Migrants from Ethiopia and Eritrea queue in line during a food distribution near the former "jungle" in Calais, France, August 23, 2017. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Deporting illegal immigrants: Israel’s unresolved challenge

The challenge of having to deal with illegal immigration is an international challenge. It is also an Israeli challenge that Israel’s Supreme Court addressed yesterday in a ruling that was as misunderstood by the angry Israelis responding to it, as it was controversial. Generally speaking, Israel under Prime Minister Netanyahu did a superb job in stopping the main route of illegal infiltration from Africa via Egypt. A fence was erected, tougher means were adopted, and the fence essentially halted all illegal entrance through the Sinai Peninsula.

But one challenge lingers: dealing with those who already entered the country. A large community of illegal immigrants resides in southern Tel Aviv, and this community turned several neighborhoods into slums. The government attempts to erode their numbers by various means, but there are hurdles making this goal more difficult than expected.

One problem is that many of these immigrants come from countries to which they cannot return (Eritrea, Sudan), countries that are likely to persecute them. To overcome this challenge the Israel government signed an agreement with other countries (Rwanda, Uganda) that are willing to take in the immigrants, but there is a caveat: these countries will only take them in if they come out of their own free will. The government needs to convince the infiltrators to leave and cannot force them out.

A remedy for this problem was found using a variety of means: financial compensation for those willing to leave was one of them; arrest of those unwilling to leave was another one. The court, in its controversial ruling, limited the second tool to an extent that makes it completely inefficient. The country, the court ruled, can only detain these stubborn residents for two months. After two months, they must to be released.

The government responded to the ruling with expected, and somewhat justified, fury. Telling the immigrants that after two months they will be released takes the bite out of this means of persuasion. It is like telling the government that it has the right to limit the speed of cars but is forbidden from fining the drivers who exceed that limit.

Naturally, the court sees things differently. If the terms signed with other countries are that the immigrants will be leaving willingly, arrest violates these terms. In other words, arresting a person until he is willing to leave violates the meaning of free will. The court did not tell the state that it cannot deport illegal immigrants forcibly. It can. But to do this it will have to find a country willing to take in these deportees.

So, there are two institutions tricking one another here: The government is gaming the condition of free will by putting pressure on the immigrants to leave willingly. The court is gaming the policy of the government by limiting it in a way that makes it null.

What can the government do when the court ties its hands? The immediate response was to argue for new legislation.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and PM Netanyahu all said on Aug. 28 new legislation is the option they will pursue. Israel has a three-pronged approach to halting the flow of infiltrators, Netanyahu said. They include the fence at the border, the deportation agreements and implementation of the policy of deportation.

“In light of today’s developments, we will have to legislate new laws so we can enforce our policy of removing these illegal infiltrators from our country’s borders,” the PM said. Whether the court accepts such a move or declares it unconstitutional is another matter. Whether the countries’ willing to accept deported infiltrators accept this move or accept the court’s interpretation is also another matter.

The larger issue is the delicate balance that needs to be maintained between the interest of the country –- not to have illegal immigrants stay -– and the rights of the infiltrators –- not to suffer from inhuman treatment even though their act of entering the country was illegal.

It is natural that the government is more interested in the policies and less in the rights of illegal immigrants. It is the role of the court to moderate this tendency. Thus, the controversy and frustration of Israelis following the court’s ruling is a sign of a functioning system.

Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer addressing the AIPAC Policy Conference, March 26. Photo courtesy of Twitter.

AIPAC opens conference with appeal to bipartisanship amid polarization

AIPAC launched its annual conference with an appeal to bipartisanship, but Israel’s Ambassador Ron Dermer made clear his government’s preference for the Trump administration over its predecessor.

AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus cast the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in her opening remarks, as an island of bipartisanship in an increasingly polarized political climate.

“Our nation is embroiled in difficult debates touching on who we are, what we believe, and what values we prioritize,” Pinkus said. “Americans across the country are retreating into ideological corners.”

Dermer, speaking at the same opening plenary, said that for the first time in years there was “no daylight” between Israel and the United States, and commended the Trump administration for “finally” bringing moral clarity to the United Nations.

Pinkus decried those who highlight political divisions to “score political points.”

“Support for Israel is not immune,” she said. “Elements on each side of the aisle are trying to fracture our movement.”

AIPAC has over the last year come under pressure from both the left and the right. Right-wing Republicans say divisions between Israel and the United States under the Obama administration were so profound and have so infected Democrats that Israel’s best path forward now is in an alliance with Republicans.

Liberal pro-Israel groups say President Donald Trump’s policies, particularly his animus toward Muslims and other minorities, and his retreat from endorsing a two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict necessitate attaching the pro-Israel movement to resistance to Trump.

Pinkus’s message was an old one for AIPAC but freshly relevant to the climate: The best way to preserve the U.S.-Israel relationship is to work with both parties.

“We will not allow, frankly cannot allow, support for Israel to fall victim to the same divisiveness that overwhelms” other issues, she said. “We will work harder than ever before to hold the ideological center.”

Dermer also ostensibly pitched bipartisanship, but made it clear his government was relieved at the departure of President Barack Obama and his team.

“Perhaps for the first time in many decades there is no daylight between our two governments,” he said. Dermer may have misspoke, however; the embassy tweeted out the quote as “many years.”

Dermer listed among areas of comity a joint rejection of the Iran nuclear deal reached by Obama, although it is not clear that Trump favors scrapping the deal.

He also twice praised the Trump administration and its U.N. envoy, Nikki Haley, for “finally” bringing moral clarity to the United Nations. Throughout President Barack Obama’s eight years, the United Nations was an arena where both nations worked closely; that was marred, however, in December when as one of its last acts the Obama administration allowed though an anti-settlements resolution.

Dermer praised several Republicans slated to speak at the conference, but only one Democrat: Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., one of only two Democrats to vote last week to confirm David Friedman as ambassador to Israel. Friedman was seen by Democrats as a divisive choice by Trump. A longtime lawyer to the president, he is heavily invested philanthropically in the settlement movement, and he has heaped abusive language on liberal Jews, something he apologized for during confirmation hearings.

Is Trump Hitler?

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wondered in print whether Donald Trump isn’t the second coming of “the bully from the beer halls.”

Me, I keep my Holocaust analogies to the bare minimum: Cambodia, Rwanda, Armenia. Those were holocausts. The Iran deal? The refugee crisis? Animals in slaughterhouses and aborted fetuses? No, no and no.  

Godwin’s Law, coined by American attorney Mike Godwin in 1990, states that the longer a topic is discussed online, the more likely someone will compare something to the Holocaust, Nazis or Hitler. But just because that’s the law doesn’t mean we have to obey it.

The same goes for throwing the word “Nazi” around as an adjective, which some people do as easily as they say the words “green” or “sad.”  You know who I call Nazis?  Nazis.

And Hitler?  Well, Trump needs to answer for his overtly racist rhetoric, but criticisms of him need not fall prey to the same easy rhetoric of, say, Donald Trump.

Hitler’s goal was to reshape Western civilization according to his delusional vision of a Third Reich. Trump’s vision is to get even richer and even more famous. Trump doesn’t want to destroy society as we know it — he just wants it to pay him even more attention. 

Hitler based his vision on his understanding of history. The only book Trump ever talks about is the one he wrote. The only history he ever refers to is his own. 

