Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Saving the Entire Universe, One Child at a Time

Our bodies have painfully tasted man’s indifference and inhumanity to his fellow man. We have witnessed in our own flesh the moral evil present in human society. But this should not tempt us to become morally arrogant. Our suffering should not lead us to self-righteous postures, but to an increased sensitivity about all human suffering. (David Hartman, 1982)

In his autobiography, Once Upon a Country, A Palestinian Life, Al Quds University President, Sari Nusseibeh, tells a story about a time when he asked his mother what her father would have done if European Jews came and said that they want to return to the shared homeland to avoid the imminent catastrophe awaiting them in Europe. Her
response was that her father would welcome his Abrahamic cousins.
“Welcoming”, however, connotes an element of passivity that would have been insufficient in light of the tragedy that European Jews were facing. In hindsight, we all like to think that we would have done much more, but the episode of the St. Louis, the German ocean liner that tried to bring 937 refugees to safety in Cuba in 1939, suggests otherwise. These refugees were returned to Europe where over a quarter of them met their death in concentration camps. Apparently, even when fully aware of horrors being perpetrated against brothers (or cousins), we are unable to leave our comfort zones and meet the challenges our morality demands of us.
I can’t speak to other people’s morality; who am I to judge? but my own sense of decency is beckoning me to take action and I need help. I must save two families that have been deported from Israel to South Sudan. These are the families of my 13 year old son’s school friends from the two years I was on a fellowship at the Shalom Hartman Institute.
I recognize that the notion of deportation is highly charged; thus, allow me an opportunity to explain why I feel that the country of immigrants and refugees that I love, which I opted to become a citizen of during high school, has fallen short on its moral and legal obligations.
Poogi and Deng, my son’s friends from his public school in northern Tel Aviv, had their parents visited by Israeli officials who said that, now that they have a state of their own, Israel can help them return home. Sounds nice, but the officials didn’t like Poogi’s mother, Theresa’s response. She said, I’m paraphrasing, “Thank you, but we are saving money of our own and waiting to see if the country will be safe for our return. We have six children and five of them are still in school. My husband is a leader in our community church here. We can’t just take our kids out of school and abandon our community.”
Poogi, Deng and Itamar celebrating Purim
The official didn’t like this and asked how she was saving money. Then he reminded her that she has refugee status but not a work permit. In Israel, instead of allowing refugees to work and give back to the country that is helping them, they import indentured servants, under the guise of “foreign labor,” who must pay for their right to work in Israel for a limited time and cease to be humans while they live there. An example of this is having children. If a “foreign worker” has a child and raises that child in Israel with Hebrew as their mother tongue with all the risks and rewards of living in the promised land, then that child is at risk of being separated from his or her parents and deported back to the parents native land, alone, where they have never visited, don’t speak the language and don’t know the culture.
The Israeli officials told Theresa, that they would forgive her violation of Israeli law and give the family one thousand dollars per adult family member if they would accept the offer and return to South Sudan. And, of course, sign a document that says they are not being deported. Grace accepted and her family moved back to the civil war raging in her native country after 6 years in our promised land.
I am not decided about the existence of God, but I believe in angels because I learned that Poogi and some of his siblings are now safe living in a boarding school in Uganda, paid for by the parents of one of the children’s classmates in North Tel Aviv. Wow! This is the Israel I love. In fact, I remember taking my son and the boys, his Sudanese friends, to the beach in Tel Aviv and some other angels approached the boys. One woman wanted to buy them ice cream. An older man hugged Poogi and Deng and said, “Welcome to our country. We thank you for giving us this opportunity to give back after having been refugees ourselves.” Oh, for the love of angels.
Sudanese children raised in Israel now at the Trinity School in Kampala, Uganda
I found out about Poogi’s and Deng’s current situation when I went to their apartments in South Tel Aviv and discovered that they had left the country. A friend turned me on to Come True, an Israeli NGO that helps get the Sudanese children to safety in Uganda and raises the funds to pay their tuition. One of the volunteers put me in touch with Theresa in South Sudan. She has nothing but puts her last penny into a Zain cell phone so she can be in touch with her children in Uganada. In Juba, the family’s home was broken into and completely looted. Not only did they lose all of their possessions, but also the apartment is uninhabitable and unsafe. Theresa used to work in a hotel before the fighting broke out. Now the only visitors are oil industry magnates who come to drain this fledgling country of its only natural resources. The slow flow of tourism led to Theresa’s dismissal from work. No job, no home, just a homeland. The creation of her country, like the birth of a child, was so full of hope. What has gone wrong?
Deng’s family, maybe more pragmatic, thought they chose safety over hope. They fled South Sudan for Cairo. Now they live in poverty and suffer extreme racial and religious persecution. Both families are Christian.
During the catastrophe that occurred in Europe throughout the Second World War, few people took action to prevent the atrocities. Those who did help were either vested in the lives of the victims or simply humane. The Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit describes this as the distinction between morals and ethics. Margalit says that ethics are supposed to guide thick relations, those we have with people who are engaged in our lives, either as friend or foe. Ethics guide these relations because we have stakes in them. The rules of war, for instance, are ethical because they regulate the behavior of enemies who are deeply engaged with one another. Ethics also guide our obligations to family, friends and fellow citizens. Without ethics society would not flow fluidly. Morals, on the other hand, are for perfect strangers. If we are not vested in the lives of others, do we have any impetus to help them? Why should we act when the stakes are low? What might compel us to feed the poor of distant lands if not a moral imperative?
For most people reading this, South Sudan is a moral concern. We ought to care because we are human, and fellow humans are suffering, but caring about the South Sudanese will not change the quality of our lives. For me, this has always been an ethical issue. I have been culpable since the beginning. My country, Israel, sells arms to China, which end up in the hands of the Janjuweed. These Arab marauders created killing fields in Darfur and other parts of Sudan, leading to the steady flow of immigrants. Refugees made their exodus by foot through Egypt, like my people before them, with hopes of a sanctuary in a promised land. My country flew them back to a civil war. Not only is this unethical, it is also a violation of the Geneva Convention.
I understand that if Israel keeps its borders permeable, more refugees will come. Yes, we are geographically small and dedicate a lot of our national budget to defense, but I love the comment that the man on the beach gave to the boys. “We thank you for giving us this opportunity to give back after having been refugees ourselves.”
In most conflicts, the parties see the world as a zero sum game. One side must lose for the other side to win. Everything is always limited by our lack of creativity and the opacity of those forces that have something to loss. In a transparent Israel, rational, good people would give jobs to refugees before importing foreign laborers to do the same work. Opacity hides the money that goes to “man power” companies and politicians who allow this system to continue without obvious benefits.
If Israel would take a leading role in addressing the refugee crisis, she could find partners in the global community. Instead, Israel exports the arms that are used against these refugees. How many average Israelis understand the horrible consequences of some of their countries leading oligarchs’ despicable business practices?
Many people will find it distasteful to read me question the country’s policies. They will say it is washing dirty laundry in public. Some readers will feel terrible about what this country, which holds so many promises and hopes for our people, is doing. They may be pushed away or talk about it with disdain among friends. What I am searching for is people who will take action and try to help save these families or at least their sons.
Both Poogi’s and Deng’s mothers have said to me that they would rather be separated from their son’s and know that they are safe than to be together and in harm's way. I am willing to take these boys into my house and raise them beside my own children, but I need help. Both the Talmud and the Koran share the verse, “To save one life is akin to saving the entire universe.” I want to save at least two. Please think about how you can help; immigration lawyer friends, politician associates, NGO’s and, of course, money. We can start by paying for the families’ cell phones. We can pay for continued tuition for the children in Uganda. We can send money for food and clothing. And we can make this a public issue so that we don’t allow ourselves, via our country, to be shamed by these inhumane and unethical policies. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


