot any Ethiopian on sight.

After helping a group of Eritrean captives round up ransom money to pay their Bedouin kidnappers in 2011, Estefanos became the go-to contact for desperate victims and their families; to this day, she fields innumerable panicked phone calls.

“The torture gets worse and worse and worse,” she said. “[The captors] sit all day and night trying to think what’s the worst thing they could do. They’re sadistic.”

Eritrean asylum seekers in captivity have phoned Estefanos with stories of being chained together in a puddle of cold water, then electrocuted until they pass out. “They will rape you to make you feel ashamed, and force you to rape each other,” she said. “They will call your parents and make them listen while they are burning you. They will hang you and make everyone eat for three or four days with your dead body hanging next to them.”

Estefanos added that if escapees are sent back to Eritrea, they are sure to be imprisoned for life. So even though Israeli authorities have offered $3,500 to any African who returns to his country voluntarily, prisoners at Holot said they would rather remain, holding out hope that Israel will change its mind or the U.N. will intervene.

Now, Estefanos is also taking calls from Eritreans stuck at Israel’s Holot and Saharonim detention centers.

“In Eritrea, it’s a dictatorship, so it’s expected. There’s no way out,” Estefanos said. But, in Israel, “You have convinced yourself that you’re in a democratic country where you have rights. Not knowing [your fate] is what’s worst.”

Refugee teens in Israel win races but not awards


On a chilly night in December, up a grassy slope overlooking the all-weather track at Ironi Tet High School in southeast Tel Aviv, a few dozen teens — hailing from about 10 different countries — raced one another to the top of the hill.

Yalla, Rahel!” one girl shouted from the sidelines, egging on the runner in first place. Rahel Gebretzadik, a petite 15-year-old wearing a wild ponytail and long sleeves under her T-shirt to cut the chill, is a star member of a local track and field club team named the South Tel Aviv Alleys. She nails this drill at practice a few times each week.

“Rahel is killing all of the boys,” said team manager and coach Rotem Genossar, out of breath as he watched her pull ahead. The teen had just beat him, too, in an uphill sprint.

“I don’t refer to her as a girl — she’s in the boy group,” he added.

Yet, although Gebretzadik is the speediest long-distance runner under age 19 in Israel, she has never been allowed to stand on a podium at a national competition.

Three years ago, when she was 12, Gebretzadik and her family fled Eritrea to escape religious persecution (they’re Protestant) and trekked across northern Africa and the Sinai Desert to Israel. The family paid Bedouins to taxi them part of the way, but for the on-foot portion of the journey, Gebretzadik carried her little sister on her back. Once inside Israel, the family spent three weeks at the massive Saharonim desert prison for “illegal infiltrators” in Israel’s desolate south before being released in Tel Aviv.

For this reason, Gebretzadik is barred from winning any of her track and field events at the national level.

The Israeli Athletic Association’s (IAA) policy is that in order to officially place in a competition, athletes must hold an Israeli ID. Non-citizens “can race, but they cannot win,” IAA General Secretary Jack Cohen said in a brief phone interview.

Now that her family has settled in South Tel Aviv alongside tens of thousands of fellow Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers, Gebretzadik is one of about 50 high-schoolers running for the South Tel Aviv Alleys — approximately 70 percent of whom are not allowed to win any races because their parents came to Israel seeking either asylum or work and have no path to citizenship because they aren’t Jewish.

Gebretzadik has been denied a spot on the podium six times since May. And the team’s long-distance coach, Yuval Carmi, said six to eight of her fast-improving teammates are also about to learn how that feels: “They’ll have to face it this season because they’ll be in very good shape. She is the best, so she faced it first.”

Israel’s continued imprisonment of thousands of African men without a trial, and rejection of their families’ applications for asylum, has reached a boiling point already this year. Rallies with turnouts in the tens of thousands are currently raging across Tel Aviv. But meanwhile, kids stuck in the system are facing smaller humiliations that can feel just as huge.

Most recently, at a cross-country championship meet in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon, Gebretzadik had her first-place win in the three kilometers (just under two miles) pulled out from under her.

“When they didn’t call her name, I felt uncomfortable,” said teammate Catherine Couturiaux, an 18-year-old legal immigrant from Spain. “It was an injustice, what they did.”

Rosefynn Boado, 15, a sprinter and hurdler who was born in Israel (and therefore does hold an Israeli ID) to a mother from the Philippines and a father from Ghana, agreed. “It’s not fair,” she said. “It made me really sad.” 

Adding to the embarrassment, long-distance coach Carmi said that event managers then announced to the whole crowd: “By the way, another girl, Rahel, came in first, but she doesn’t have Israeli citizenship.”

In September, Gebretzadik’s story was featured on Ynet.com, Israel’s online news source of record. The comment section became a warring ground between Israel’s right and left, transcending the topic of a teenage girl wronged to the greater refugee situation in Tel Aviv. 

“You snuck in illegally? Deport, end of story,” one commenter wrote in Hebrew. “I recommend you run all the way back to Egypt, and Eritrea,” wrote another.

Gebretzadik couldn’t help but peek at the comments. “They really got her down,” said Couturiaux. “But we told her, ‘It doesn’t matter what they say.’ ”

After practice one night in December, Gebretzadik changed into a gold tracksuit she brought with her from Eritrea and shared a hand of bananas with some other girls on the team. She blushed at questions about the hard crossing from Eritrea, and about the discrimination she now faces in Israel.

“Of course it’s discouraging,” she said. “But I’ve gotten used to it.”

Her teammates, many of whom also endured rough trips to Israel, giggled with her through the interview. “It was so hard; I cried,” said Samia Mohammad of her family’s trip, smiling wide and swooping her arm over a shorter teammate. After escaping war-torn Darfur, Sudan, she remembers “jumping over the rocks” as she hiked across the desert. (Like the vast majority of African asylum seekers in the same situation, Mohammad’s family was not granted refugee status in Israel. So if Samia or her brother Ramzi place gold, silver or bronze in any events this season, the IAA will deny their wins.) 

Team practices have become as much a social gathering and support system as a training ground. “Especially for the girls, the social reasons for running become greater than the athletic ones,” team manager Genossar said.

They’re a tight bunch, even once practice lets out. Late one December night, a group of the girls crowded onto bus No. 104 for the trip back home to South Tel Aviv, sharing ear buds and alternating fluidly between Hebrew and Arabic.

Their team name, the South Tel Aviv Alleys, shows they are “an urban team from the neighborhood — running in the streets, not in the fields,” Genossar said.