Hitler was a great communicator. You cannot take that from him. Trump is the Great Panderer.

“What you get from Trump are commonplace ideas pronounced as received wisdom,” journalist Mark Bowden, who interviewed Trump extensively a decade ago, wrote at vanityfair.com. “The ideas that pop into his head are the same ones that occur to any teenager about terror attacks.” 

Hitler cared more about destroying the Jews than saving his country. Is there anyone anywhere who thinks Trump cares about anything more than Trump? Yes, he’s willing to lose business with Saudi Arabia or NBC, but he has done the calculations and believes the losses there will be more than made up for by increased exposure elsewhere.

But if Donald isn’t Adolf, he isn’t harmless, either. He has revealed and stoked the ugly and ancient human capacity for hate and prejudice, which dies down but never burns out. 

“Do not think that that is all, you men,” Bertolt Brecht warns us at the end of “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui,” after the despot is dead, “for though we rose up and we beat the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

The funny thing about the bitch’s spawn is it never emerges looking like it did the last time. We have all been on the lookout for the loser Jew-hating neo-Nazi, and we are certainly attuned to very real Islamist hate, but this year’s model comes out of right field — a billionaire real estate magnate reality TV star. Who’d have thought?

Fortunately, there is every indication decent folks are prepared to rise up and shut down Trump.

That was clear in the reaction to Trump’s call for banning Muslims from the United States, in response to which, as I pointed out last week, every single Jewish denomination from Orthodox to Reform has fiercely objected. 

That was clear in Washington, D.C., at the White House Chanukah party on Dec. 9, where a rabbi’s speech before the menorah lighting invoked the need to bring light to the kind of darkness Trump brings to the world.

“The word Chanukah means dedication,” Rabbi Sid Schwarz, a senior fellow at the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (Clal), said as he stood next to the president and the first lady. “At a time when we hear the most shameful expressions of bigotry in our public discourse from prominent personalities, we must rededicate ourselves to the principles of tolerance and justice for all.”

And that was clear Sunday morning on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall, where Mayor Eric Garcetti joined with local leaders, dozens of Muslim, Jewish and Christian clergy and a crowd of concerned citizens to condemn terrorism and the kind of racism that Trump has stoked in reaction to it. 

“We know that acts of hate that follow seek to divide us,” Garcetti told the gathering. “And if we are to be a truly safe people, we need not only the protection of those in uniform, we need the trust between one another.” 

And that was clear, finally, at a remarkable gathering last Sunday night in Marina del Rey, where dozens of concerned Americans gathered to raise money through the Democracy Council to provide teachers and doctors to Syrian refugees in Turkey and Jordan. Ambassador Frederic Hof, former special envoy to Syria and a Vietnam veteran who is the recipient of a Purple Heart, made clear that the way to help the refugees and to defeat ISIS is to fight terror there and hate here.

“How in the world will we defeat the Islamic State without the help of American Muslims?” Hof said to the audience of Muslims, Jews and Christians. “Will we let our politicians manipulate our fears so that they can get elected?” 

Alhough the fundraiser didn’t set out to be an interfaith event, it became one — because this is not yet Donald Trump’s America, not even close.

In defense of Natalie Portman

Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman is taking a pretty good beating in the Jewish community for her remarks on the Holocaust during a recent interview with a British newspaper, The Independent, to promote her directorial debut, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.”  Her sin? She raised thought-provoking questions about how much educational emphasis to put on genocides other than the Holocaust, especially as part of a Jewish education.

[RELATED: Portman should be commended, not criticized]

In 2007, Portman went to Rwanda for a gorilla trek and, while there, visited a museum devoted to the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, which she had not been taught about in the Jewish schools she had attended in the United States at that time. As she told the interviewer, “I was shocked that the [genocide] was going on while I was in school. We were learning only about the Holocaust, and it was never mentioned and it was happening while I was in school.”

Portman’s paternal great-grandparents died in Auschwitz, she was born in Israel and, as a young actress, she played the title role in a revival of “The Diary of Anne Frank” on Broadway. Nonetheless,  she was essentially accused of being an airhead from Hollywood who didn’t understand the unique nature of the Holocaust. Colette Avital, the chairwoman of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, accused her of having a “limited” understanding of the Holocaust, which “cannot be compared with other tragedies.” Auschwitz survivor David Mermelstein charged her with dangerously “minimizing the importance of a Holocaust education.” Aaron Goldstein opined in The American Spectator, “If an Israeli-born Jew whose ancestors were killed at Auschwitz doesn’t understand what separates the Holocaust from all other acts of genocide then we have a very big problem.”

With all respect to her critics, I think Portman was attacked for something she didn’t say. Fairly read, Portman only argued that we must be sure to educate Jewish students about other genocides. That’s a long way from saying that other genocides are comparable to the Holocaust; indeed, she stated that she was not making “false equivalences.” In fact, there is no equivalence between the Holocaust and other genocides. The Holocaust is different in so many ways that it’s sometimes hard to know where to begin. For me, the key distinguishing feature from other genocides is that never before or since has a state harnessed every human, scientific and industrial resource at its disposal for the purpose of eradicating an entire people from the face of the Earth, down to the last baby. Or, as writer Adam Gopnik put it in The New Yorker a few years ago with reference to Anne Frank: “That a modern state was searching, at great expense and at a cost to its own war effort, to find a fifteen-year-old girl in an attic in Amsterdam in order to get her on a train bound for a concentration camp in Poland showed something new in the theatre of human action.” If properly taught, the significance of the Holocaust will not be diminished even if, at the same time, high school students also are told that, in the span of little more than three months, an ethnic group in Rwanda hacked to death 800,000 people solely because they were from a different ethnic group.  

Now, I don’t think Portman’s critics are literally advocating that other genocides should not be on a Jewish school’s curriculum. Rather, where I think Portman hit a nerve is the deep fear that Jews will lose ownership of the Holocaust through its universalization as a symbol of man’s inhumanity to man when, as Auschwitz survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel put it, it was about “man’s inhumanity to Jews.” The way to address that concern is not to scorn Portman but to begin a dialogue over how we can have it both ways: teaching a new generation about the truly distinctive and Jewish nature of the Holocaust while also ensuring that students know about the Rwandas and Srebrenicas. Said another way, I think “Never Again” can retain its uniqueness even while we draw upon the Holocaust to remind ourselves why we must stop genocides wherever they occur. 

So, thank you, Natalie Portman, for starting an important discussion.

Gregory Wallance is a writer, lawyer and human rights activist.  He is the author of “America’s Soul in the Balance:  The Holocaust, FDR’s State Department, and the Moral Disgrace of an American Aristocracy.”

Jewish-sponsored youth village in Rwanda hosts first utility-scale solar power field

The first utility-scale solar power field in East Africa, built on land belonging to a Jewish-sponsored youth village in Rwanda, was launched.

The nearly $24 million project was financed and constructed by Gigawatt Global.

Yosef Abramowitz, Gigawatt president, also is CEO of Energiya Global Capital, Gigawatt’s Israeli affiliate, which provided seed money and strategic assistance for the project.

The Rwanda field — constructed in the shape of the African continent — was built on land belonging to the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. The village for orphans from the 1994 Rwandan genocide and after was founded by the late Anne Heyman, who died a year ago in a horse-riding accident.

