Maya Tobias

Maya Tobias

Maya Tobias*
Parshat Pinchas
July 19, 2008
16 Tammuz 5768

This is a story about walls and fences. They protect us and they divide us. They represent a connection with the past and a hope for a new future.

Every winter and summer, dozens of twenty-somethings who have never been to Israel pull up on Birthright buses to get their first look at that awe-inspiring wall that they have heard so much about, the Kotel. They wait patiently to put a note in the cracks and to touch the stones that have become smooth from years of wear by other Jews like them who have also come to place a note and touch the wall. I spent the last year living and working in Tel Aviv, but on the weekends I often found myself traveling to Jerusalem where I always ended up taking a walk to the Kotel. For me this wall is not so much about God as it is about history and tradition.

But this is not the wall that I want to talk about. Most of you have probably been to this wall and already know what it looks and feels like. I want to talk about the things in Israel that aren’t mentioned or shown on the Birthright trip, the other walls and fences.

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Adam Khamis paid just three hundred dollars to save his own life. A group of Bedouins from Egypt put Adam, along with five other refugees from Darfur, Sudan, into an open car and covered them with blankets. The Bedouins drove them across the Sinai desert during the night and dropped them off at the border with Israel. For these six men, getting to the other side of the fence in front of them represented their only chance of survival and freedom. Their villages in Darfur had long ago been burned and looted by the Janjaweed militia, and constant persecution and discrimination in Egypt had made life there unbearable as well.

Just as they began to climb over the fence, the Egyptian Border Patrol pulled up in a truck and opened fire. None of the refugees were injured, but three were captured by the Egyptian Police. Adam was one of the lucky three who made it over the fence. His clothes were torn and he had serious wounds from the barbed wire, but he made it to Israel alive. And just like that, the span of a few minutes determined these men’s lives forever. Three of them made it to the Israeli side of the fence, where they would find a chance to regain their livelihood, and three of them had to stay on the Egyptian side, where they would likely be sent to jail or deported back to Sudan. Adam and the two other refugees were picked up by Israeli soldiers not long after and were given food, water, and comfort. Adam now lives in Tel Aviv where he has a job and an apartment and a community of fellow refugees.

Adam is part of a recent phenomenon of African refugees who have been streaming into Israel over the past few years, seeking asylum and safety in the only stable democracy in the region. Over 6,000 refugees from Sudan, Eritrea, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and the Congo have been climbing over that barbed wire fence into Israel since 2004. Unfortunately, not all refugees receive the same food and drink welcome that Adam received. Instead, because Sudan is viewed as an enemy country of Israel, many are taken to jail, where they are treated as infiltrators from an enemy country and held for up to a year or more without even an explanation as to why they are being incarcerated.

The refugees themselves have few complaints about their treatment by the Israeli government. Compared to their treatment in Egypt and Sudan, Israel has been a blessing to them. Some of the refugees even grow to appreciate Israel as they sit in jail, because they are actually fed and given water, compared to Egypt and Sudan where prisoners are literally left to starve. But just because Israel’s neighbors have set extremely low standards, does not mean that we have to set low standards for ourselves.

The care for these refugees has fallen almost entirely to a few small non profit organizations. Many of the refugees are living in squalor, packed into cramped accommodations in shelters in South Tel Aviv. The Physicians for Human Rights, the only health clinic assisting the growing number of refugees, recently shut down in protest of lack of government funding and aid. They have yet to reopen.

Through my Anouchi scholarship, I had the opportunity to get to know many of the Darfur refugees. I taught them English every Monday night at a school in South Tel Aviv. I interviewed them for a research paper and got to find out more about their impressions of Israel. I visited the shelters to see for myself the small rooms lined with mattresses, filled with men who have witnessed horrors that I cannot and hopefully will never be able to comprehend.

Israel is a very small country. It has its own problems and cannot be expected to take in every refugee from every conflict plaguing Africa. But that does not mean that it can shirk on its responsibilities to take care of the refugees that are already in Israel. That does not make it ok to treat refugees like criminals by putting them in jail. We should not forget our Jewish values, and we should not forget our past. Thousands of lives could have been saved if more countries had opened their doors to Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust. We too know what it is like to suffer.

