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No Promised Land for Refugees

Israeli authorities will begin to deport South Sudanese refugees once Passover ends—unless the holiday’s message of freedom changes their minds

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A recent Friday on Neve Sha’anan Street, next to the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. (Larry Derfner)
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Out of Place

Thousands of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees, fleeing genocidal persecution and military conscription, are seeking asylum in Israel, which is struggling to manage and acclimate this influx

Right after Passover ends, on April 15, Israeli immigration authorities plan to begin arresting and deporting all of Israel’s refugees from South Sudan. These men, women, and children—3,000, according to the government; 700 according to the refugees themselves—will be going back to a country that, despite having gained its painfully sought independence in July, is a humanitarian basket case, torn apart by inter-tribal massacre, famine, disease, and an ongoing border war with North Sudan. What a way to culminate the festival of freedom.

From the Israeli government’s perspective, these people are technically not refugees but “illegal infiltrators”—migrant workers whose last address was Egypt and whose rising numbers make them a social burden and demographic threat to the Jewish state. “Israel is a small country that is an amazing economic magnet in a region of disadvantaged countries,” Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told me. The numbers certainly bear that out. Between 2,000 and 3,000 refugees come to Israel across the Egyptian border every month—double the rate of last year, according to William Tall, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Israel. Six years ago, there were a couple hundred refugees in the country. Now, there are upwards of 50,000.

“We have more people moving here illegally than legally,” said Regev. “I don’t think the Israeli government can afford to have a policy that encourages more and more of these people to make their way here. You have to have a policy that deals with the magnet effect, and deportation is part of it.”

Authorities had hoped to begin deporting the South Sudanese on April 1, but a last-minute court appeal in Jerusalem by Israeli activists, who argued that deportation would endanger the refugees’ lives, convinced a Jerusalem judge to put off the deportations at least until a hearing on April 15. At the same time, the Foreign Ministry urged immigration officials to suspend the deportation while it consulted with the South Sudanese government.

Ultimately, the refugees’ fate rests with Israel’s prime minister. Activists were heartened when, a few days before the March 29 court appeal, he promised that Israel “certainly would not [expel South Sudanese] whose lives are in danger.” During a March 27 visit to the Egyptian border—where a fence is being built to stop the refugee influx—Netanyahu said Israeli officials were in “very close touch” with the South Sudanese government, and that Israel would “consider the humanitarian conditions” in crafting refugee policy. But later that day, a government official told me that while Israel would be “flexible about implementing its policy,” sooner or later the government would deport the South Sudanese.

Israeli liberals are highly sympathetic to the refugees—five NGOs led by the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum-Seekers in Israel joined in the court appeal. But native Israelis who live in poor parts of South Tel Aviv, Ashdod, Arad, and Eilat, where there are high concentrations of refugees, tend to be more hostile.

“We’re not in Tel Aviv, we’re in Africa! We’re not in Tel Aviv, we’re in Harlem!” roared one speaker at an anti-refugee protest of several hundred last summer in Tel Aviv’s Hatikva Quarter about a mile from the Central Bus Station. In Eilat, where thousands of refugees have been drawn by menial jobs in hotels, a residents’ “action committee” put out a flyer the previous summer that read: “Residents of Eilat, wake up!!! … The Sudanese have taken over Eilat … soon they’ll be the majority … a nightmare on the streets!!! We have to fight for our home, Eilat for the Eilatis—Sudan for the Sudanese.”

Although there are too many refugees in Israel’s poor neighborhoods—too many young men with too few women living in crowded apartments with little to do besides work and drink— it’s hard to imagine that deporting 3,000 people, at most, will put much of a dent in the problem nationwide. But to the refugees, being sent back means absolutely everything.

“I’m not sure what will happen to me, but I know it won’t be good,” Omar Yahiya Fartuk, 29, who’s been in Tel Aviv for four years, said of going back to South Sudan. “There’s no security there, no health care, the country is on the verge of mass starvation. All this is beyond the ability of the South Sudanese government.”