The village is leasing land to house the solar facility, the fees from which will help pay for a portion of the village’s charitable expenses. Gigawatt Global also will be providing training on solar power to students of the Liquidnet High School on the grounds of the Youth Village.

The solar field will feed electricity into the national grid under a 25-year power purchase agreement with the Rwanda Energy, Water and Sanitation Authority.

“Our project proves the viability of financing and building large-scale solar fields in sub-Saharan Africa, and we hope that this solar field serves as a catalyst for many more sustainable energy projects in the region,” Chaim Motzen, Gigawatt Global co-founder and managing director, said in a statement.

Turning ‘never again’ into action: the legacy of Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis

70 years ago this week, the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp was liberated. From the ashes of the murdered arose the words “Never Again” – spoken as shorthand for our collective responsibility to act in the face of genocide. However, on the world stage, the words “Never Again” soon were replaced by a reality of “Yet Again”, as the horrors of the Holocaust were followed by genocide after genocide, atrocity after atrocity – from Cambodia to Rwanda, from Darfur to Congo. Since 1945, 46 genocides have claimed the lives of tens of millions.

Until 2004, I was among those who failed to act. Like many Jews who grew up in the 1950s, I internalized a deep sense of responsibility to safeguard the memory of the Shoah – so that the world would understand anti-Semitism’s dangers and prevent Jewish persecution in the future. Yet, when I heard about atrocities in faraway places like Cambodia and Rwanda, the notion that I could do something – that I should do something – never materialized in my head. My mindset shifted because of one man, Rabbi Harold Schulweis – with whom I co-founded Jewish World Watch. As he changed my perspective, Rabbi Schulweis dramatically changed my life – and saved thousands of others.

In the wake of Rabbi Schulweis’ passing last month, our emotions at Jewish World Watch have run the gamut: great sadness at the loss of a truly extraordinary human being, gratitude for our opportunity to know and love such a deeply influential Jewish leader – and more than anything, resolve to amplify his message.

Somehow I wish that we could transport the entire American Jewish community to the Congregation of Valley Beth Shalom on Rosh Hashanah in 2004, when Rabbi Schulweis asked, “Where were you when one million innocents were slaughtered in Rwanda?” Like many others sitting in the congregation, I felt a pit in my stomach as I thought of my response to his question. Then he challenged us, “What will you do today to stop the first genocide of the 21st century – the genocide in Darfur?”

In that room, at that moment, no one could look the other way as Rabbi Schulweis spoke about another people being targeted for destruction. From his moral call, we resolved that Jewish World Watch would protect those threatened by genocide and mass atrocities in all corners of the planet. We would educate our community, lobby policymakers, and provide moral support and direct assistance to survivors on the ground.

In 2004, at 80-years-old, Rabbi Schulweis founded an organization – a movement – that has become one of America’s largest and loudest anti-genocide groups. In the decade since that Rosh Hashanah, Jewish World Watch has been at the forefront of advocacy efforts that helped to bring about pressure to end the genocide in Darfur, drive the most lethal militias out of Congo, and create broad awareness among governments and global corporations about the threat of emerging genocides around the world.

We’ve raised many millions of dollars for projects to aid more than 500,000 survivors of genocide and mass atrocities – from educational programs that allow former sex slaves and rape victims in Congo to reclaim their futures; to Solar Cookers, a simple invention that has dramatically improved the safety of Darfuri refugees, allowing women and girls to avoid the frequent assaults that result from leaving their refugee camps to search for firewood.

Even as his health began to falter, Rabbi Schulweis remained deeply involved in our work, day after day. His intellect and oratory animated our marches, rallies, and seminars. His warmth and humility cemented our coalitions with people of all faiths and races. His excitement and encouragement inspired our board members to take frequent trips to Africa – and to report back to him about the people we met and the projects we were pursuing. His bold conscience insisted that we continue to dig deeper to find the godliness and goodliness in our souls.

As a human being, it is natural to become mired in your own struggle – in righting the wrongs that have been done to your people. With global anti-Semitism on the rise – as we see Jews continue to be murdered only because of their faith – the impulse to hunker down and focus only on our own is real and understandable.

Yet, Rabbi Schulweis spoke out against that kind of thinking. He drew the connections between genocides. He pushed our community to see that the Jewish quest for justice will never be complete if we stand idly by when others are in danger – and that the Jewish drive to protect ourselves will not succeed in a fractured and Balkanized world.

We live during a time in grave need of Rabbi Schulweis’ message. From Congo and Sudan, from Iraq to Syria, from Burma to the Central African Republic, we are called to take the words “Never Again” and turn them into action. In his memory, let us continue to breathe life into the best of our Jewish values to create a better world.


Janice Kamenir-Reznik, Esq., is the President and Co-Founder of Jewish World Watch – a multi-faith coalition representing hundreds of thousands in the fight against genocide and mass atrocities.

Surviving survival: Living life after genocide

April brings many moments for reflection and sorrow. On April 24, 1915, the Armenian Genocide began; the massacres in the killing fields of Cambodia began on April 17, 1975; and on April 7, 1994, the genocide in Rwanda exploded with ferocity that would last for 100 days. Yom HaShoah, which falls on April 28 this year, is when we remember the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis. The coinciding of these times of remembrance brings together a worldwide community of children and grandchildren whose families will be forever scarred by genocide.

Last year, I traveled to Rwanda with Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone, a feisty 90-year-old with Auschwitz No. A-12307 tattooed on her arm. I watched as she talked to the survivors of the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, most of them almost 60 years her junior. They wanted to know what happens next, to draw strength from her, to know that everything will all be all right, that their children can expect to have a full life, and that they, too, will live to an old age.   

I, too, often wonder how the Holocaust survivors did it — survive survival and rebuild their lives, that is. The thought of being without family, home, country or language, scouring the landscape of Europe in search of clues of any fragment that remained, is overwhelming. It continues to perplex me how they emerged as human from total dehumanization, animalization in some cases, where pure animal instinct became the means for survival. And then, as if by some miracle, these dirty, skinny remnants have become rosy, plump bubbes and zaydes, squeezing their grandchildren at their b’nai mitzvot.  

It was, of course, no miracle. Every day of the last nearly 70 years has been hard-fought. The struggles — to find a home, get some form of education and engage in a vocation, all while enduring nightmares, anxiety and uncertainty — were never easy. Even now the demons of the past are never far away, because after the killing stopped, the Holocaust was not over. That is how genocide is.

And yet, time passes. Earlier this month, Rwanda commemorated its own post-genocide “miracle.” Just 20 years after the brutal mass murder — in which Hutus turned against Tutsis, neighbor against neighbor, husband against wife — the next generation of Rwandans are building their country together. On April 7, at the national soccer field in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, 600 young people filed onto the grass and sang about the spirit of Rwanda. There were no Hutus or Tutsis out there on the field, just young Rwandans, making a life and a future. 

If anywhere is the poster country for renewal after genocide, Rwanda is it. Daily nonstop flights from Europe mean tourists can enjoy one of its many new hotels and explore breathtaking landscapes and rainforests in comfort and safety. Rwanda’s burgeoning economy ranks among the fastest growing and most stable in Africa, and is on the top-10 list of best countries in the world for investment. It feeds its entire population and aims to have dramatically reduced international aid by 2020.  

