Monday, August 20, 2007

The ghost of the St. Louis sails through the Negev

In 1939, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States of America, denied permission to the MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner, to land in Florida after being refused entrance into Cuba. The St. Louis had as its cargo nearly a thousand Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe, the majority of them German. Later refused entry into Canada, as well, the ship returned to Europe. Though 288 passengers disembarked in England, 619 people found themselves back in continental Europe as the Holocaust commenced and a dark night that would last six long years for European Jewry descended.

Today, in Sudan’s Darfur region, a crisis that initially centered around the Sudanese government's response to two non-Arab rebel groups waging war against the Arab regime in Khartoum has since grown in intensity and scope into a conflict that has claimed an estimated 200,000 lives, mainly civilians, since 2003. Sudanese military and government-aligned Janjaweed militia forces are accused of carrying out war crimes against the civilian population in the region, while the rebel groups themselves have splintered and re-formed with dizzying speed and in an ever-shifting array of alliances. In March of this year alone, Janjaweed forces crossing into neighboring Chad were said to have killed up to 400 people. Many human rights groups have charged that what the government of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashiral is doing in Darfur constitutes a genocide against the region’s non-Arab population.

On Sunday, it was announced that Israel, founded by people like those who had been turned away aboard the MS St. Louis, would henceforth be turning away all refugees from Darfur attempting to cross into the country via its southern border with Egypt. Israel began implementing this policy by expelling 50 Sudanese asylum seekers yesterday. This is in direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 which states that a nation “shall not treat as enemy aliens exclusively on the basis of their nationality de jure of an enemy State, refugees who do not, in fact, enjoy the protection of any government.”

Could any Israeli politician stand up and reasonably argue that the refugees huddled on the ground near Nitzana enjoy the protection of the Sudanese state, which has historically been hostile to Israel?

One is glad to to see Israeli human rights organizations such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Hotline for Migrant Workers, as well as student activists, protesting these moves of their government, apparently taken with almost no historical memory of the experiences of persecuted peoples in mind. They might likewise do well to study that advice of the Talmud Yerushalmi, which suggests that "he who saves a single life, saves the entire world."

For more information on the crisis in Darfur, please visit the websites of the Save Darfur coalition in the United States or the website for the Collectif Urgence Darfour here in France.

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