“I talked to one guy in South Sudan, and he told me, ‘Your children can die here and all the money in the world can’t save them. There are so many sick people, you can’t find a doctor,’ ” said Simon Mayer, 30, a refugee activist and a father of four who’s been here with his family since 2007.

The two men were sitting on plastic chairs in the concrete backyard of one of the dilapidated apartment buildings near the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, an area crowded with poor foreign workers and African refugees, an international enclave inside the Jewish state. They told epic stories of their exodus from South Sudan, where 2 million people, mainly black Christians, were killed from the 1950s onward by Sudanese Arab Muslim militias under dictator Omar al-Bashir.

Mayer fled because he was suspected of being a South Sudanese rebel, Fartuk because Sudanese militias raided his village, killing his father. Separately, the men, then in their teens, went to Egypt, where they faced years of verbal and violent racism on the streets of Cairo. The impetus for their move to Israel, the event that first brought African refugees here, was the Christmas 2005 police massacre, where Egyptian police killed dozens of South Sudanese in their tent protest outside the U.N. headquarters. Mayer and Fartuk joined the stream of their countrymen crossing the Sinai, where they were at the mercy of Bedouin smugglers and shot at by Egyptian border guards. They made it over the border fence to Israel, where they were taken into custody by IDF soldiers, and later given a bus ticket to Tel Aviv, where they made new lives.

“When the Israeli soldiers picked us up, I felt like I’d been born again,” recalled Mayer, who made the trek with his wife and two children, both of whom now attend Tel Aviv schools, and who have two younger, Tel Aviv-born, siblings.

What are they asking from Israel? “Time,” said Fartuk. “I want to go back to South Sudan, but not the way it is over there now.”

In the last year or so, as South Sudan became independent, a few hundred refugees went back voluntarily through an Israeli-funded program that trained them for jobs. But the initial euphoria over independence has turned to fear and desperation, and many of the returnees have since “moved to Uganda, Kenya, or gone back to Egypt or even to Sudan, because they were in such danger in the south,” said Mayer.

Simon Deng, a former South Sudanese slave who pleads the refugees’ cause internationally, agrees that Israel is within its rights to deport these people. However, he urges Israel to do it gradually and humanely, so that it does not devastate the refugees and their families.

“If you tell these people they have to leave the country within 48 hours or they’ll be picked up and deported, that is very harsh,” said Deng, who came from New York last week to meet with U.N. and Israeli officials. “If you’re saying they can’t work legally anymore, that they can’t get health care anymore, what is this going to do to them and their children? These kids have never been to South Sudan. They think of Israel as home.”


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James says:

Almost all black communities around the world are humanitarian basket cases except for maybe in Britain where the white-Black achievement and education gap is smaller than in some other places.

Because poor people have higher fertility, the poor and uneducated African community in Israel will only grow and grow but because of the self-destructive generosity of the welfare state, it’s slightly less of a basket case than back home. This attracts more immigrants speeding up the problem.

The immigrant problem can literally destroy Israel. The country is too small and already spends too much on security to pay for this massive humanitarian project. To be in favour of keeping the immigrants you will have to prove that their situation can be improved by state intervention to raise them up to at least that of the Mizrachi Jews. The US hasn’t closed the gap of about 15 IQ points between Blacks and Whites even after decades of spending literally trillions of dollars over the decades on various state intervention problems. What makes you think Israel can do it? Does Israel have some secret that the US doesn’t have? If it’s only about money, does Israel have more than the US to spend?

If it’s only 3,000 people then the effect of sending them back to a not very nice place is statistically insignificant, considering Sudan’s total population. Nip it in the bud and send them back or Israel will be destroyed. You’re putting short term considerations for a small number of people ahead of long term ones for an entire country.. This is self destroying humanitarianism.

Rocky says:

Well put James.

Illegal immigration is just that, illegal.

Israel has great economic problems with its own poor. It can not afford these immigrants economically or otherwise, and there is no way to integrate them into the life of Israeli society.

It is sad.