Rwanda isn’t altogether dissimilar to another small country that, in the wake of a genocide, built a country from a land with few natural resources, relying on advances in agriculture, education and high tech to drive its economy. Rwanda and Israel are by no means identical, but once a population knows what genocide means, it behaves in a completely different way.

Kwibuka, in Kinyarwanda, means “remember”; like the Hebrew word zachor, it has become the central motif of the commemorative efforts in Rwanda. Kwibuka20, a Rwandan organization commemorating the 1994 atrocities 20 years later, has overseen memorial activities, watched Rwandans come together with the world to remember, and continues to show the miracle of surviving survival is indeed possible.  

Jewish Holocaust survivors and those working to preserve the memory of that genocide have taken part. A group from the USC Shoah Foundation and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum were present at the national commemoration in Kigali this year. We were there to share both sorrow and hope, because we know just how difficult surviving survival really is.

Stephen D. Smith is executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation and executive producer of Kwibuka20, an organization that is convening commemorations in Rwanda and around the world of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.

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.”

At Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda, Anne Heyman’s legacy lives on

Anne Heyman’s death during a horse-riding competition in Palm Beach, Fla., on Jan. 31 shocked and devastated many in the Jewish world.

But it was Heyman’s work in Rwanda that so many of her admirers will remember most.

A former assistant district attorney in Manhattan who made a career shift to philanthropy around the time she began having children, Heyman learned during a visit to the Tufts University Hillel in 2005 about children who were left without parents by the Rwandan genocide.

Inspired to do something to help, Heyman set about establishing a youth village for the orphans modeled on Yemin Orde, the Israeli youth village set up for children who survived the Holocaust.

The idea behind the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, located in a rural area about an hour from the Rwandan capital of Kigali, was to provide the orphans of the genocide with an enclosed, nurturing environment where they could grow up while recovering from their trauma. The word “agahozo” comes from the local expression for drying tears.

Heyman, who had three children of her own, didn’t just raise millions of dollars in funding for the village. She spent as much time as she could at Agahozo-Shalom, visiting several times a year.

“Every day she thought of those kids, every time I talked to her,” Laurie Franz, a friend and youth village board member, told JTA on Monday before Heyman’s funeral at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York. “She believed in helping people. She had the biggest heart of anybody I know, and she did it continually, honestly and with so much passion. She was intelligent and beautiful and wise and kind.”

When news of her sudden death at age 52 reached the village, Rwandan Youth Minister Jean P. Nsengimana wrote on Twitter that the village “just lost a mother.”

Many of the kids at Agahozo-Shalom can hardly remember their biological mothers.

Twenty years ago, their mothers and fathers were demonized in a racist campaign, their siblings rounded up, their families and friends killed by machetes, clubs and guns as their country was torn apart in genocidal brutality.

In many cases they grew up with one parent or no parents, in the care of an older brother, sister, cousin or guardian. Some have been abused, some abandoned, many too poor to afford basic necessities.

Now the 500 students at Agahozo-Shalom, 15- to 21-year-olds who in some way were hurt by Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, live in a carefully planned refuge amid a stunning landscape in the country’s center. They study biology, math, history, economics, language and literature in a full-service high school. In the afternoons they paint or play soccer, record gospel music or do electrical work.

At night they sit with more than a dozen peers they call “brother” and “sister” and talk about their lives. The surrogate families, comprised of groups of 16 boys or girls in the same grade, each in care of a house “mama” and staff member who act as a big sibling or cousin, are named after inspirational figures such as Mother Teresa, Benazir Bhutto and George Washington.

The goal of Agahozo-Shalom — where the children live in modern homes with running water, electricity and plumbing, have access to a large staff of teachers to social workers, and can spend their leisure time in green fields, a farm or a grove of banana trees — is to take high schoolers far from their trauma so that they may begin to confront it and help their country heal.

“They find themselves, they learn to know about themselves, they learn that they have passions,” Jean-Claude Nkulikiyimfura, the village director, told JTA during an interview in the village two weeks ago. “They realize, ‘I’m not the only one with problems. Someone else has a problem and I could be a solution to that problem.’ ”

Even though most of its residents are Christian, the village has something of a Jewish character. Students speak of “tikkun olam” projects in the surrounding community, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee sends fellows to work there for a year and Yemin Orde, in Israel, often is talked about as a model.

“The students who know about the Holocaust really relate to Jews here,” said Arielle Sokolof, a JDC fellow from New York who began working at the village in December. “I think it’s an important Jewish value to teach others and learn from others.”

At Agahozo-Shalom, the kids’ days are programmed from start to finish. They rise as early as 5:30 to clean their houses or attend sports practice. After breakfast they attend school from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., then comes lunch followed by science, art, sports or, for older children, technical training. At the end of the day they have their homework and a range of extracurricular activities, from planning solutions to village problems to film discussions and environmental projects.

“If a kid is in sports, you can see not only how a kid is throwing a ball but how he can become happy with other kids,” said Isa Sikubwabo, the village’s director of education, training and philosophy. “The kid can have a time when he can discuss, he can smile.”

One late afternoon last month, Yael Zaken, an American-born Israeli, stood teaching a group of students about the artistic movement of abstract expressionism, the way an image can convey an emotion rather than a realistic scene. Surrounded by paintings by past and present students, she told JTA that art can help students work through their pain, even though some use the opportunity to draw machetes or guns.

“I talked to them about using freedom of expression as a cathartic tool,” Zaken said. “Slowly they started to draw things in their mind. It saddens me, but it’s a wonderful moment to start talking about what they experienced.”

The village encourages its students to attend university after graduation, and a handful now are at colleges in North America. Kagame Jeaa, who lost seven siblings in the genocide and graduated from Agahozo-Shalom in 2012, is working at the village this year and will attend McGill University in Montreal in the fall.

“There’s nothing that makes me happy more than seeing a kid rising to the peak of his potential,” Jeaa said. “When you’re in the process, it’s really hard to recognize what’s going on. I really enjoy giving them advice as someone who passed through the journey they’re starting.”

First-year student Oscar Murwanashyaka, 19, says he connected quickly with the village’s supportive atmosphere. Lanky and enthusiastic, Murwanashyaka says he wants to produce gospel music or start a business after he graduates.

“I have my mom and my cousin and my big brother,” he said, referring to the staff members who guide his family of 16 boys. “Everyone shares the program in unity. If I know something, I share it with others.”

Twenty years since the genocide, very few of today’s students experienced its horrors firsthand. But Nkulikiyimfura, the village director, says that effects of violence in subsequent years and the genocide’s legacy have rendered the village helpful even to younger children. Agahozo-Shalom is working with Rwanda’s Education Ministry to explore replicating the village’s model elsewhere in the country.

“It’s amazing, once you give them attention, the greatness that can come out of a kid,” Nkulikiyimfura said. “We’re not trying to create the next president of Rwanda. We’re trying to create the next good citizen who cares for his family, has a family and cares for his community.”

Anne Heyman, Rwandan youth village founder, dies in horse-riding accident

Anne Heyman, a Jewish philanthropist who founded a Rwandan youth village for children orphaned in that country’s 1994 genocide, died in a horse-riding accident.

Heyman, 52, died Friday afternoon after falling off a horse while participating in a jumping competition at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Florida.

