Israel Sami Michael
What does the term refugee mean to you?
To me, the meaning of the term 'refugee' is an urgent need to escape your home, your homeland, and to abandon your way of life. You have to escape, since your freedom and sometimes your life is in danger. You go on a journey, with nothing at hand and no clear destination ahead, facing uncertainty about the future.
Is flight from poverty less legitimate than flight from war or political oppression?
Escaping poverty is similar to escaping war or oppression, but it is different since there is no urgency and it does not involve fear and dread. Hunger is a frustrating enemy, but it gives you time to plan and calculate your steps. Poverty is less severe than war and political oppression, since the earth is rich enough to support all of its inhabitants. I see no justification for a situation in which there are rich nations and poor nations. It is a warning sign indicating danger; it is dangerous, very dangerous, to be rich and satiated while your neighbor is poor and hungry.
And what about flight as a result of environmental problems?
The attention to and treatment of environmental problems should be global, not local. When in a certain region, in a certain country, there is an earthquake, a flood or any other natural disaster, the leadership and the entire people recruit and lend support and assistance. There is no reason why the entire humanity should not act in the same manner when a certain nation suffers environmental hardship, as it should act together to help the population around the world that is suffering from poverty and hunger.
When does one cease to be a refugee?
It depends on your age. If you are an adult, you will feel like a stranger the rest of your life. The psychological factor has an enormous impact on the refugee’s behavior. Yet, society can ease the sense of alienation by being tolerant and humane towards the refugee.
Is there a natural right to asylum?
The provision of asylum is not a natural right. Our ancestors were cannibals. This right has evolved throughout the generations, in a similar manner to the development of democracy, values of equality, fraternity, as well as civil and human rights. Therefore, I see the provision of asylum as one of the signs indicating a mature and enlightened society.
If yes: is this right unconditional, or can it be forfeited?
The provision of asylum to a person who is defined as a refugee according to international criteria should be given unconditionally. I advocate the responsibility of all countries towards refugees. However, I think that just as it is impossible to impose democracy on dictatorship, it is impossible to force a country to grant asylum. The life of a refugee in such a country can become devastating. Of course, it is important and necessary that countries will come forth and offer asylum to refugees, but imposing this responsibility on all countries is a long and slow process.
Do you think that the number of refugees a society can absorb is limited?
The refugee quota that each society can absorb should be considered very carefully. We will not solve any problem by making both societies miserable.
If yes: where do you draw the line, and why?
The acceptance of refugees is a human obligation, and I consider it similar to the moral obligation that people on a boat have to pull a drowning man out of the sea into the boat. However, overloading the boat beyond its capacity could lead to a situation in which both survivors and rescuers drown.
Are there privileged refugees in your country, i.e. refugees that are more welcome than others? If yes: why?
Certainly. In my country, there is a regrettable discrimination as to the origin of the refugees. The discrimination exists even within the Jewish community itself. Throughout the history of the Jewish settlement in Israel, Jewish refugees from the West were favored over the Jewish refugees that were of Asian or African descent. Following the establishment of Israel, when Arab countries expelled Jews from their countries, several Israeli leaders expressed concern about that. Ben Gurion, who was the Prime Minister of Israel at that time, reprimanded one of the activist who was of Iraqi descent, not to flood Israel with Iraqi Jews. For many years, Israeli representatives in North Africa conducted a severe selection as to which Jewish immigrants will enter Israel. They clearly favored only young healthy adults. The early Zionist vision in Israel was to establish a Jewish state in the Middle East that will be an extension of its European culture. It was presumed that the establishment of the state of Israel would bring millions of Jewish Holocaust survivors to Israel. This hope was not realized. The majority of the survivors preferred to immigrate to the United States or to stay in Europe. Israel’s gates opened to Jews that were expelled from Islamic countries only because there was no other choice. One of the most prominent Zionist activist wrote: we established the country for a certain people and another came to it.
Do refugees in your country receive fair treatment?
Although Israel was one of the initiators and among the countries that formulated the 1951 International Convention on the Status of Refugees, and although Israel signed this convention, Israel has no immigration policy. Israel's immigration policy generally relates to the immigration of Jews, but it is not ready to regulate the status of others staying in the country. Therefore, the Minister of Interior has the authority to reject the entry of migrants and refugees and forcibly deport them based on the law of migration and the Law of Return. As to non-Jewish refugees who came to Israel, in particular those arriving from Africa, they encounter harsh conditions: confinement in remote locations and in unbearable conditions. Those who manage to reach the center region of Israel are forced into poor neighborhoods, which worsen the suffering that is already experienced there. Due to unemployment and distress, many of the refugees turn to prostitution and crime, and so the police persecutes them. Israel prefers to import thousands of workers from India, Nepal, the Philippines, Russia and Romania to assist in the care of the elderly population and work in agriculture and construction, rather than teaching the African refugees who are already in the country.
