A Flight from Genocide; Israel Debates Its Moral Obligation to the Victims of Darfur

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Byline: Kevin Peraino With Joanna Chen

Yassin Adom woke up to the smell of smoke and the thunder of horses galloping through his village of Bora in Sudan's western Darfur region. The 27-year-old engineer and his family fled their home on foot, he says, just ahead of rampaging Janjaweed militiamen. In the hills behind Bora, a Janjaweed man on horseback lifted a Kalashnikov and first gunned down Adom's father, then his cousin and brother. Adom turned and ran, and eventually crossed the border into Egypt. Fearing deportation, he later made his way to the wilderness of northern Sinai. Alone and out of options, he paid a Bedouin $50 to smuggle him across the border to Israel. "I didn't know where else to go," Adom told NEWSWEEK. "I thought if I told them I was from Darfur, they'd help me."

Instead, they locked him up. Adom is one of roughly 200 illegal Sudanese imprisoned in the Jewish state. Israel forbids granting asylum to arrivals from state sponsors of terrorism like Sudan, the onetime home base of Osama bin Laden. (Jews from such states are welcomed under the Law of Return.) Yet in Israel, a state founded partly as a refuge for Holocaust survivors, the fate of prisoners like Adom has opened a bitter debate about the country's moral obligation to victims of the horror in Darfur, which has claimed more than 200,000 lives. "Jews have been refugees for most of their history," says Yehuda Bauer, a prominent Holocaust scholar at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem center. "We should learn something from it."

Israel has made gestures to non-Jewish asylum seekers in the past. In the 1970s Menachem Begin's government resettled a handful of Vietnamese refugees on Israeli soil. Two decades later a group of Bosnian Muslims found homes in the Jewish state. But Bauer and other Israeli academics focus on a more troubling historical precedent outside Israel: the flood of Jewish emigrants from Nazi Germany to the United Kingdom in the 1930s. At first, British authorities turned away the new arrivals, and later exiled some to prisons on the Isle of Man. …