The Forward on Saturday was the first news outlet to identify Heyman as the victim of the accident.

[Related: Anne Heyman, in memorium]

Heyman’s interest in aiding Rwanda was spurred by a 2005 talk on the genocide that she and her husband, Seth Merrin, attended. Together they raised $12 million to build Rwanda’s Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village.

The village opened in December 2008, and 500 Rwandans aged 14-21 currently live and study there. The village was inspired by the youth villages in Israel that resettled young Jews orphaned by the Holocaust.

Rwandan government officials expressed sorrow over Heyman’s death.

“RIP ‪#AnneHeyman‬ — your legacy will live on forever, our thoughts are with your family and hundreds of youth in ‪#ASYV‬ who just lost a mother,” Jean Nsengimana, Rwanda’s youth minister, tweeted.

Heyman, a South Africa native, has been involved in numerous American Jewish philanthropies. She is a former board president of Dorot, a Jewish nonprofit that organizes volunteers to help the elderly and reduce their social isolation.

Between past and future: Israel, Africa and the Apartheid Canard

Israelis were not surprised by the terrorist attack by last month’s Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, killing 67 people. They had been on alert against such dangers since two attacks on Israeli targets in Mombasa in 2002. Indeed, there were reports that Israeli experts helped Kenyan forces deal with the Mall takeover.

There are signs of expanding Israel – Africa relations. During the past two years, more than 40 senior African dignitaries—including the presidents of Rwanda, Uganda, Togo, South Sudan, as well as the prime minister of Kenya—have visited Israel, with the Nigerian president expected soon.

The Israeli-African nexus is not a new story — its narrative not merely comprised of current shared struggles against terrorism.  Dating back to 1958, there is a famous picture of Israel’s then Foreign Minister Golda Meir—her sturdy pocketbook in hand — visiting Ghana, one year after that country became the first African nation to win independence and a mere ten years after the establishment of the fledgling Jewish state.

In some respects, the visit of the one-time Milwaukee housewife was prophecy fulfilled. In the 1890s, Edward Wilmot Blyden, pioneering founder of the African freedom movement, later led by led by W.E.B. Du Bois, Kwame Nkrumah, among others, lauded Theodor Herzl for launching “that marvelous movement called Zionism.” Herzl reciprocated in his novel, Altneuland (1902) envisaging “the return of Negroes” from their Diaspora to help liberate Africa.

By the early 1970s, 10 African states had embassies in Jerusalem, and Israel maintained relations with 32. After the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, Israel vociferously criticized South Africa’s apartheid regime, resulting in a temporary rupture of relations that had been established in 1948. An Israeli embassy was not opened in Pretoria until 1974. But then in wake of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, 21 Black African broke diplomatic relations with Israel. Then in 1975, just a month before the UN General Assembly passed the “Zionism equals racism” resolution, Uganda’s President Idi Amin spoke before the General Assembly calling for “the extinction of Israel.”

In 1976, during Operation Entebbe Kenyan government official Bruce McKenzie—subsequently assassinated on Amin’s orders—persuaded Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta to permit Israeli Mossad agents to gather information prior to the hostage rescue operation in Uganda, and to allow Israeli Air Force aircraft to refuel at aNairobi airport after the rescue.

Throughout the 80s, Israel’s focus shifted to Ethiopia’s Black Jews, known as the Falashas or Beta Israel, and their epic struggle to reach the Holy Land. With Operation Moses in 1984-1985 and Operation Solomon in 1991, Israel airlifted, respectively, 6,500 and over 14,000 Beta Israel into the Jewish state. Today, all remaining Jews from Ethiopia have resettled in Israel, struggling, as each immigrant grouphas, to make the transition into the mainstream of Israeli society. Meanwhile, there was the stormy drama of the small sect of self-identified, Black Hebrew Israelites who settled in the Negev town of Dimona. They were initially made into a metaphor by critics of Israel who portrayed the Jewish state as a racist society. While it took over twenty years to fully resolve tensions, today the Black Hebrews—including the first born in Israel who was killed by Palestinian terrorists during his Bar Mitzvah in 2002—have come to symbolize how anybody with commitment and persistence can make a future for themselves in Israel.

A third act in the Israel/Africa drama is the recent influx of African refugees into Israel. Authorities have been struggling to balance human rights and security and societal concerns,with mixed results. The Israeli Supreme Court recently ruled that these individuals cannot be detained indefinitely and then expelled. A solution to their plight remains a significant challenge for Israeli society.

So against the backdrop of historic affinity of African with Jewish freedom struggles, with expanding economic opportunities and continuing humanitarian interchange, the future course of Israel-African ties seems promising.

There remains however, a significant threat to those hopes; a threat based on a powerful lie: The canard that Israel is the apartheid heir to the deposed South African Apartheid regime. The Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions (BDS) Movement was officially launched in 2005 declaring it was “inspired by the struggles of South Africans against Apartheid.” No one less than Archbishop Desmond Tutu supports this ‘big lie’ that debuted at the UN’s 2001 Conference Against Racism in Durban South Africa where NGOs made toxic attacks on the Jewish state its centerpiece.  Unfortunately, officials of today's South African government, continue to embrace the slander rhetorically and diplomatically, aligning not just with the Palestinian cause in general but especially with Hamas.

Which narrative will ultimately prevail? We should take heart from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stirring words:

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Dr. Harold Brackman, a historian is a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center

Violence in Eastern Congo is our problem

We’re staring down the barrel of another full-scale war in Congo. The M23 rebellion, launched in March 2012, last week stormed and seized Goma, a crucial town in eastern Congo. The M23 rebels already had been responsible for the displacement of more than half a million civilians — another 60,000 civilians have been newly displaced in the last week alone. While it might appear that the M23 rebels are retreating to the outskirts of Goma, they have made it clear that they will continue to administer and control Goma until their demands are met. 

The success of the siege is likely due in part to the support of the rebels by outside influences, namely elements within the Rwandan and Ugandan governments and militaries. The last time Congo saw this level of foreign incursion, the chain of events that followed led to the deaths of 5.4 million innocent civilians. This is what the beginning of horror looks like.

On the surface it may seem that our political leaders and the international community may be responding quickly to the crisis. But the reaction by both the Obama administration and the United Nations Security Council threatens to rehash old, failed “solutions” that set Congo on the path to repeat its cycle of violence. In particular, our political officials seem to be pursuing a policy of accommodation and protection of Rwanda, to the detriment of the development of sustainable solutions in Congo. 

Guilt over past horrors — the 1994 genocide in Rwanda in particular — might be clouding the judgment of the very people with the power to change international policies towards Congo.  U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, along with her former boss, President Bill Clinton, has carried the burden of inaction in Rwanda since those fateful 100 days that saw the murder of more than 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis. And that guilt has translated into consistent support for and protection of Rwanda’s leader, President Paul Kagame, credited with ending the genocide and restoring security to Rwanda. 

But our protection of Rwanda and its leadership can go no further. While advocates have long suspected Rwanda’s complicity in the exploitation of Congolese minerals and its support of proxy militias in Congo, we now have proof: two separate U.N. Group of Experts reports on Congo published this year have pointed to significant support to the M23 rebels by Rwanda and Uganda. The latest report, leaked earlier this month, named Gen. James Kabarebe, the Rwandan Minister of Defense, as sitting at the top of the M23’s chain of command.  