Would cuts in the social security system in your country be acceptable to you if they were to facilitate the absorption of more refugees?
I do not see any chance to an initiative that will cut back on welfare services in order to divert resources to assist refugees. There are two main reasons. First, throughout the years Israel's welfare policy has been diminished. Israeli governments have consistently denied responsibility to provide relief to its citizens in general and the weak in particular. Israel is ranked at the bottom of the OECD’s ranking of the western world as to the provision of old age, children and unemployment benefits. Israel's poverty rate is 74% higher than the OECD average. Second, the official policy of the Israeli government is the immediate deportation of foreign refugees or applying harsh policy toward them, so they would leave the country voluntarily. Israel’s leadership deliberately associates the refugees and asylum seekers, who are protected under international law, with work migrants, thus it withholds the rights of the refugees according to the refugee convention, signed by Israel.
What are the requirements for successful integration?
- on the part of the refugees?
- on the part of the citizens of the host country?
Unfortunately, under the current conditions that exist in Israel today, the chances of successful integration are slim. Israel is a rich country, but due to economic discrimination, a poor population was formed composed of many people who are abused. The social gap is enormous. For example, the wage of bank managers in Israel is among the highest in the world, while the minimum wage is very low. An atmosphere has been created in which those who are poor, receiving low wages and are disadvantaged, are the first who pressure to remove the refugees. The government in turn reacts with over enthusiasm, sometimes even encourages demonstrations against refugees.
Do you know any refugees personally?
I visited several places where refugees are concentrated. I was shocked by their living conditions. The situation is shameful and alarming. It is difficult to see the streets filled with men and women, like you and me, with nothing to do and no hope.
Do you actively support any refugees?
I serve as the president of the “Association for Civil Rights in Israel”. One of the services we provide is legal aid to refugees who are being persecuted for no reason. We work in collaboration with voluntary and humanitarian organizations in an attempt to realize the refugees' rights. We appeal to members of the Knesset from all the political parties and ask to protect human beings who are our brothers, who were forced to flee their homes and their homeland in order to survive. As Jews, who suffered throughout the ages and experienced the state of being helpless refugees, it is important that we will be sensitive to the suffering of the refugees who arrived to our homes. Attached is an article I published in “HAARETZ” – “Jews Must Remember: We Were Refugees Too”
How will the refugee situation in your country develop
a) over the next two years?
b) over the next two decades?
I do not see any chance of improvement or significant change that would take place over the next few years. The social rift inside the Israeli society deepens. The rich get richer and the poor are getting poorer. For years, Israeli leadership denies the weaker segments of Israel’s society. Such a society cannot be generous to the suffering of another.
Can you imagine a world without refugees?
Yes, I believe that one day humanity will live in a world without refugees. Man is eventually an intelligent being. A day will come when people will understand that wars, conflicts and racism may lead to the destruction of all of us since the lethal weapons and destruction weapons are improving. I do believe that one day we will learn to understand that we all belong to one race and one nation and that we all populate one homeland, which is the Earth. In such a future world, there will not be starving refugees who wander destitute in hostile fields.
If yes: what does it take?
I do not believe that I, my children, grandchildren or even my two great-grandsons (who were born this year), will reach this paradise. Human development does not hold a stopwatch in its hand. Development processes require a long time. I am encouraged by the steps already made. During the Second World War, if a German would have declared that one day a French, or a Russian, or a Jew, will visit Berlin as a tourist or would want to live there in peace and tranquility, he would have been shot dead. The European borders at that time were crossed only with a tank or a fighter plane. Today, one does not even need a passport, which is the right way to a better future.
Have you or your family ever been refugee?
Yes, I have personally experienced the state of refuge. I arrived to Israel alone after being persecuted in Iraq for my activities towards a liberal, egalitarian and just society in Iraq. My family also experienced the state of refuge later on. After nearly 2500 years of permanent settlement, we (the Jewish community) were driven out of Iraq violently and we had to leave, carrying nothing. We left behind considerable property, sweet memories and a glorious past. In Israel, we had to start our lives over from scratch. Within three hours of flight, my family moved from a luxurious villa in one of Baghdad’s prosperous neighborhoods to a dirt floor tent in an abandoned field in Israel. We started all over in a different homeland with a different tradition and a different language. We were diligent and luckily survived and succeeded.
Do you think you will ever be a one?
No. I will not be a refugee again. I am already 90 years old. Therefore, I do not prepare myself for any journey, and if I think about another country, I will go there as a tourist.
How much “home” do you need?*
I feel that the entire world is my homeland and in that sense, I need a big house, a huge one. I am an aspiring mad man at the thought that the entire world is my homeland. If someone will place a border in front of me, I will look into his eyes and tell him: you are a foreigner in this homeland.
*This question was taken from Max Frisch’s questionnaire concerning “heimat”.