Why is Tablet Magazine accepting for publication, articles written by a man who openly calls for and justifies murder?

tantelaeh says:

Please send the refugees home with some money so they can find housing or build it which would create jobs. Send them each back to South Sudan with money to start their lives. Do not throw them out penniless and at the mercy of anyone who wants to hurt them. For those whose lives would be in danger at this time, let them stay a bit longer until the South Sudan government proves strong enough to run itself and the country fairly.

SF, you’re a liar. I never called for murder, I said explicitly and repeatedly that I didn’t want to do anything that could endaanger Israelis, and that I would do anything to stop any Palestinian from attacking Israelis.

Hit a nerve, hey Larry?

“Whoever the Palestinians were who killed the eight Israelis near Eilat last week, however vile the ideology was, they were justified to attack.”

— Larry Derfner

The record is clear; you’re the liar.

That there are still publications willing to provide editorial space for you after those words and your firing from JPost speaks volumes about the sad state of morality in the media today.

But wherever you go, your words and reputation will follow.

Steve says:

You give this discredited American/Israeli Journalist a venue on Tablet. Moses just dropped them on your head. Feel it.

Yes, SF, when people lie about me publicly, it hits a nerve. From the same blog post you quoted, but didn’t have the honesty or courage to include:

“But while I think the Palestinians have the right to use terrorism against us, I don’t want them to use it, I don’t want to see Israelis killed, and as an Israeli, I would do whatever was necessary to stop a Palestinian, oppressed or not, from killing one of my countrymen.

“The possibility that Israel’s enemies could use my or anybody else’s justification of terror for their campaign is a daunting one; I wouldn’t like to see this column quoted on a pro-Hamas website, and I realise it could happen.

“Still, I don’t think Hamas and their allies need any more encouragement, so whatever encouragement they might take from me or any other liberal Zionist is coals to Newcastle. What’s needed very badly, however, is for Israelis to realise that the occupation is hurting the Palestinians terribly, that it’s driving them to try to kill us, that we are compelling them to engage in terrorism, that the blood of Israeli victims is ultimately on our hands, and that it’s up to us to stop provoking our own people’s murder by ending the occupation.”

    herbcaen says:

    larry, you are not one of us. You dont wish us well and dont share our fate. You somehow make a living by crapping on Israel. Nothing would make you happier than an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel. Then you could claim the moral high ground and share toasts with Gunter Grass. Go home to Los Angeles. Boyle Heights is your Jerusalem

Joe Falk, London says:

Larry: from his comments on other threads, it is clear that SF is also a racist homophobe, so at least he is consistent.
And he is also an apologist for charedi pedophiles. Which is why he won’t use his real name.

Speaking of the black-hats, at least the Sudanese refugees want to work and appreciate the Zionost state. Which is more than can be said for the misogynist/racist/homophobe charedim, who are anti-Zionist welfare queens and constitute the real drain on Israel’s treasury.

Here’s a thought experiment, Larry. In your original post about eight Jews who had been traveling in a bus and private car, machine-gunned and hit with an anti-tank missile, the kills then confirmed with gunshots to the head at point-blank range by Palestinians dressed in Egyptian uniforms, let’s substitute “Jews” for “Palestinians”:

“Whoever the Jews were who killed the eight Palestinians near Eilat last week, however vile the ideology was, they were justified to attack”.

Kind of makes your skin crawl, doesn’t it Larry?

The fact is, you’re complicit in the murder of every human being – Jew, Christian, Muslim, Israeli, Thai, Filipino, American – at the hands of a Palestinian, who can claim, correctly:

Derfner said I have killed for a good, legitimate reason. Derfner gave me permission.

Your pathetic qualification that you don’t want to see Israelis killed reminds me of Nixon, who, after realizing he had been caught on tape suggesting that an enemy might be killed, self-consciously added, “but that would be wrong”.

You believe what you believe, Larry; you are what you are. You can’t change that; you can’t take it back for the sake of expediency to hang on to your livelihood. But don’t worry, there will always be outlets for outrageous writers who justify murder.

Just dress it up in calls for “death to the ZioNazis” or “free Palestine!” and you are assured of an audience.

SF, were Begin’s Irgun and Shamir’s Lehi murderers when they blew up Arab outdoor markets, buses and other crowded places and killed scores of civilians at a time?