Despite this clear evidence, the Obama administration’s own statement condemning the M23 rebels, while swift, failed to call out Rwanda or Uganda for their role in the crisis. And the U.N. Security Council resolution passed last week similarly failed to explicitly name Rwanda or Uganda as supporting the M23 or expand targeted sanctions against Rwandan and Ugandan officials despite evidence that they had violated the arms embargo in eastern Congo. Rwanda and Uganda were, by all accounts, protected in the Security Council by the U.S. mission.  

Rwanda receives nearly 45 percent of its budget from Western donor countries like the United States — roughly $1 billion in aid annually. That is a lot of leverage that we could be using to bring about constructive negotiations that lead to long-term, regional solutions to this conflict. Instead, we are frittering away our political capital. 

The U.S. government must change tack and immediately: 1) push the U.N. mission in Congo to protect civilians against rape and pillage; 2) through the U.N. Security Council, expand targeted sanctions against all officials and parties that are blocking peace — from M23, Rwanda, Congo and Uganda; and 3) immediately appoint a special envoy to work with an African Union-/U.N.-appointed mediator to begin a real peace process that addresses both the immediate crisis and the underlying longer-term economic and political interests of the parties.

We bystanders should feel guilty for our silence and inaction during the Rwandan genocide of 1994.  But the value of guilt is limited to its power to inform and shape future behaviors. When President Obama was Sen. Obama, he wrote and passed a single bill: the Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act of 2006. Ending the crisis in Congo was important to him then; it must return to his list of priorities now. He, and all members of his administration, must not signal to Congo’s invaders that the United States will continue an acquiescent policy moving forward.

Janice Kamenir-Reznik is co-founder and president of Jewish World Watch.

New violence in the Congo: Having a conscience means working overtime

With rockets raining down on Israel, it’s hard to focus on anything else. Our families, our friends, our compatriots are under attack, and our hearts ache for them. But Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, who co-founded Jewish World Watch, reminds us that the needs of our own families and communities do not preclude us from caring for others who are unknown and far away, as well. The base question – should I care for Israel or for civilians under attack in Congo (or Sudan, or wherever genocide and mass atrocities rear their ugly heads) – is a false choice. The question might present as “either/or,” but the Jewish response to an “either/or” question, is “both/and.”  There is no question that people with a conscience are required to work overtime.  We are concerned and work for Israel’s security and safety, and we do not stand idly by when atrocities are being committed against targeted populations in a place like eastern Congo.  This week, I was supposed to travel to Darfuri Refugee Camps to visit our newest Solar Cooker Project installation and to Eastern Congo to visit our newest project, a Women’s Rape and Crisis Center in a remote area in Eastern Congo where the systematic gang rapes of women abound.  While we will travel to the Darfuri camp (stay tuned for our blogs…), we cannot go to Congo this week, as fighting with rebel troops, the M23, escalates. The United Nations has accused the M23 of recruiting child soldiers, as well as arbitrary executions and rape, according to a report to be released on Nov. 23.

Violence is not a new phenomenon in Congo.  Congo is a country enormously rich in natural resources, but instead of enabling the country and its inhabitants to prosper, the resource grab of militias and rogue groups from surrounding countries and of rebel groups from within Congo itself, has caused millions of deaths and has made Congo the rape capital of the world.  Weak leadership, porous and uncontrolled borders, and pervasive lawlessness conspire to impoverish and enslave the Congolese people, with primary impacts on the women and the children.  But this week, even for a country prone to unrest, there has been a dramatic and alarming surge in the violence, particularly in Eastern Congo.

The M23 rebellion, which launched in March of this year with the likely backing of both Rwanda and Uganda, reached the outskirts of the main city of Goma in North Kivu province late Sunday night. The battle continued on Monday.  In the early hours of Tuesday morning, the rebels stormed and seized Goma, home to 1 million Congolese civilians. This is the largest take-over by rebels in eastern Congo since 2003. The M23 rebels, since March of this year, had already displaced more than half a million civilians in North Kivu province. Just in the last few days, another 60,000 have been newly displaced. The last time we saw this level of violence and foreign incursion in Congo we lost 5.4 million innocent lives. This is what the beginning of horror looks like.  

These disheartening events underscore the purpose of and need for an organization like Jewish World Watch.  As the violence in Eastern Congo surged, Jewish World Watch led the effort to shine a light on the region.  Shining a light on injustices and atrocities in the world is a critical step in the arduous process of bringing about peace and minimizing violence against targeted civilian populations.  Our Jewish community has a particularly strong and resonant voice in this work based upon our experiences in the Holocaust.   We know what it feels like to be isolated and abandoned, and therefore, Jewish World Watch is now at the forefront of the coalition seeking de-escalation of this brutal attack in Congo.

We ask you to join us in speaking out for the people of Congo. The United States government can help end the crisis. Now, more than ever, it’s time to for us to show leadership. We need to encourage the White House to take action against this rebellion and to protect the civilians of Congo.

Send this letter to Denis R. McDonough, the White House’s Deputy National Security Advisor, and ask him to take action against the M23 incursion and for the people of eastern Congo.

We are all working overtime this week…

Shoah Foundation gathers stories of Rwandan genocide

The USC Shoah Foundation Institute is home to more than 52,000 videotaped testimonies about the Holocaust, and people searching the archive’s index enter a single keyword into their queries more than any other: “Auschwitz.”

“Auschwitz seems to be the one that people go to most,” said Crispin Brooks, curator of the foundation’s visual history archive.

Likewise, people tend to focus on dark topics when accessing the archive of videotaped testimonies at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center (KGMC) in Rwanda’s capital, which is dedicated to preserving and disseminating memories of that country’s genocide. Among the center’s holdings is an archive of recordings of survivors, perpetrators, rescuers and others telling of their experiences during the 100-day period in 1994 when 800,000 members of Rwanda’s Tutsi population were massacred by Hutu militias.

“Mainly they want to know the way people were killed,” said Diogene Mwizerwa, 29, an indexer at KGMC.

About 80,000 people visit KGMC every year, most of them to pay respects to the more than 250,000 Rwandan genocide victims whose bodies are buried in 14 mass graves on the site. But those visitors also include students and scholars interested in consulting the Rwandan genocide testimonies that are currently housed there.

Thanks to a new partnership between the Shoah Foundation Institute and KGMC, some of the Rwandan testimonies soon will become much more widely accessible and searchable.

Since mid-October, Mwizerwa and three other KGMC staffers have been in residence at the Shoah Foundation Institute in Los Angeles. The four fellows, who are all survivors of the genocide, are part of a recently announced joint effort between the two centers that will also expand the Shoah Foundation’s archive to include 50 new testimonies about the Rwandan experience.

“We are not trying to compare human suffering,” Stephen D. Smith, the foundation’s executive director, said, adding that there are also plans to incorporate voices from the Cambodian and Armenian genocides into the archive in the near future. “What we’re trying to do is document each of these experiences with depth and dignity.”

The new Rwandan testimonies, all conducted in Kinyarwanda, will be translated and subtitled into English. As part of this $500,000 project, they will become part of the Shoah archive by the end of 2012, making them accessible in part via the Internet, and in full at 32 locations around the world.