The 30-year-old Israeli coach is also a civics teacher at the Bialik-Rogozin School in South Tel Aviv, and his team draws most of its talent from the school’s student body — a melting pot of Muslims, Christians and Jews from roughly 50 countries. If the school sounds familiar, that’s because Bialik-Rogozin was the star of “Strangers No More,” a film by non-Israelis that won the Oscar for best short documentary in 2011.

In “Strangers No More,” directors Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon tracked the educational progress of a handful of refugee and migrant children at the school — some of whom had never before seen the inside of a classroom — as they learned to read and write, all the while fearing deportation.

The South Tel Aviv Alleys, too, embody the school’s remarkable yet effortless diversity. Ever since the team was founded in October 2012 and added to the nation’s official club roster in 2013, it has grown into a pretty popular place to be: “Our goal was originally 15 kids,” said Genossar. Now that they’ve surpassed 50, they’re in desperate need of additional funding to keep the team alive.

And as the Alleys have expanded their roster, their presence at IAA meets — and with it, their ban from the podium — has become glaring.

IAA spokesman Oren Bukstein explained that although it’s hard to see disappointment on any kid’s face, “We have a saying in Hebrew: First of all, look at your own kids. You cannot hurt the Israeli kids because of some compassion.”

He said that the citizenship mandate was created in part to discourage foreign athletes from competing in Israel solely for the prize money, then skipping town.

However, the team’s Israeli coaches are angry that the IAA refuses to make a distinction between professional sports tourists and kids who had no option but to come to Israel and have since made it their home.

“They’re already here — they live here, and they speak Hebrew,” Genossar said. “People who grew up here are treated as complete foreigners, as if they got off the plane to pick up the prize.”

The Alleys and their supporters are asking IAA board members to consider making non-citizens who at least have residency papers eligible to win events.

So far, the board has remained firm on the distinction. At press time, only one of the 13 board members had responded to requests for comment on their reasoning, and that one deflected the request to IAA management. But the IAA’s spokesman seemed optimistic that with some public pressure, board members could have a change of heart. “I think it depends on somebody to wake up the issue,” he said.

Gebretzadik, too, has hope. “I believe the rule will change,” she said confidently through a mouthful of banana after practice.

Proponents of overturning the Israeli ID requirement see the change not only as a means of leveling the playing field for undocumented kids like Gebretzadik but as an opportunity to take Israeli sports to the next level.

“The most important thing is that, individually, they are empowered,” Genossar said. “But they can also make a difference in Israel, because they are so talented, and [Israeli] track and field is not in the best position.

“If the IAA will treat them right,” he said, “everybody can benefit.”


To donate to the South Tel Aviv Alleys and help keep the team running, contact team founder Shirith Kasher at skasher@brack-capital.com.

Thousands of African migrants protest outside Israeli parliament


More than 10,000 African migrants demonstrated outside Israel's parliament on Wednesday, extending protests into a fourth consecutive day in a quest for recognition as refugees and freedom to work legally without fear of incarceration.

Their presence in a Jewish state that took in survivors of the Nazi Holocaust of World War Two has stoked an emotional political debate over whether they should be allowed to stay as a humane gesture.

“I want to say to them that they should not fear us, we are human beings too,” a tall, slim 25-year-old man from Eritrea, who gave his name only as Mulugieta, told Reuters.

Some 60,000 migrants, largely from Eritrea and Sudan, have entered Israel without authorization across a once-porous border with Egypt since 2006. Many hope for asylum and say they cannot return home without risking their lives.

Israel says most are illegal job-seekers. It passed a law three weeks ago allowing for indefinite detention of migrants without valid visas while it pursues efforts to persuade them to leave or enlist other countries to take them in.

Mulugieta said he fled Eritrea six years ago, fearing that his criticism of its rulers had put him in danger.

“We asked for shelter, we do not deserve jail,” read one of many large banners in a park opposite the Israeli Knesset as the crowd demonstrated against Israel's refusal to grant them refugee status.

“Being black is not a crime,” another sign said.

Many of the migrants live in impoverished neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, Israel's commercial centre, and work as cleaners and dish-washers. They have gone on strike at restaurants as part of a protest campaign that included a large demonstration in the Mediterranean seaside city on Sunday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week he views the African influx – since stemmed by an Israeli fence along the Egyptian frontier – as a threat to Israel's Jewish social fabric.

Miri Regev, a member of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, said it was time to send the migrants, whom she dubbed “infiltrators”, away.

“Stop being bleeding-hearts,” Regev said on Israel Radio, referring to Israeli activists seeking to help the Africans.

FOUR DAYS OF PROTESTS

It was the fourth straight day of protests by the migrants, who on Monday marched to foreign embassies in Tel Aviv to appeal for international intervention.

Protester Mulugieta said: “Everyone has come across the border, we escaped the war but they fear us (here) … we are not the enemy of the Israeli public.”

Dozens of migrants have been summoned for detention at a specially-built centre in Israel's Negev desert, where they are allowed to leave for brief periods during the day but must return at nightfall, activists said.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has said Israel's detention policy towards the migrants caused “hardship and suffering” and was not in line with a 1951 world treaty on the treatment of refugees.

Outside parliament, several left-wing legislators addressed the crowd. Erel Margalit of the opposition Labour Party apologized to the protesters after Parliament Speaker Yuli Edelstein refused to allow a delegation in to meet lawmakers.

David Grossman, a writer identified with the Israeli left-wing, told the protesters that the Jewish state's treatment of the migrants was shameful.

“I look at you now … I feel embarrassed and ashamed,” Grossman said in English. “Israel has not created this problem, but there is a problem now (and) we have to struggle with it and to solve it in the most humane way.”

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich

Israelis helping Syrian refugees in Jordan: Balancing aid and diplomacy


Mafraq is a single-story city in the desert flats of northern Jordan, built in beige and white, spiked with mosques and dotted with chalky vacant lots that suffice as soccer courts. The pores and meridians of Mafraq’s streets are clogged with bits of trash — snack baggies, mini coffee cups, old shoes, soda bottles, all kinds of plastic — that cling together in odd, twisty shapes, little trash monsters soggy with winter’s first rain.

This city of around 60,000, among Jordan’s most impoverished, has doubled in size over the past year: Mafraq is now half Jordanian, half Syrian. As the closest city to the Nasib-Jaber border crossing between Jordan and Syria, it has become a refuge for a tidal wave of people fleeing the civil war in Syria, the No. 1 absorber of refugees (per capita) in a nation that has absorbed almost a million — driving up the price of food and water and overcrowding the local housing market.

