Israel’s new prison for African refugees reeks of cruelty

As the new prison for refugees and their children demonstrates, racism is a profound problem in Israel today. But it is only a component in a broader ethos, which tramples all over those who are weak and vulnerable. In Israel‘s hierarchy of sympathies, even those at the very top suffer from the devaluation of compassion itself

International Holocaust Memorial Day is a good opportunity to reiterate Noam’s important warning against comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany, and to heartily endorse his policy of banning comments making this comparison.

Israel can certainly be compared to Switzerland, though. The Swiss government, during the holocaust, turned away thousands of Jewish refugees, knowing that this would lead to their murder in death camps.

Sadly, genocide has not passed away from the world. It is taking place today, in the Darfur region of Sudan, even as the world commemorates the worst genocide in human history.

Israel, the home for the people who were the target of this evil, is playing a role in Darfur’s genocide which is eerily and shamefully similar to the one played by the Swiss government during WWII. Its policy of “hot retrieval” sends Darfuri refugees back to Egypt, where – the Israeli government knows full well – they are likely to be deported and killed in Sudan.

The government is doing all it can to deter further refugees from entering its borders. A story in yesterday’s Yedioth reveals the low to which it has sunk. A new detention facility planned for refugees will allocate just five square meters (55 square feet) of space per refugee. That is almost a quarter less than the standard amount of space allocated for criminals in Israel’s correction facilities.

An unnamed official in the Housing Ministry wondered to Yedioth why the facility was so crowded, when it was built at the heart of the desert, with plenty of unused land around. A source involved in the project explained: “The instruction is to avoid indulging them, so this does not become a recreational facility. Besides, we want to spend as little money as possible. The goal is for them to have no reason to come here, not to spoil them, while maintaining a humanitarian line.”

This “anti-spa,”which will also house infants and children, will have no air-conditioning, despite the crowding, and despite being located in the middle of the desert, where temperatures in the shade can reach 45 degrees Celsius (114 Fahrenheit) in the summer. Each of the internal sections will be surrounded by a 4.5 meter (15 foot) tall barbed wire fence, and the whole compound will be sealed by another fence and watch towers. Inmates will have their own hospital, so that Israeli patients will not be in danger of catching any infectious diseases.

I thought to myself that this plan indicates just how much Israeli society has been infected by a deep hatred and ruthlessness towards every foreigner and non-Jew. Then I opened today’s newspaper (this time, Yisrael Hayom) and read the following headline on p. 21: a 160 percent rise in the number of holocaust survivors who require [financial] aid. In 2010, their number rose to 60 thousand from 23 thousand in 2005, despite the fact that 56 thousand passed away during that period.

The International Holocaust Day did not cause Netanyahu to reflect on this figure. At least (and in contrast to opposition leader Tzipi Livni) he made no remarks on the record regarding this issue. Instead, he used the occasion to attack the world’s policy regarding Iran’s nuclear program. As I read our Education Minister talking about the Europe’s “total moral collapse” during WWII, I thought about how hard survivors had to fight to get assistance in purchasing pharmaceutical drugs, and how only in the last decade, did Israeli banks start confessing how they robbed the survivors and their families. The Israeli banks did so, by the way, only after Swiss banks had done the same.

This reflection also jogged my memory, and I recalled how the Israeli establishment actually likes plenty of non-Jews, including extremist Christian evangelicals who dream of the day the Jewish people will all convert to Christianity. Or neo-fascist and extreme right wing Europeans, who are warmly embraced in this country, as long as they bash Muslims and endorse our harsh policies against them.

So I arrived at a sad conclusion. Racism is a profound problem in Israel today. But it is only a component in a broader ethos, which worships power, and tramples all over those who are weak and vulnerable. In Israel’s hierarchy of sympathies, I would find it hard to think of anyone who is higher than an elderly, poor and sick Jewish holocaust survivor. Yet the currency of sympathy itself now appears terribly devalued.