Karen Jungblut, the foundation’s director of research and documentation, who is directly responsible for the Rwanda project, also has worked with groups of archivists from Cambodia in the past.

“The mission of Shoah has always been, ‘To overcome prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry — and the suffering they cause — through the educational use of the foundation’s visual history testimonies,’ ” said Jungblut, who started out as an indexer in 1996, just two years after the foundation was founded by Steven Spielberg, and 10 years before it moved its archive to the University of Southern California, in 2006, to become the USC Shoah Foundation Institute. “At that time, it was a conscious decision not to say ‘Holocaust testimony,’ with the view that it would open the door to including testimonies of survivors of genocides other than the Holocaust.”

To make the videos of Rwandan testimonies searchable for scholars in the way the Shoah archive’s testimonies of the Holocaust already are, they need to be indexed in the same way.

For the last few weeks, Mwizerwa and his colleagues have been working with Brooks and other Shoah staff to learn the process, starting with learning how to use the proprietary computer program that Shoah indexers used to attach keywords to specific segments of Holocaust testimonies.

On Nov. 10, Brooks led the Rwandan fellows through a segment of one Holocaust survivor’s testimony from the Shoah archive. In the upper-left-hand corner of Brooks’ computer screen, Peter Hersch, a Central European Jewish survivor who migrated to Australia after the Holocaust, could be seen describing a particularly vicious kapo, a prisoner who had authority over other prisoners, whom he encountered while imprisoned in Auschwitz.

The rest of the screen was full of drop-down menus and boxes. Using the mouse, Brooks could rapidly click and double-click on the menus and boxes to attach keyword tags to the Holocaust survivor’s story on a minute-by-minute basis.

“So we have the name of the kapo, and the ‘forced labor’ terms,” Brooks said, stopping the recording, “but I added in ‘forced labor conditions,’ because it definitely felt like, early on, he was describing what the conditions were like doing this forced labor.”

Distinctions between the more than 10,000 keywords in the Shoah’s database are very nuanced — “camp deaths” is not the same as “camp suicides,” “camp killings,” “camp executions” or “camp corpses” — and some keywords are specifically related to the Holocaust experience.

So, before the Rwandan fellows can index the testimonies about the 1994 genocide, they will first have to create a new set of keywords — a process that will require that they put themselves into the positions of the information’s end-users.

“How did you survive? That means how did you hide until the end,” said KGMC Archive Manager Yves Kamuronsi, 30, explaining why “hiding” would be one of the more commonly used keywords attached to the testimonies of Rwandan survivors.

The index will be crucial to the usefulness of the archive. Before joining KGMC, another fellow, Paul Rukesha, 33, spent one year working with the traditional Gacaca Courts that were set up after the Rwandan genocide to try perpetrators. Researchers, he said, shouldn’t have to go through three hours of testimony to get to the information they’re looking for.

“You want to be as perfect as possible, as accurate as possible, because indexing, for me, is all about time management for the researchers,” he said.

In addition to asking how people were killed, Kamuronsi said, visitors to KGMC also ask about other topics — like reconciliation or forgiveness — albeit less often.

That’s likely to change, Kamuronsi said.

“I’m imagining that, let’s say, 40 years after genocide, I think people will be asking different questions,” he said. “We will be asking ourselves different questions.”

By comparison to the Holocaust, Rwanda’s genocide is still recent history to many —  and especially so in the country itself, where people who once would have been identified as either Tutsi or Hutu now live side by side but are prohibited from using those group names in many contexts.

The very words “Tutsi” and “Hutu” started off as Rwandan cultural designations but took on far greater importance during the colonial and post-colonial periods, after the colonizers empowered the Tutsi minority to exercise authority over the country.

The mass killing of Tutsis by members of Rwanda’s majority Hutu population can be traced directly back to this distinction — and today, usage of the terms in Rwanda is banned in many situations. But, for the purposes of the index, the terms will be used.

“If you say, ‘Tutsis and Hutus,’ ” Kamuronsi said, “it’s fine. But if you say, ‘You are not allowed into here because you are Hutu or Tutsi,’ you will be punished, because you are discriminating against someone based on who you know he is.”

“Frankly speaking, people still have that kind of perception, of Tutsis and Hutus, in their minds,” said Rukesha, who trained in sociology at the National University of Rwanda. “And you can’t stop them from perceiving that issue like that.”

Some survivors, Rukesha said, consider all Hutus as enemies. But though he works at KGMC, he does not see it as part of his mission to change that perception.

“My mission is to index,” Rukesha said. “And to index is not to interpret the history; it’s just to facilitate you as a journalist, as a researcher, to focus on a certain issue you want to work on.”

This kind of compartmentalization was common to all indexers — no matter which group of testimonies they were working with.

“We have to forget the other things and focus on this,” Martin Niwenshuti, 34, said.

“You have to know how to deal with emotions,” Rukesha said. “You do some relaxation techniques.”

“You take a break,” Brooks said.

Rukesha nodded. “You drink some water.”

The Rwandan fellows will appear in conversation with USC Shoah Foundation Institute Director of Research and Documentation Karen Jungblut on Nov. 30. Visit the foundation’s Web site, dornsife.usc.edu/vhi, for further details.


Life at Agahozo Shalom

If I wanted the kind of office where visitors shut the door and cry, I’d have become a rabbi. Or a therapist. Or an agent.

That’s why it caught me off guard when a woman named Anne Heyman sat down across from me and started, well, crying.

Heyman was in town last week to raise money and awareness for the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda. Moved to ease the plight of 1.2 million children left orphaned by the 1994 Rwandan genocide, she came up with the idea of emulating the Yemin Orde Youth Village in Israel, the model by which Israel absorbed, raised and educated hundreds of post-Holocaust Jewish orphans.

Agahozo Shalom is scheduled to open its doors in September 2008 on 140 acres. The counselors will be mainly Ethiopian Jews who themselves were raised at Yemin Orde.

Using funds provided by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and private donors, the village will provide 500 Rwandan children with community, family, an education and a vocation.

Heyman is a slim, blonde 40-something attorney, a native of South Africa who lives in New York and manages the Heyman-Merrin Family Foundation. Her husband, Seth Merrin, is a successful Internet entrepreneur.

She hopes the concept will eventually take off and more villages will arise.

“There’s no hope for the country unless you can figure out what to do with these kids,” she said.

And, as she is prone to do when talking about some of the most beleaguered humans on the planet, Heyman began to cry.

There’s a new mitzvah in the Jewish world, and its name is Africa. It is hard not to notice the increased money and energy Jews and Jewish organizations are putting into the continent.

This week, three leaders of Jewish World Watch are traveling to Chad to witness the use of solar cookers, most of which were bought and brought to refugee camps with Jewish donations so that women there will not have to leave the relative safety of the camps and risk getting raped while gathering firewood (click here to read their blog ). In two years, the Encino-based Jewish World Watch has gone from an idea to an organization with a $2 million annual budget and dozens of member synagogues (though, frankly, not enough Orthodox ones).

American Jewish World Service, based in New York, has put the Darfur genocide on the world Jewish agenda and inspired thousands of college-age Jewish youth to serve in Africa and the developing world.

Among established organizations, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) launched its Africa Institute in 2006 to spread awareness of African issues and foster better civil and philanthropic ties between Israel, Africa and the Jewish world.