“All the people in the streets are Syrian,” said Ali Shdaifat, head of the Jordan National Red Crescent Society branch in Mafraq. He said he has seen as many as 40 refugees stuffed into a two-bedroom apartment. Rent for one such apartment has gone from about $150 to $300 per month due to refugee demand, said Mohammad al-Khaldi, another local aid organizer.

The refugees in and around Mafraq are also some of the neediest in Jordan. Unlike at Za’atari, the famous United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) refugee camp taking root 20 minutes east — a sprawling caravan city with over 80,000 residents who at least have access to three schools and 12 medical tents — the urban refugees of Mafraq and those camping on its outskirts aren’t always sure where their next meal will come from or how they’ll keep warm through the freezing desert winter. “Most of our refugees, up to 80 percent, are outside of the camp. They’re living in shacks,” said Aoife McDonnell, a cheery Irish external relations officer for UNHCR. She pulled on a purple fleece as the wind whipped through the UNHCR office trailers at Za’atari. “For me, it’s upsetting. I visited people in warehouses, with washing lines hung across the middle, splitting the warehouse into three, with UNHCR blankets thrown over to create privacy. … They’re largely an invisible population.” 

[Related: 

Although the Syrian refugees camping outside the UNHCR’s Za’atari camp are using UNHCR tents, they don’t have access to the steady distributions of food and water available at Za’atari. And their tents, unlike the weatherproof caravans at Za’atari, become inundated with rainwater in the winter. Photo by Simone Wilson

It probably would have been more efficient to purchase the aid items locally in Jordan, the Christian organizer said, where the economy is buckling under the refugee influx and could use the boost. But according to all involved, there was a personal touch to the Hand in Hand mission that went beyond prepackaged aid kits.

“All the items came from somewhere,” Melanie said. The refugees “could choose clothes and know that a different child wore it and gave it to them. Every time I packed something, I thought, ‘Oh, somebody’s going to love this.’ ”

To this day, the Jordanian NGO that helped distribute Hand in Hand’s careful load at its stone building in Mafraq denies it ever collaborated with Israelis. “The clothes weren’t from Israel, they were from America,” the organization’s head claimed.

Melanie launched Hand in Hand in 2012 when she started to see photos on the Internet of shivering, starving Syrian refugees who had fled their bombed-out cities for nearby nations. It made her sick to know such mass suffering existed so close to home.

“It looked to me absurd that all they need is blankets and coats — and as the next-closest country, it seemed very simple for me to do,” she said.

At that point, no Syrians had yet been smuggled across the Israel-Syria border to be treated by Israeli doctors, and Melanie couldn’t find any press coverage online showing other Israeli aid efforts. She thought no one in Israel was helping the Syrian refugees. “I was really ashamed for my country,” she said.

Then Melanie got a call from Gal Lusky, director of the NGO Israeli Flying Aid, which  had been quietly delivering aid to Syrians since early 2012. Its motto: “Nobody asks permission to kill; we don’t ask permission to save lives.”

Said Melanie: “I was so relieved to know that I wasn’t the only one.”

Gal: The Masked Hero

Aside from a September trip to Los Angeles, in the course of which Lusky talked about Israeli Flying Aid’s mission to Syria on “Good Day LA,” spoke at the Beverly Hills Temple of the Arts under her real name and, beforehand, did an interview with Jewish Journal president and columnist David Suissa, she has shielded her organization from press. An extremely protective, understandably paranoid aid veteran who must maintain good relations with Syrian rebel commanders and the like to continue delivering aid, Lusky declined to speak again to the Journal unless her name, the name of her organization and the locations she has visited be omitted from the article.

“She is the most important player here, by far,” Boms said. 

Lusky prioritizes covert, often risky aid delivery in the region, including inside Syria — and to avoid detection, must take a back-roads approach.

Within Boms’ theory that there are two distinct types of Israeli aid delivery — humanitarian assistance and humanitarian diplomacy — Lusky has committed herself wholly to the former. “Nobody knows mostly where we come from, and that allows us to work safely,” she told “Good Day LA” host Steve Edwards. (However, she added that, sometimes, “Before we leave, when we feel safe enough, we allow the locals to know” that the aid came from Israel — to mixed reactions.)

“Why were you more scared of this [interview] than going into those areas?” host Edwards asked the visibly nervous Lusky. “Because I’m fully covered in those areas!” she answered, apparently in reference to the hijab she has been known to wear in the field.

As secretive as she is, Lusky has also taken some sporadic PR risks in her efforts to improve Israeli-Syrian relations. At last summer’s Israeli Presidential Conference in Jerusalem, she played an audio recording of a Syrian opposition leader sending his thanks to Israeli President Shimon Peres. “May God bless you and help you with the good deeds you are doing to achieve this new Middle East,” the message said.

There are two major NGOs in Israel that deliver aid to outside countries: IsraAID, run by Shachar Zahavi, and Israeli Flying Aid, run by Lusky. Both organizations have responded to myriad disasters around the world, including in Haiti, Japan and the Philippines — although Israeli Flying Aid chooses to focus on countries that lack diplomatic relations with Israel.

IsraAID is far bolder when it comes to press. Its name and the names of its volunteers are not kept under wraps, and various reporters have accompanied the organization on missions to Jordan. Israeli newspapers have run uncensored photos of the smiling Syrians on the receiving end, hauling IsraAID’s signature purple or yellow aid bags back to their tents.

The same Christian organization that helped Hand in Hand has covered for IsraAID on all six of its trips to Jordan this year. The Christian aid leader said she was deeply moved by some refugees’ reactions to finding out the help comes from Israel: “One woman found out they were Jewish and said, ‘Oh, my goodness. You have come to help me, and my own government is trying to kill me.’ ”

In total, IsraAID has delivered $100,000 worth of aid to Syrian refugees in the form of 3,500 kits filled with food, sanitation items and blankets, according to staff. (Each kit serves seven to eight family members.) Currently in the planning stages is a psychosocial program to train Israeli and Jordanian psychiatrists to give trauma counseling to refugees.

Israeli Flying Aid, on the other hand — perhaps for its more discrete approach — has managed to deliver 20 tons of medications; 70 tons of sanitation items; 120 tons of bedding, building materials and water canteens; 670 tons of food; and 300,000 dry meals, according to its Web site. And the organization is reportedly already running a counseling program like the one IsraAID hopes to set up.

