The London Summer Olympics are about to start next week. In Track & Field it’s unlikely a new competition will be added: The super-super-super marathon. Yet in recent years thousands of South Sudanese had trekked more than 2000 miles and crossed into Israel. That’s the equivalent of walking from Chicago to Los Angeles. In the Sudanese and Egyptian desert there are no malls, restaurants, or motels. The Africans are not after the Gold Medal. They’re escaping civil-war atrocities in their homeland; they’re seeking safety, jobs, and a new way of life — in Israel.
In 2006 the Israeli government issued the Africans a permit to stay as a humanitarian gesture. That opened the floodgates. Word got out. Today there are more than 60,000 Africans in Israel. How to define them is a political hot potato. Depending on whom you ask, they’ve been labeled as infiltrators, immigrants, laborers, trespassers, asylum-seekers, freeloaders, bandits, illegals, refugees. To the left-leaning Tel-Avivians in their high-rise buildings the Africans are refugees who deserve a break and should be allowed to stay. To the inner-city poor who rub elbows with the Africans daily, they take their anger on the rich as much as the Africans, calling them a bunch of criminals who engage in rape and theft.
Talk about refugees is a sensitive subject. Jews on board boats seeking refuge during World-War II were turned away at every port. They subsequently died in the camps. Many ask here: Did we not learn anything from our history? Equally large numbers ask: Must we be the solution to everyone’s problems?
On several occasions in Galilee I see Africans walk by the side of the road: men, women, children. They swing their belongings at their sides. Others balance suitcases or bundles on their heads. Minutes later, returning the same way I drove, I can no longer find them. They’re gone.
The Africans take any job that’s offered. On a recent outing to the beach in Tel Aviv I rented lounge chairs and umbrella from an attendant, a young black man. He spoke perfect Hebrew. “How long have you been in Israel?” I ask. “Two years,” he responds proudly. “Do you want to stay here or go home?” He anchors the umbrella in the sand, tilts it towards the sun. “I want to stay.”
The ones that stay are sending money to their families back home. According to one estimate, each year the Africans send 500,000,000 shekels ($125,000,000). Many in Israel don’t like this. The Sudanese compete with the Israeli unskilled labor in a “race to the bottom,” depressing wages.
It’s unclear if the crime rate is higher among the Africans or whether they’re taking “wanted” jobs from the Israelis. But the tide is turning against them. The government is pressured to act. Africans not classified at political refugees and whose lives are not in danger risk deportation. To block the flow of infiltrators, the government is building a very large detention center in the Negev desert bordering Egypt. A fence is going up. The camp capacity: 20,000, half of which will live in tents. It’s a logistical nightmare. Sewage treatment is in the works as well as hauling water, offering medical attention, transporting food, clothes. It’s a joint project of the Ministry of Interior and Prison Services.
Israel is paying the Africans to leave. The going rate is $1300 for every adult and $500 for every child who return home voluntarily. Recently 120 Sudanese boarded a Bulgarian-chartered aircraft for the first flight to Sudan. More will follow.
The Africans are fighting back, garnering public support to their cause. They demonstrate, carry signs, sing, blare out slogans. Their kids attend public schools, learn Hebrew, learn about Passover, Hanukkah and the Jewish way of life. Their future here is far from certain.
They crossed a desert, came upon the Promised Land.
Will they be allowed to stay?