SF, I forgot to mention the Haganah – they also deliberately killed Arab civilians in large numbers. Mass murderers, or no?

    saying it with confidence doesn’t make it true. It just makes it a better lie. And if it were true are you saying since he killed then others may? you’re logic is anything but.

Nice red herring and tu quoque.

Notwithstanding, any time civilians are targeted, it’s murder.

The Palestinian Arabs could stop murdering and start building their state any time they choose.

Regrettably, they have no incentive to do so when immoral leftists like you encourage them to carry on.

David (Jerusalem) says:

So petty, so lame. A real son of the left Derfner.

I have to say I enjoy seeing this direct interaction with the author feature here on tablet.
Especially with you Larry. It brings out your true ugliness.

btw, kudos for managing to leave out why we want S Sudanese deported (loss of sovereignty, aids, muggings and rape).

If anyone ever wondered why the poor in Israel vote Likud and hate the left, this article is a must read. You have it all here.

SF, if any deliberate killing of civilians is murder, as you say, and the Irgun, Lehi and Haganah deliberately killed lots of Arab civilians, then you’re saying the creators of Israel were mass murderers. And you call me a traitor?

One more thing, SF – what’s your view on the killing of soldiers of an occupying army – for example, the killing of Israeli soldiers by Palestinians, or the killing of British soldiers by the Irgun and Lehi?

Carl says:

Larry–A little off topic, but where were you and your friends on the left when the moslem north was butchering the black Christian south? Let’s make no mistake it was a racist anti-Christian war. Where are you now when Bedouin in the Sinai kidnap, murder and rape black Africans? Israel has inherited this problem from the rest of the world, has acted to save these people and now is guilty?

Carl, until the South Sudanese came to Israel, I didn’t pay any attention to them – after they got here, I did, and wrote over and over against Sudan and Egypt. About what the Bedouin smugglers in the Sinai are doing to mainly Eritrean refugees, I wrote an op-ed in the JPost calling on the Mossad to kill them, and I’ve compared them to Nazis. Hope that answers your question.

First of all what i want to say i would prefer to give the thanks for the Israeli prime minister Benjamin netanyahu and including the israeli official our being here for long time.when the jews were scattered around the world they were well educated and money that was why they got enlarge their state.Imagine i should have to say rigt now i have been in israel for instance let me five 5 years but iam not educated how can i develop my new state.Iam requesting to the Israeli government in order to give us a long time for prepartion and furthermore to give us chance to study course like two years but not likewise of international christian embassy the gave us course for one week how do you gain in this period.Israel current prime minister benjamin netanyahu did not learned in one week i can simply say that ashame of ICE,you Israeli make us because we are brothers and sisters.we south sudanese we like israeli so much enemies around the world as you recognise our is north sudan in the israel took them as your brothers northerners sudan and south sudanese we don’t say a bad things we hope that the israel governmennt will make good for we particular south sudanese and we took it a simple case because Israel and south sudan have good relationship.

Sorry Larry, your attempts to distract from your own odious lack of morality by baiting me into a comparison between the behavior of the early Zionists and that of the Palestinians today are off-base, and I won’t bite. Tens of thousands of pages of ink have been committed to a history of the 20th century pogroms and massacres of the Jews at the hands of the Arabs in Palestine and surrounding Arab states, as well as to the 1948 war and the atrocities committed by both sides during that conflict. I’ll leave it to erudite historians like Benny Morris to point out that many of those Arab “civilians” as you call them, were firing at Hanganah soldiers from the windows in their villages.

The point, as you well know, is that the Jews accepted UNGA 181 for a state one-eighth the size of the original Mandate while the Arabs rejected any Jewish sovereign and declared war – a war in which they’re still very much engaged.

Now if you wish to argue that the Arabs therefore have the right to kill Israeli soldiers in uniform, I would argue that the Israelis similarly have the right to launch periodic assaults into the territories and kill, at will, Palestinians who are members of Abbas’ Martyrs Brigade, IJ, PFLP, and Hamas.