Sources familiar with both aid groups said that Zahavi and Lusky used to be part of the same organization but went their separate ways a few years ago, due to personal and ideological differences.

When Israeli Flying Aid started to work in Syria, it took down its Web site and created a nondescript alternative. The group’s new site reads: “Not only … do volunteers have to hide from the host country, but they also must be cautious of Iranian and Syrian intelligence personnel who have infiltrated the host countries and disguise themselves as refugees. They bring information back to the Syrian government, including numbers and names, and also actively try to frighten and hurt the refugees. There have even been reports of infiltrators poisoning the water sources of the refugees. As a result, the Israeli NGO works with cash only: in order to buy the humanitarian aid locally, to stay under the radar, and protect the lives of volunteers and local contacts.”

Aid organizations are normally hungry for press, because without it, they have trouble tracking down the donations they need to respond to sudden disasters. But Lusky’s reputation as a sort of trans-border superhero, dropping kindness bombs onto Israel’s sworn enemies, has built her all the connections she needs — including a key partnership with the Jewish Coalition for Syrian Refugees in Jordan, a coalition run by the New York-based American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

The initiative was spearheaded in May by the IRC’s Bennett, the American queen of Jewish disaster relief. When the IRC, which she oversees, released a 2013 report on the plight of Syrian refugees, Bennett said she realized that “this was worst refugee crisis of our time — a humanitarian disaster of unimaginable proportions.”

So far, of around $200,000 that the JDC has allocated toward helping Syrian refugees in Jordan, $50,000 has gone straight to Israeli Flying Aid for delivery of food and sanitation items. (Another $50,000, for example, went to the Jordanian Red Crescent to give first-aid training to Syrian refugees.)

Although Bennett declined to comment on the partnership with Israeli Flying Aid in particular, she said: “We make allocations only to organizations that the coalition has vetted.”

Amid a conflict as complex as the one unfolding in Syria, a stamp of approval from a major philanthropy group can mean everything.

“It’s not just the Jewish community” that is hesitant to donate to Syrian relief efforts, said Charlene Seidle, executive director of the Leichtag Foundation, a Southern California grant-maker that donated $75,000 to the JDC’s Syria fund. “In general, it’s a confusing situation — there are conflicting reports on the media, there’s a lot of nuance around it, and people are worried. They don’t want money to get in the wrong hands. For us, we take a lot of comfort in the fact that the JDC, in particular, was involved. We have a high degree of trust in the JDC’s ability to localize and allocate in the event of disaster.”

IsraAID has tapped into various other Jewish groups in North America for support, including the American Jewish Committee and the top Jewish federation in Toronto.

Boms said there is value in both Israeli aid groups’ approaches. But as a career advocate of diplomacy between nations, he noted that the more mainstream the narrative of Israelis helping Syrians in Jordan becomes, the more a future of Middle East collaboration can be digested by the general public.

Nir and Qutaibah: The Ambassadors

Nir Boms strolled into his coffee-shop interview in the posh German Colony of Jerusalem in a neat gray business suit, fresh off a lunch date with another high-up Jerusalemite — a culture-maker grappling with the challenge of trying to coax a prominent Syrian musician to play in Israel.

“Nir is also a prominent Syrian,” joked the friend.

There is a small circle of Israeli thinkers who make it their mission to shatter the notion that Israel is an island in the Middle East — and Boms just might be the ringleader. He is simultaneously the former academic liaison to the Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C., and a co-founder of cyberdissidents.org, a blog site committed to upholding the freedom-of-expression principles of the Arab Spring. Its staff includes advisers and contributors from Egypt, Iran, Tunisia and Syria.

“For me, it was very important for us to try and be as visible as possible,” Boms said of the Hand in Hand mission he helped organize.

For Melanie, too. But she soon realized that her Israeli volunteers would have to hide behind a Christian aid organization. “At first, I was very sad about it — it was a decision that we needed to take, but I was sad,” she said. “But things had more impact than that. Because now there’s a Web site; there are pictures; there’s a Facebook page that represents us and everything that is happening from Israel [in response to] this crisis. And people all over the world see these pictures, and see the aid — mine, Gal’s, doctors from Israel, whatever, everything is posted in that Facebook page. And I get many replies from doctors in Syria and journalists from Syria that are thanking us, and saying that they never thought about the meaning of Israeli citizens. They don’t even have it in their vocabulary — only Zionist. And now they see things that they couldn’t have known otherwise.”

Boms said that diplomatic ties between clashing cultures in the region can often be more easily formed outside the immediate sphere of conflict — online, or between immigrant populations living in less-charged environments like the United States.

But he has also taken a bold approach to forming bonds smack in the hotbed of conflict: His diverse and intimate network in the Middle East includes members of the Syrian opposition, whom he just visited in Turkey last month.

Right after his interview with the Journal, Boms sent an e-mail containing one of his closest contacts in Jordan, with the note: “FYI, one of those you need to meet …” 

Qutaibah, 24, met Boms through an older Jordanian friend who had attended the same conference as the Israeli academic, and soon became an integral player in pulling off Melanie’s dream to haul 5,000 items of Israeli clothing across the border. (A feat that more experienced aid workers thought impossible, due to enduring suspicion between Israelis and Jordanians, despite their 1994 peace treaty.)

“I would be so worried if some Jordanian friends catch this newspaper and read my name,” said Qutaibah, dipping into a bowl of baba ganoush at the best hummus spot in Amman, Jordan’s capital city. “It will be like a sin if I deal with Israeli people or a Jewish Journal. … This will be crazy, because everyone here knows everyone.” 

Qutaibah explained that while Israel might have a treaty with the Jordanian government, the Israeli people haven’t necessarily earned the trust of the Jordanian people.

“If anyone hears I’m working with Israelis, they’ll think I’m a spy,” he said.

But a rare trusting hunch in the young Jordanian entrepreneur has driven him to learn more about, and work closely with the Jewish people. He traveled around Israel for one week last year, swimming off Tel Aviv’s Mediterranean shore and staying a few nights at Boms’ house in Jerusalem.  “I tried to know more about his personality,” Qutaibah said of his new Israeli friend. “And, every day, I asked him about everything — about Jewish people, how they live, what they’re interested in, everything. We went to the Old City with a Jewish guide, and the next day we went with an Arab guide … but Nir taught me more. He taught me about how we can improve our relations with the Israeli people.”