Several local members of the entertainment industry helped the AJC produce a documentary, “Darfur Now” (see story, page 22).

In Israel, Hebrew University’s Institute for Public Health brings Israelis together with students from developing countries, including the Palestinian Authority, to study (in English) ways to improve medical care in Africa.

“Now you have Jewish money being used in Israel for the whole world,” Carmi Gillon, the former head of the Shin Bet and currently a Hebrew University vice president, told me. “It’s three birds in one shot.”

There is a longer history here than most of us realize. In his 1902 book “Altneuland,” Theodore Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, wrote, “Once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.”

Herzl, wrote scholar Haim Divan, saw parallels between the African struggle for national independence from foreign domination and the struggle of the Jewish people for a homeland after centuries of exile.

Less than a decade after independence, Israel created MASHAV, a program of development cooperation that continues to bring Israeli agricultural and technical expertise to Africa.

But now, it seems to me, the continent is capturing the Jewish philanthropic imagination as never before. Part of this reflects the broader media attention being paid to Africa, the genocide in Darfur and the awareness of the exponential growth of the AIDS plague.

But there is also a sense that Israel, as troubled as it is, is just fine compared to much of Africa. “We’ve built our house,” Gillon said, “and now we can help build the world.”

The philosophy of the Yemin Orde Youth Village, created by Dr. Chaim Peri, is based on inculcating in youth the twin principles of tikkun halev — fixing one’s “heart” through education and therapy — and tikkun olam fixing the world through good works. The lesson is that as bad as you may have it, someone else in the world has it worse.

That idea, writ large, is what’s at play in the new African involvement. And it’s why people like Heyman fully expect a new generation of American Jewish youth to come help and volunteer at Agahozo Shalom once the project is ready.

Of course, there are those Jews who still wonder why they shouldn’t just focus on the many unmet needs in Israel and at home. Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Harold Schulweis addressed them in a poem he delivered from the pulpit over the High Holy Days last month.

“Do you know of any Jewish prayer,” his poem read, “that concludes with the words ‘Sorry, but they are not ours’ …?”

It continues: The noblest vindication of our dead is that their children and children’s children will staunch the wounds of innocent men, women and children.”

For some, such connections between the Jewish past and the African present are a leap; for Anne Heyman they are a mere step.

“The Hutus called the Tutsis ‘Jews,'” she told me, describing the Rwandan factions involved in the genocide. “They said. ‘We’ll kill you and send your bodies down the river to Ethiopia.'”

I asked Heyman what the word, “Agahozo,” means.

“It’s a Kinyarwanda word,” she said. “It means, ‘The place where tears are dried.'”

And she started tearing up again — and so did I.

For more information, visit http://www.agahozo-shalom.org/.

We dare not murder memories of genocide

Amnesia of the past foreshadows amnesia of the future. Forget yesterday's tragedy and the threat to tomorrow is denied. Forget the first genocide of the 20th century — the murder of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 — and the memory and atrocities of the first genocide of the 21st century in Darfur turn invisible, and the world response is muted.

The Polish Jewish jurist, Raphael Lempkin, who coined the term “genocide,” defined it in large part by what happened to the Armenians in 1915. Armenia was the cautionary record of a mass murder of a people, which tragically and shamelessly the world has and continues to repress.

Amnesia is a sickness and feigned amnesia is a blasphemy. To choose to forget what happened to the martyrs is an insult to their memory and a danger to our children. As the philosopher Cicero sagely observed, “Not to know what happened to you before you were born is to remain forever a child.”

Infantilizing ourselves and our progeny is dangerous, and silence is lethal. We dare not murder memory.

The Hebrew term for remember (zachor) appears 169 times in the Bible. Memory is a sacred mandate. Jewish World Watch, founded almost three years ago and comprised of over 50 synagogues of every denomination throughout Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Orange counties, was formed to use its energies to make people aware of and stop genocide. Its initial focus has been on the ongoing genocide of the persecuted people of Darfur.

It continues its work in Darfur and Chad by building and supporting medical clinics; creating water wells; sending solar cookers for women intimidated, branded, tortured and raped by the Janjaweed in the fields where they have to forage for scraps of firewood to cook; providing educational materials to children desperate for any sense of normalcy, and a social worker dedicated to providing grief counseling to a population where every single family has lost at least one of its members.

No two dyings are the same. No two holocausts are the same. Darfur is not Rwanda; the killing fields of Cambodia are not the crematoria of the Nazi death camps.

Every genocide is singular. But a kinship of suffering unites us all. To play the shameless game of “one-downsmanship” is an invidious sport. My blood is not redder than yours, my suffering not more painful than yours. Hatred consumes us all indiscriminately.

We have enough tears to shed for others. Our tear ducts are not dried up. Our hearts are not so small that they cannot beat for and with another.

We join together to remember and to bind each other's wounds. In memory, we together raise our collective conscience and act out our resolve. “Never again” will we allow the threat of genocide to terrorize any nation, religion or ethnic community. Together we demonstrate our solidarity and mutual support.

On Friday, April 27, at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino, Jewish World Watch will honor Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, primate of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, a joint service of memory, including Armenian and Jewish choirs, liturgy, song and reflection. Prior to the 8:15 p.m. service, an Armenian Sabbath dinner will be served at 6 p.m. (by reservation only).

Harold M Schulweis is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and founder of Jewish World Watch.

Darfur Horrors in Black and White

What at first glance appears to be the most artless of photographs is also the most haunting.

Two tall white garbage sacks lean against a brick church in Rwanda, below tattered posters and next to a frieze of “The Last Supper,” as if waiting for the next pickup collection.

A second look reveals that the full sacks are overflowing with human skulls.

We don’t know how long the sacks have been standing there, perhaps ever since 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were brutally slaughtered in Rwanda a dozen years ago.

The photo is among 41 in the exhibit “Rwanda/After, Darfur/Now: Photographs by Michal Ronnen Safdie” at the Skirball Cultural Center through Oct. 1.

Ronnen Safdie, a Jerusalem native, traveled to post-genocide Rwanda in 2002 with author Samantha Power to document the deliberations of citizen tribunals finally judging the lesser perpetrators of the genocide.

Two years later, she took her camera to the Baha’i refugee camp on the Sudan-Chad border, where 18,000 women and children, fleeing the ongoing Darfur killings, were trying to survive in the midst of a barren desert.

Without reveling in the misery, but with unblinking honesty, Ronnen Safdie shows a baby with its grandmother, the family’s sole survivors, and the careworn, sad-eyed faces of two women.

The world met the Rwanda genocide with almost total indifference and only now is waking up to the horror of Darfur — attitudes which inevitably bring back memories of the Holocaust.

“When I was a child, I understood the cry ‘Never Again’ only in a Jewish context,” observed Uri D. Herscher, the Skirball’s founding president and CEO. “But ‘Never Again’ applies to all genocides. By passive observation of the murder of defenseless millions of men, women and children, we ourselves become accomplices.”

While Ronnen Safdie, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, conducted reporters through the exhibit, standing discreetly in the background was her husband, architect Moshe Safdie, who designed the Skirball Center, among numerous other landmarks.

During its run, the exhibition will be accompanied by readings, lectures, concerts, films, theatrical performances, and classes.

For more information, call (310) 440-4500 or visit www.skirball.org.