On Wednesday, Aug. 8, a flight left Tel Aviv carrying about 100 South Sudanese Christians to Juba, the capital of the newly declared state of South Sudan. This was the latest in a series of flights that began earlier this summer, carrying nearly 1,000 men, women and children, including families who had lived for several years in Israel. Fewer than 500 South Sudanese Christians now remain in Israel. As peaceful individuals and natural allies to the Jewish state, they should not be deported to an unsafe situation, but should be treated as the friends to Israel they are.
Earlier this summer, Israel’s government announced it would deport Africans residing illegally in the Jewish state, and in the words of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “the first plane of illegal infiltrators [would] leave for South Sudan.” There was a deep irony in this, for the South Sudanese are among Israel’s best allies in Africa. Last summer, Salva Kiir Mayardit, the president of South Sudan, became the first world leader to declare he intends to place his nation’s embassy in Jerusalem in recognition of the city’s status as the undivided capital of Israel.
Moreover, during their time in Israel, the Sudanese Christians have been law-abiding. Born into a culture that values hard work, most found employment as cleaners, janitors and dishwashers in Israel’s restaurants and hotels. Their rate of crime is actually lower than that among the general population, according to Israel’s police. Despite recent characterizations of all asylum-seekers residing in Israel as “infiltrators” and shamefully inflammatory language on the part of a few politicians, there is simply no evidence to suggest that this population poses any threat to Israel’s security.
Yet they are the “first” group to have been rounded up and summarily deported in a chaotic manner that sounds like something from a Kafka novel. Do the opinion makers who have spread such hysteria about Africans residing in Israel in recent months know the story of the South Sudanese Christians? Not only are they not Islamists, the Islamists have terrorized them. Between 1955 and 2005, Islamist forces killed several million black African Sudanese Christians, as well as those who practice native religions. That is why a few braved the desert to seek refuge in the first place.
Starting around 2003, several thousand crossed the Sinai Desert on foot to escape persecution by the government in Khartoum. (The same government has killed some 400,000 black African Muslims in Darfur and sheltered Osama bin Laden). Fleeing through the desert, Sudanese Christian refugees went to Egypt, where in December 2005, in front of the United Nations High Commission of Refugees office, Egyptian police bludgeoned to death at least 26 unarmed refugees, including women and children.
Yet a few continued braving the desert. Doup Lul Biyan Maker, 25, worked in a spa in Israel. Last month, knowing he was about to be deported the very next day (and in fact he was), he told me via phone: “I really like this country, and I don’t have a problem with Jewish people or Israel.”
He recalled his first impressions of Israel Defense Forces soldiers.
“When I came to Israel I was still running, because I thought they were Egyptians,” he said. “I lay down, because I was tired. [IDF soldiers] shot a rocket to see me; then they told me to wake up. They check[ed] me to see I am innocent and a good person. They told me, ‘Don’t you worry, we are not going to shoot or kill you. God made sure you came to a safe place.’ … [T]he Israelis gave me shoes and clothes. They said, ‘Don’t worry man, we are brothers.’” He added, “The Israeli [soldiers] are not killing innocent people, just protecting their country.”
South Sudan became an independent nation last July. Israel’s government maintains that repatriation of the 1,000 or so who have left has been “voluntary,” and while it is true that some South Sudanese do wish to return to their homeland, the reality is complex. Those who had living relatives in South Sudan to return to have already left, so anyone remaining in Israel will be repatriated to a refugee camp if sent back, according to Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator for the Hotline for Migrant Workers, a Tel Aviv-based human rights organization that works with Africans residing in Israel.
The few hundred remaining are those with special circumstances — students, the sick, those married to other Africans residing in Israel and those with legal cases pending. And conditions in South Sudan’s refugee camps are “devastating,” with people dying at “alarming” rates due to lack of water and poor food distribution, according to Doctors Without Borders.
Despite a fierce campaign against any who would employ them (Knesset Member Miri Regev recently proposed a prison sentence of three years for “whoever employed Sudanese”), Rozen said that those who remain would like to stay for a while and be productive.
“Mercy, with a work permit, is something they would be grateful to have,” says Rozen.
While Israel would be fortunate to have these people as citizens and bridges to their newly declared state, or as international ambassadors who could serve as living refutations of the pernicious claim that “Zionism is racism,” they are not asking for citizenship. They are not even asking for permanent residency. They are simply asking for temporary residency and the chance to work and live with dignity before returning home.
Perhaps the highest test of the character of a nation, or of an individual, is the manner in which that state, or individual, treats the powerless.
This time, the power is in Israelis’ hands.
Heather Robinson is an independent journalist who specializes in writing about human rights.