If there is a fresh face for this “new Middle East” the academics dream of, it is Qutaibah’s. The lanky 24-year-old, with long, swooping eyelashes and a Roberto Benigni hair flip, is almost comically optimistic and helpful without hesitation, showing up to this reporter’s hotel in downtown Irbid, Jordan, every morning with two cell phones full of contacts he could call for directions, transportation, government shortcuts, etc. If one fell through, he called another.


In collaboration with a Christian organization in Israel and an NGO in Jordan, IsraAID has made six trips to distribute aid to Syrian refugees. The missions have concentrated on urban refugees and those living in scattered settlements outside the Za’atari camp. Photo courtesy of IsraAID

One year back, Boms asked Qutaibah whether he might be able to help a group of Israelis deliver aid to Syrian refugees living in Jordan. “I told him, ‘We must find organizations in Jordan who will work like a partnership,’ ” Qutaibah said.

That task turned out, like everything involving Israelis, to be more thorny than he expected. “The main answer to everything is,” Qutaibah joked, “ ‘very complicated.’ ”

He eventually locked down a couple of partners, but as word has spread that Israelis are on the giving end, Jordanian aid organizations have become increasingly skittish. “Qutaibah always likes to make some propaganda,” the leader of one Jordanian NGO said. “I don’t like this way.”

Even the UNHCR, when asked if they’ve received Israeli or Jewish aid, stated only: “Any agency that we deal with has to be cleared by Government of Jordan, and registered in Jordan as an NGO.”

Boms described the walls he hits as an Israeli operating outside Israel: “They’ve called me a Mossad agent in many different places,” he said. “Everything we touch as Israelis, from delivering a towel to speaking with somebody, becomes a whole issue. It’s foxy. We are a foxy place because of the geopolitics of the Middle East.”

While many refugees have sent thanks for the Israeli aid trickling into Mafraq, one Syrian mother expressed frustration about all the hoopla surrounding the missions. “Israelis just send secondhand clothes. This is not enough,” said al-Araheem, the Syrian mother of six who lives in a small apartment in Mafraq but is two months behind on rent. “People who come from the Gulf, they pay a lot a lot of money. But when Israelis come, they bring used clothing. They collect a lot of money by Web site, and we have never seen anything.”

The Israeli and Jewish aid circulating among Syrian refugees is indeed dwarfed by the billions of dollars donated by Persian Gulf states such as Kuwait and Qatar. “I don’t think there’s any illusion that a funder giving $75,000 — or even $75 million — is going to solve this profound issue,” said Seidle of the Leichtag Foundation. “We’re talking about thousands and thousands and thousands of lives. But it doesn’t mean that we can just stand idly by and do nothing, either.”

Still, it remains a common complaint among refugees: Journalists, need surveyors and government workers keep on traveling through, taking notes and snapping photos, with no immediate proof of benefit.

“They don’t just need our sympathy,” Boms said. “They need something tangible.”

But Qutaibah has made one particular Israeli friend who has caused him extra grief within his network in northern Jordan.

“He promised to come last week, but he didn’t come,” said al-Araheem, her light-green eyes open wide, defensive, and her arms folded tight across her chest.

Moti: The American Dreamer

Al-Araheem was referring to Washington, D.C.’s cover boy for Jewish-Syrian collaboration: Moti Kahana, a chatty rental-car mogul who was born Israeli but reps himself more as a New York Jew.

Kahana is one of the only parties involved in delivering aid to Syrians who was willing to use his full name for this story. In fact, he insisted — because, for him, high-profile Jewishness is integral to the cause.

“I told [Moti] from the very beginning, he has to make a choice: Does he want to be Israeli or does he want to help Syrians? He can’t do both,” said a friend of his working with the Syrian opposition.

But Kahana has chosen to embrace the shtick. A video interview with Israel’s Channel 10 in which Kahana advocated for the Syrian opposition — while wrapped in a Free Syrian Army flag — was re-aired by Hezbollah-affiliated news channel Al-Manar, painting Kahana as the crazy Zionist spy meddling in Syrian affairs.

At the height of the paranoia, in May, Assad himself posted a photo of Kahana on his official Facebook page, with the caption: “Jewish-Israeli businessman Moti Kahana holding the rebel flag in a Washington conference with rebel representatives.”

Last month, making the rounds at a conference in the nicest, most modernized part of Amman — where women wear gorgeous silk headscarves or no headscarves at all — Kahana told this story often, finding a way to drop, “Assad mentioned me on his Facebook page” into almost any conversation. 

Kahana said he has donated around $100,000 of his own cash to the Syrian cause — money that has gone toward refugee aid efforts, including those of Israeli Flying Aid, but also toward spreading the gospel of Assad’s opposition.

The New York businessman claims to have paid for the flights of opposition members, as well as some of the logistical expenses surrounding Sen. John McCain’s top-secret trip into Syria in May. Like Boms, Kahana said he has been making diplomacy trips to Turkey to speak with Syrian opposition leaders, and has made some headway in convincing them to open their minds to Israeli-Syrian collaboration.

For a while, Kahana was also toting a friend of his from the Syrian opposition around the United States, introducing him to synagogues full of Americans, trying to round up good-faith and financial support for Syria’s freedom fighters.

Bennett remembered meeting Kahana at the JDC’s kickoff dinner for its Syrian aid initiative: “I found him to be very committed to helping out.”

But Kahana’s current project is designed to out-wow the rest: He plans to distribute small-business loans to Syrian refugee women throughout the Middle East through his own U.S.-based micro-financing 501(c)(3). 

“After [President Barack] Obama decided not to attack, we realized [the war in Syria] was not going to end,” he said. “And my focus shifted to, ‘How can we help [refugees] sustain themselves?’ So I started the micro-financing project.”

That was over half a year ago. Now, with talks on the project drawn out for months, the Jordanian NGOs that agreed to collaborate and the Syrian women who filled out loan applications in Mafraq — including al-Araheem’s mother, hoping to sell homemade sweets — are beginning to doubt Kahana’s commitment.

“Where is the project? Where is the budget?” the leader of one such Jordanian NGO asked. “It costs a lot for Americans to come here, right? But how can they come without real things with them? That makes me crazy.”

For Kahanh, who is committed to an open, by-the-book approach, “It takes longer than everybody wants it to. I can’t break the law in any country — not Jordan, not Israel, not America. I have to go by the system, and sometimes the refugees, they’re kind of eager, like, ‘Get it done, get it done.’ I can’t. … My goal in Jordan is to have cooperation with the Jordanian authorities. I’m not doing something under the table.”

Lina Shalabi, a Palestinian-American in her early 30s who has been doing legwork for the project both in the United States and Jordan, lamented having to play the bad cop while visiting refugees’ barebones apartments.