And if your next maneuver is to parrot the Palestinian rationalization for killing Israeli civilians by saying that all serve in the military at one time or another, I could argue that the 60% of Palestinians who support and collaborate with Hamas are equally fair game. Somehow, I don’t think you would embrace this equity…

I would also argue, by the way, that those who incite and serve as public apologists for the Arabs as they deliberately target Israeli civilians be tried as wartime propagandists and imprisoned.

To wrap up, it is no longer 1948 and despite the series of wars lost by the Arabs since that time, there have been several offers put on the table by successive Israeli governments, left and right, for a Palestinian state which have been categorically rejected by the Arabs. Rather, they continue, with the aid and comfort of those like yourself, to choose murder over co-existence. It’s clear, to those of us who are rational, that they prefer the former over the latter.

And by the way, I never called you a “traitor”. Freudian slip?

Rodrigo says:

Larry, you are running away from the argument and you are doing so very unprofessionally. You have been called out, responded and are losing the debate.

SF, you are getting distracted. That was his intention. You had him on the proverbial ropes.

Larry, why don’t you tell us again how the Palestinians “deplored” the butchering of the Fogel family? Wasn’t it Halal?

You see, SF, the difference between your morality and mine is that I have a morality and you don’t. My morality says people who’ve been denied freedom and can’t get it through peaceful means have the right to fight for it. That goes for the pre-48 Zionists and the post-67 Palestinians both. Your morality says very simply that all is fair for your side and nothing is fair for the other side – which is no morality at all, which is the same “morality” as that of Hamas, Islamic Jihad or any other radical, violent movement. Another difference between my morality and yours, such as it is, is that while I justify terrorism – in principle, not in every instance – as a means to gain freedom that is denied, and while I justify it in principle for the pre-48 Zionists and post-67 Palestinians, I don’t glorify terrorists, I don’t admire them no matter what side they’re on. You, on the other hand, think of the Lehi, Irgun and Haganah market bombers as heroes and the Palestinian market-bombers as monsters. Again, you have no morality. You’re not nearly as different from Israel’s enemies as you think.

    dolphinim2 says:

    Good luck trying to enlighten these people.  You are a better person than I to not give up on their tiny brains.  It is amazing to see how these people cannot see their own hypocrisy.  Just as the crazy Christians in America cannot see that they are no different from the crazy Muslims, trying to force their own beliefs on everyone else.  If you keep trying I will not give up either. Keep speaking the truth it is the only weapon we have!

Carl says:

Larry–so if I understand you correctly, the 800000 Jews who were ethnically cleansed from Arab lands with no compensation, and thereby grievously wronged, have the right to carry out terrorist attacks against the Arab countries that they were kicked out of?

Larry, you don’t have a leg to stand on so you simply ignore the facts, ignore history, ignore what others write, fabricate that which others have not written, and carry on with your lies, obfuscations, and patent propaganda. (Perhaps Reuters will hire you).

This is why, for anyone with half a brain, you have zero credibility.

The Palestinian Arabs could have their “freedom” anytime they choose — without murder and mayhem. Just as the Jews chose freedom and sovereignty in 1948, on a land mass one-eighth the size of the original promise.

Regrettably, for Israelis who suffer terribly under the heavy burden of terrorism but also for themselves, the Palestinians define “freedom” as the liquidation of a Jewish sovereign in the Middle East. They view life through the primitive prism of a zero sum game.

And by supporting their murderous goals and tactics, you betray not merely your own people, but civilized people everywhere.

Indeed, you are not only complicit in every terrorist attack against Israel, you have the blood of every Palestinian subsequently killed in self-defense by the IDF on your hands.

Now, how does it feel to be responsible for so many deaths on both sides?

herbcaen says:

Larry perfner was fired from the Jerusalem Post for justifying terror against Jews. If I was a Sudanese refugee and believed everything that Perfner wrote, I would be clamoring to get out of Israel and take my chances in Sudan or Egypt. After all, isnt the zionist entity worse than Auschwitz

They are free to make other plans


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No Promised Land for Refugees

Israeli authorities will begin to deport South Sudanese refugees once Passover ends—unless the holiday’s message of freedom changes their minds

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