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During my last month in Israel, I had the opportunity to see a very different and even more controversial refugee population. This time I was the one who crossed the fence, or wall, depending on whom you ask and where you look. I went to Bethlehem in the West Bank to visit a friend who was living and volunteering at a village slash Palestinian refugee camp there. I don’t want to argue for or against the separation wall, because frankly I feel very conflicted about it. It has had enormous success at reducing the incidence of terrorist attacks but has also torn through Palestinian villages and separated people from their land.

What I took away from my visit to Bethlehem was the mental and psychological damage that this wall must cause. It is made of solid concrete and towers an imposing 25 feet in the air. Try to picture what it would be like to have a wall like this going through your back yard. It cuts off sunlight and your view of the surrounding countryside of rolling hills and olive trees. You become a prisoner in your own house and village. I even felt like a prisoner while I was there, even though I knew I would be allowed to leave. Many of the people there do not have that comfort.

It becomes easy to hate your enemies or block out the suffering of others when you don’t see it, when you don’t come face to face with the oppressed or the oppressors and find out what they have to say. Because of this wall, the only view that the Palestinians get of Israelis is of soldiers in tanks who conduct nightly raids, and the only view that the Israelis get of Palestinians is of men with bombs attached to their chest. This only serves to breed and perpetuate hatred against a faceless enemy. It deprives both the Palestinians and the Israelis of an understanding of the personal and human side of each other.

Do I think that if this wall didn’t exist, Palestinians and Israeli’s would all be friends? Of course not. Walls are one example of how we divide ourselves, but we also divide ourselves by choice. North and Central Tel Aviv are populated by Jews, South Tel Aviv is populated by Sudanese refugees and other immigrants, and Yafo is populated by Arabs. The Americans in Tel Aviv are friends with other Americans and Orthodox Jews are friends with Orthodox Jews. Even if the separation wall didn’t exist, the Palestinians and Jews would still separate themselves by choice.

I too, of course, am guilty of setting up these personal walls and barriers so that my life can be a little bit more comfortable. Nearly my whole life I have been friends with people who are similar to me. I grew up in an all white neighborhood and had little contact with the African Americans at my high school because we had separate classes and lived in separate parts of town. While living in Israel, I tried to spend as little time as possible thinking about the Palestinian conflict because it’s just so much easier to ignore it than to spend all my time being upset about it. These personal barriers allow us to carry on with our daily lives while ignoring the unpleasant things that may be going on very close by, like the near humanitarian crisis of the refugees from Africa or the daily struggle for food of Palestinians in Gaza.

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On my way home from Israel I stopped for a few days in Germany, where I saw yet another wall. The wall that separated East Berlin from West Berlin for 28 years no longer stands as a symbol of division but as a symbol of hope. Today it is nearly impossible to distinguish East Berlin from West Berlin. There is just Berlin. The entire city is thriving in spite of, or more likely because of, its history of repression and division, and it has grown to become a cultural capital of the world. Berlin is an example of what can happen when we tear down walls.

I believe that Israel can figure out how to focus on National Security without losing sight of compassion and humanity. Instead of jailing the African refugees, Israel should embrace them, not only because they are eager to work jobs that most Israelis don’t want, but simply because they are people who have suffered a lot and should not have to suffer any longer. Israel should recognize that some of their national security strategies such as cutting off water, electricity and food sources to the Palestinians may serve short term goals, but in the long term only perpetuate the hatred that hinders peacemaking efforts. Israel will never look like Berlin in that you can’t even tell where the wall used to be, but if both sides could manage to let go of the mental barriers that cause us to lose sight of humanity, maybe one day the physical wall between Israel and the West Bank will no longer be necessary.

*Maya Tobias was the recipient of a study grant funded by our member Avraham Anouchi through the Pittsburgh chapter of the ZOA. This presentation represents a report on the project she undertook in Israel.