“It’s hard. A lot of them told me such sad stories about themselves, personal stories — and I was assuming the role of a loan officer,” she said. “I was like, ‘I’m sorry, but it really has nothing to do with the loan application.’ … I didn’t want them to think that that could affect the loan.”

The ambitious endeavor brought Kahana and Shalabi to the extravagant Four Seasons Hotel in Amman in late November for a Women’s World Banking conference, centered on the topic of micro-financing for women in the Middle East and North Africa. At the two-day event, Kahana passed around quirky business cards with a photo of Rosie the Riveter and the name of his organization, Micro4Women, printed in wiggly font. He tried to track down the international partners he would need to set up his micro-financing project in refugee havens across the Middle East.

A friend of Kahana’s from Kiva, an innovative loan Web site that crowd-sources its funds, expressed interest in the project over a gourmet hot-lunch buffet. (The leftovers of which, one couldn’t help but notice, could have fed hundreds at the refugee camp an hour north.)

However, other high-level micro-financing folks at the conference looked a little skittish.

The head of the Lebanese Association for Development told Kahana point-blank that his ties to Israel and Jewish America would, unfortunately, prevent them from working together. Jewish money would raise a red flag for the organization’s partners and clients, he said.

Even for a journalist traveling around Jordan on behalf of an American-Jewish newspaper, interactions with government officials were tense. Qutaibah advised this reporter early on not to say the story was for a Jewish newspaper; after ignoring this advice at the Interior Ministry, a permission document for the Los Angeles-based Jewish Journal to enter the Za’atari camp and speak to Syrian refugees was held up for days. (According to Ayman Arabeyat, director of the Jordanian press office, the word “Jewish” specifically caused the delay.) And when permission was finally issued, Jordanian police inside the camp suspected the documents had been forged. They sent an officer along to monitor questions posed to the Syrian refugees; Qutaibah, who heard them speaking together in Arabic, said police were suspicious that the Journal was actually Israeli, and intended to run a negative news report on Jordanian management of the camp.

“It’s a tricky thing with the Jordanians, because it takes a while to establish trust,” Boms said. “It’s not easy for them to work with us, and we need to be cognizant of that.” 

The IRC’s Bennett, who also heads the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, said these growing pains could also be seen as “a tremendous opportunity for people-to-people diplomacy. Most people in the surrounding countries have never met a Jew, and the only Israeli they’ve ever seen is on the other side of a gun. This is an opportunity for people to get to know each other on a human level.”

The subtext being, of course, that when the shrapnel finally settles in Syria, if the opposition has its way, Israel will be looking at an entirely new set of negotiating partners.

Israel, Palestinians grim on peace talks before Kerry visit


Israeli and Palestinian officials said on Tuesday the three-month-old peace talks pressed on them by Washington are going nowhere, painting a grim picture for a visit this week by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Few details have emerged from negotiating sessions held at unannounced times and at secret locations in line with pledges to keep a lid on leaks.

But both sides have been airing their frustration over a lack of progress in the U.S.-brokered talks aimed at resolving core issues such as the borders of a Palestinian state, security arrangements, the future of Israeli settlements and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

“The Palestinians are not conducting the talks in good faith,” Gideon Saar, the Israeli interior minister who is close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Army Radio. “(The Palestinians) are locked in their positions and are showing no flexibility on their starting positions.”

In a speech broadcast on Monday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said: “After all the rounds of negotiations there is nothing on the ground.”

With both sides already trading blame over the absence of any sign of movement in the negotiations, Kerry will hold separate meetings on Wednesday with Netanyahu and Abbas.

On the sidelines of the peace talks, Israel has released half of the 104 Palestinian prisoners it pledged to free under a deal Kerry brokered to draw Abbas back to negotiations after a three-year break over Israeli settlement-building.

Israel says continued housing construction in settlements, in areas it intends to keep in any peace accord, was part of those understandings, which led to the return home of long-serving Palestinian inmates convicted of killing Israelis.

In tandem with the release of 26 men last week, Israel pressed ahead with plans to build 3,500 more settler homes in the West Bank, a move widely seen as an attempt by Netanyahu to placate hardliners in his government.

Nabil Abu Rdeineh, an Abbas spokesman, condemned the settlement campaign but said Palestinians remained committed to the negotiations.

“What's required is a firm American position on Israel's provocations. Israel is continuing its policy of putting obstacles in front of the peace process – every time Kerry comes to the region they announce more settlements.”

LINKAGE

Netanyahu accused the Palestinians of reneging on what he said was an agreed prisoners-settlements link.

“If they can't even … stand beside and behind the agreements that we had, that we release prisoners but we continue building, then how can I see that they'll actually stand by the larger issues?” he said in an interview with the Israel-based i24 television news channel.

Abbas, speaking to his Fatah party on Sunday, voiced opposition to any such linkage, cautioning that “this equation could blow up the talks” and “there could be tensions soon”.

The settlements that Israel has built in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are considered illegal by most countries. Israel cites historical and biblical links to the areas, where about 500,000 Israelis now live alongside 2.5 million Palestinians.

Israeli media on Monday reported that Kerry, who has given the sides nine months to reach a deal, plans in January to introduce a peace proposal if no major progress is made.

At a news conference in Riyadh on Monday, Kerry said there was no such plan “at this point in time”. He has spoken publicly of possible U.S. bridging proposals if no major progress is made.

Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta and Noah Browning in Ramallah and Lesley Wroughton, editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich

Pakistan’s Malala challenges world leaders to educate Syrian refugees


Pakistani education crusader Malala Yousafzai and other youth activists challenged world leaders on Monday to come up with $175 million to educate 400,000 Syrian children who fled to neighboring Lebanon to escape a civil war in their homeland.

As leaders gather in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, Yousafzai, 16, who was shot in the head by the Taliban last year for demanding education for girls, and U.N. education envoy Gordon Brown received $1 million from campaign group Avaaz to kick off the push for money to send Syrian refugees to school.

U.N. children's agency UNICEF said 257,000 Syrian children were seeking education in Lebanon in 2013 and that was set to rise to 400,000 next year, swamping the Lebanese public school system that already educates 300,000 children.

“I can feel what's happening in Syria because it's what happened to us in Pakistan,” Yousafzai said of being displaced by violence as she spoke with Syrian student Farah Haddad, 20, in New York. Yousafzai is now at school in Britain because she cannot safely return to Pakistan.

