Action-Oriented Morality

How can Israel turn away refugees from Darfur?

The 1952 debate over the reparations agreement with Germany was one of the bitterest in the history of Israel. “Sons of Jerusalem, citizens of Israel,” cried opposition leader Menachem Begin in the speech he made while heading a mass demonstration that threatened to prevent the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, from voting on the arrangement. “This evening, the most shameful deed in the history of our people is about to happen.”

Prime Minister David Ben Gurion was pushing the Knesset to approve the deal. Simply put, it was financial compensation for the loss of Jewish property during the horrific days of the Holocaust. “The government of Israel,” declared Begin, “is selling the honor of Israel for greed.” Less then a decade after the Holocaust, it was a powerful accusation, and it still is. But Ben Gurion stood his ground. He had a job to do—securing the future of the young state. So, he made a deal with the devil. Like it or not, reparations from Germany helped Israel become the modern, thriving country it is today.

Israel still faces such moral dilemmas. In the past couple of weeks, they have surfaced again around ongoing controversies in both Israel and America. It is the inherent tension between making the rational decision a “normal” country would and the need to occupy the moral high ground that Jewish history has burdened Israel with.

Last week, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., wrote a letter to Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Sallai Meridor, the son of one of Begin’s most prominent political supporters. “Israel has returned 48 Sudanese people to Egypt and intends to refuse entrance to refugees from the war-torn Darfur region of Sudan,” reported the congressman. “I am writing today to express my disappointment that Israel would turn away any person fleeing from persecution. … [I]f any country should understand the special needs of those affected by the genocide in Darfur, it should be Israel.”

He was not alone expressing discomfort with Israel’s decision. Dozens of Israeli legislators from across the political spectrum made the same argument, urging the government to refrain from deporting the refugees who fled to Israel from Darfur, via Egypt. Human rights organizations blasted the deportations. American Jewish organizations politely but firmly expressed disappointment.

But Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reached an agreement with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak under which any Sudanese citizens illegally crossing into Israel through the Sinai Peninsula will be sent back to Egypt. Ten days ago, Israel deported 50 such infiltrators—and Olmert ordered that Darfurians arriving at the gates should be rejected. Only 500 were lucky enough to be absorbed by the country indefinitely. That number, say Israeli officials, is very high considering how small the country is—it is the equivalent of 20,000 refugees getting into America. (The United States accepted fewer than 2,000 refugees from all of Sudan last year.)

It was a calculated decision, but not a pretty one. Accepting the first wave of Darfurians proved problematic, tempting more Africans to attempt entry—50 per day and counting. If he wants to educate himself about such problems,  Emanuel can call his former boss Bill Clinton. After CIA agents visited his house in Arkansas before he was even inaugurated, Clinton had to roll back his criticism of the first Bush administration’s strict policy against accepting refugees from Haiti. The agents presented him with satellite photos that showed tens of thousands of Haitians hacking down houses and trees in anticipation of the new, less restrictive administration.

The memory of the Holocaust and the Jewish refugees who wanted to flee Europe but could find no country willing to accept them was a handy weapon for those who criticized Israel for its cold-hearted decision. It became useful again last week, in an American-based controversy involving the Anti-Defamation League, an American Jewish organization that faces mounting criticism from both Jews and non-Jews over its refusal to acknowledge the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks in World War I.

This story is also an old one, but it never dies. Turkey, an important international and regional player, refuses to make peace with its murderous past and threatens to sever its ties with any country that contradicts its version of events. Israel—among many others—chose a Turkish connection over truth and justice to history. The ADL did what it thought was the responsible thing: defending Israel and Jews in Turkey from the possible consequences of acknowledging the genocide. But criticism threatened to tear the organization apart.

Eventually, after constant pressure from outside the organization and also from its own activists, this led to a change of course by ADL leader Abraham Foxman. Since advocating against anti-Semitism and hate is the organization’s core issue, its position seemed highly hypocritical.

After consulting with his friend Nobel Prize winner Eli Wiesel, Foxman declared that “the consequences of those actions [by the Turks] were indeed tantamount to genocide.” But he is still holding his ground on a practical matter related to this thorny issue. He refuses to support a bill (submitted to Congress by a Jewish legislator, Adam Schiff, D-Calif.) that would force the administration to take such a position.

“The Jewish people will always bear the burden of the memory of the Holocaust and the comfort of redemption,” said then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres in 1996, while honoring German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. But last week, Peres took a morally indefensible stand on the Armenian genocide. Israel has not changed its position on the killing of 1.5 million Armenians during World War I, President Peres assured the Turkish prime minister last week. Ben Gurion’s most brilliant student, the last one standing, reiterated the always controversial Israeli position: As it has always done, it chooses Realpolitik over moral purity. Call it an action-oriented morality.