Haddad, who finished high school in Syria and moved to the United States in 2011 to attend college, has taken up the fight for education for Syrian refugee children.

“When the war is ended, there will be no way for us to bring back the dead, or mend the hearts of mothers in Syria, but we can surely equip Syrian children to wrestle with a Syria when the bombs stop exploding,” said Haddad.

Former British Prime Minister Brown announced on Monday a plan by the Overseas Development Institute to educate those 400,000 Syrian children by employing Syrian refugees who were teachers, opening Lebanese schools 24 hours a day to teach children in double or triple shifts and providing school meals.

“A 100 years ago the Red Cross secured the right that health care should be provided even in conflict. We want in this generation to secure the right of every child to education even when there's a conflict,” Brown told reporters.

LOST GENERATION

“Instead of 400,000 Syrian children doing nothing … perhaps becoming unemployable, a lost generation, a wasted generation, childhood destroyed, we can actually show that in the next few months these 400,000 children can actually get the opportunities they so richly deserve,” Brown said.

Brown said $175 million was needed to implement the education plan in Lebanon. Avaaz raised its $1 million donation in the past week from more than 32,000 people in 143 countries, and Western Union also announced it will match consumer donations to its newly created education fund up to $100,000.

“The U.N. Security Council … has failed the people of Syria. We can't fix that problem today but I can think we can still determine whether the children of this war become a lost generation or a generation of leaders that can rebuild and renew the hope of the country,” said Avaaz co-founder Ricken Patel.

The U.N. Security Council has been deadlocked over how to try and end the two-and-a-half year Syrian conflict. Russia and China have refused to consider sanctions on President Bashar al-Assad's government and have vetoed three resolutions condemning Assad's crackdown on opposition groups.

A World Bank report said Syria's conflict will cost Lebanon $7.5 billion in cumulative economic losses by the end of 2014. The report was prepared for a U.N. meeting this week to provide humanitarian aid and development assistance and strengthen Lebanon's armed forces.

Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

Jewish groups sending aid to Syrian refugees in Jordan


A coalition of Jewish groups is providing more than $100,000 in aid to Syrian refugees in Jordan.

The Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, which is made up of 14 organizations and coordinated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, convened Thursday in New York to allocate the money to several groups providing aid to Syrian refugees in refugee camps in Jordan, a JDC spokesman told JTA.

The money is going to the Jordanian Red Crescent, which is the kingdom’s version of the Red Cross; Israel Flying Aid, for food distribution; World Jewish Relief, which is working with the Save the Children program in one of the refugee camps; and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), for resettlement work.

Approximately 1 million refugees from Syria’s two-year-old civil war have fled in roughly equal numbers to Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

Cleveland kidnappings: No one loves the stranger


I know what happened with those three women in Cleveland, how one man was able to imprison and torture them in the middle of a residential neighborhood for 10 years, even though he had grown children, brothers, cousins who visited the house for hours at a time. It’s not a pretty tale, but we’ve all heard it, although to a lesser degree, countless times before. 

Remember the command in the Hebrew Bible: “The Lord your God loves the stranger … and you shall also love the stranger, for you were a stranger yourself in the land of Egypt”? Well, that’s not true in L.A., and it apparently wasn’t true in Cleveland, either. 

For years after I had moved here from Iran, I drew suspicious smiles and “are-you-just-weird-or-do-you-have-a-hidden-agenda?” glares. A mother at my kids’ school would spend half an hour in the parking lot telling me about the husband who had just left her because she was ill, and now she was alone with toddlers and no one to care for them or her, and I would ask if I could help in any way. The neighbor across the hall from me would cry over lunch about her son who had been in a coma for 15 years and how she cared for him at home and could hardly get away, and I would offer to fill in for her from time to time. Or I’d see a colleague get mistreated at work, a child teased, an old lady yelled at by her caretaker at the grocery store for taking too long to decide which brand of milk to buy. If I rose to their defense, it wasn’t just the tormentor who resented me; often, the one I thought I was speaking for was distrustful to the point of being hostile. 

I don’t know why it took me so long to get it. I thought of every possibility but the most obvious one. 

Societies function through a set of entrenched boundaries. Some of these are spelled out and written into law; they are meant to create order and safeguard rights. The other boundaries, born of culture and custom, are often unspoken, even instinctive. Cross them and you’ll be sent into some form of emotional exile. 

In most traditional societies, these boundaries separate each tribe (the extended family, the members of an ethnic or religious minority) from all the others. Within, you suffer from a sometimes total lack of privacy but benefit from an equally formidable emotional support system. Their map looks like a jigsaw puzzle: Oddly shaped pieces fit together by some peculiar logic evident only in retrospect. 

In America, on the other hand, the map looks like a page from a grid notebook: Each individual or couple, while part of a larger whole, is ensconced safely, if alone, in a single little box. A person may expose herself, needs and vulnerabilities and all, to a near stranger, or on television and on the Web. She may do this merely to unburden herself, or to arouse the public’s sympathy or to become famous. But just about the only thing she doesn’t want is a display of pure empathy or an offer of guileless aid. 

Where I grew up, you did things for others because you were human and so were they. You relied less (or not at all) on government and institutions, taxpayer-funded organizations or troops of volunteers. The government was usually there to make you more, not less, miserable; rich people didn’t pay taxes, and the poor just paid to make others rich. You had only each other and your (and their) basic humanity. It wasn’t nearly as efficient as the Western model, but often it was more effective. Back there, if someone’s child disappeared, people remembered and remained vigilant long after the police had closed the case. They talked about it and asked questions and told the story to every newcomer for three generations. 

Back there, if you had a brother who had multiple locks on the basement door, you would know one way or another what he was guarding. If your father disappeared for an hour during a meal at his own house, or if your neighbor had naked women crawling around his yard, or an old man turned up at the park with a 6-year-old who resembled him, you would likely know enough about him to be able to connect the dots. 

There’s a difference between allowing people their space and privacy and making a conscious effort not to know because you don’t really care. 

There’s a difference between allowing people their space and privacy and making a conscious effort not to know because you don’t really care. Time and again here in L.A., I’ve seen one person look irritated and change the subject when another began to talk about a painful event or personal tragedy. An old friend of mine once sent out a mass e-mail to announce he did not want to hear about anything unhappy that went on in anyone’s life; bad news, he said, weakens one’s life force. 

So, yes, I may be completely wrong about Cleveland, there may be parts of this story that have yet to surface, but given what we know so far, I can tell you those women remained captive because the people on the outside didn’t care enough. The man’s family didn’t care enough about him or what he did to others to find out what lay behind the locked doors. The police didn’t think the girls mattered enough. And the neighbors? The neighbors were asleep in their little grids. That’s unfortunate, but it gets worse: The people on the outside didn’t care enough because they’ve been taught not to; because if they do, they’ll get punished for it in one way or another. 

Americans are a uniquely generous bunch. They’re splendid at organizing and effectuating aid, at answering a call to duty and committing acts of pure heroism. They rushed toward exploding bombs to save bleeding victims in Boston, drove across the country and inhaled poisonous debris for weeks at a time to sift through the rubble at the World Trade Center. They organize search parties for missing children and walk all night in mud and sleet, put their Ivy League educations to use in refugee camps and war zones. They’re good at donating and raising money for just about any cause. 

Then the battle is won, the search is over, and the once-formidable army of selfless and valiant givers breaks back up into a thousand lonely, self-sufficient cells. The lucky ones go home to a nuclear family — a spouse, a couple of kids who’ll leave home the minute they turn 18, maybe an aged parent. The rest have no one, or no home, to go back to. They might have saved 100 strangers from death or heartache, but they have no intention of saving themselves or each other from the neverland between intimate relationships and institutionalized charity. It’s the old pioneer spirit — break with the familiar, pack up your wife and children in a wagon, and do or die alone on the prairie. 

But the pioneer, make-it-on-your-own, build-a-new-world-or-kill-yourself-trying spirit, while hugely liberating and uniquely empowering, has its downside: Sit on the porch with a shotgun on your lap long enough and you’ll end up defending an empty, forgotten shell of a home separated by desert from other empty, forgotten shells. Or approach the lunatic on the porch and get shot at enough times and you’ll go home and put a dozen locks on your own door, live and let die. 

I still care about what happens to the “stranger,” but I know better than to step up and offer a hand. I find it at once sad and telling that the neighbor who responded to one of the women’s cries is being hailed as a hero. As if he did something most other normal beings wouldn’t do — aren’t expected to do. As if the normal course of duty is to hear a call for help and, because it comes from inside someone’s house, walk away. 

It would be easy for me to condemn such callousness except that I fear I’m increasingly guilty of it myself. I haven’t forgotten the awkward reactions or outright rejections I received from people when I believed we’re all bound together by our humanity. The woman crying about her husband in the parking lot never spoke to me again after I said, “I’d like to have you and your kids over for Shabbat dinner some time.” The neighbor with the son who was in a coma dialed the wrong number (mine), mistook me for someone else and said, “My neighbor called to ask if I need help; I wonder what she wants.” These days, I reserve my expression of empathy for close friends and family. I donate to charities and nonprofits knowing that this kind of aid, while important, is no substitute for a personal connection. Yes, it makes me less of a person. I believe this kind of detachment diminishes all of society, allows crimes large and small to go undetected. 

The only thing is, I’m still haunted by the anguish of the abandoned woman, the suffering and confusion of the old lady in the grocery store, the unjust firing of the colleague. I would much rather have had a part in helping heal the wound than spend years wondering what became of those people. I do see the distrustful neighbor from time to time, and though we only exchange polite greetings now, I can tell you that she seems no happier for all her well-guarded boundaries.


Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in the Journal.

Israeli officials order halt to underhanded contraception of Ethiopian women


Following a TV report alleging that Ethiopian Israeli women were being given contraceptive shots against their will, Israel’s Health Ministry has ordered physicians to put a stop to the practice.

The report, broadcast Dec. 8 on the “Vacuum” investigative news program on Israeli Educational Television, alleged that Ethiopian immigrants were coerced or coaxed into receiving Depo Provera, a long-term contraceptive shot that lasts three months, both by Jewish aid officials before their immigration to Israel and by health workers once in Israel.

In the past decade, births among Ethiopian women in Israel have fallen by nearly 50 percent, according to the report.

Last week, the Health Ministry instructed doctors to stop administering the shots unless women ask for them and understand their ramifications.

The ministry’s directive, sent by Director General Ron Gamzu on Jan. 20 in response to a petition filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, instructs doctors “not to renew prescriptions of Depo Provera to women of Ethiopian origin or any other women who, for whatever reason, may not understand the treatment’s implications.”

The directive also instructs doctors to ask patients why they want to take the shot before administering it, and to use a translator if necessary. The directive does not confirm the allegations or acknowledge any wrongdoing.

“We didn’t give the shots,” ministry spokeswoman Einav Shimron Greenbaum told JTA. “We didn’t give them to anyone. We still deny it today.”

The allegations extend as far back as the health clinics the women visited in Ethiopia prior to immigrating to Israel, where the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee provides an array of health services to prospective Ethiopians immigrants, including contraception.

“They said, ‘Come, there are vaccinations, gather everyone,” Amawaish Alane, an Ethiopian immigrant to Israel, told “Vacuum” reporter Gal Gabbay in the Dec. 8 broadcast. “We said we wouldn’t receive it. They said, ‘You won’t move to Israel.’ ”

Alana and others on the program charged that workers at the JDC clinic told them it would be hard for them to work, get apartments or survive in Israel with large families.

A woman identified as S. said on the program that she was told at the Jewish aid compound in Gondar, Ethiopia, that she wouldn't get a ticket to Israel if she didn't take the shot.

“I didn’t want to take it. They wanted me to take it. But I didn’t know it was a contraceptive,” she said. “I thought it was an immunization.”

JDC denies the charges.

“At no time did JDC coerce anyone into engaging at family planning at its clinics. Those options were totally voluntary and offered to women who requested it,” a JDC spokesman in New York told JTA in December. “They chose the form of contraceptive based on being fully informed of all the options available to them.”

The “Vacuum” report alleged that the women continued to be coaxed into receiving the shots once they immigrated to Israel, often without their knowledge that what they were getting was contraception.

A spokesman for ACRI, which filed its petition after the Dec. 8 report aired, said ACRI is interested in preventing future unwanted contraceptive shots rather than casting blame.

“Admission of guilt is not what we’re about,” ACRI spokesman Marc Grey told JTA. “It’s more about acknowledging that this occurred and making sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The project coordinator for women and medical technologies at Isha L’Isha, an Israeli feminist group that also signed the petition, praised the Health Ministry’s Gamzu for issuing the new directive.

“What he’s done is different from all the other statements from the Health Ministry, which blamed the women and said that’s what they want,” said Hedva Eyal, the project coordinator. “He said maybe we made a mistake. We need to make sure this never happens to any group with any health issue.”