Poogi Galuak is an eleven year old boy who became a refugee in the first year of his life. His mother, Theresa, was also a refugee who left her native Unity, now part of South Sudan, when she was eight to live in Khartoum where she met her husband Galuak. Both Theresa and Galuak are from the Dinka tribe and are practicing Christians. Galuak is a minister in the church.
When Poogi was one year old, his parents took him and three older siblings to Cairo, Egypt to flee the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005). The family lived and worked in Cairo from 2003 to 2007 but fled to Israel, by foot, after repeated attacks and other human rights violations. By this time, they had added one more son to the family.
In 2007, Galuak led his family into Israel. Upon arrival, they were taken to South Tel Aviv by the military and left to rebuild their lives. Poogi was five years old when he arrived in Israel, having already fled his home twice.
Tel Aviv, Poogi’s new hometown, had a progressive approach to refugee absorption and tried a variety of ways to educate the children. Many people are familiar with the Bialik-Rogozin School because the movie about it, Strangers No More, won an Oscar. At the Bialik-Rogozin School, children of foreign workers and refugees study together in Hebrew with a student body from all over the world. Poogi’s parents were not sure if this was the best idea for their children. They wanted the loving environment and good education, but they were concerned with their children’s acculturation into Israeli society. Instead of sending the children to Bialik-Rogozin, they chose the other option Tel Aviv provided for them. Inspired by the outcomes of the American Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, the city tried bussing kids to good schools in the north. Poogi and his two sisters ended up in the Aran School next to the Sde Dov Airport.
At Aran, Poogi contended with some racism, but ultimately thrived. He was admitted into the Israel Baseball League and made many friends. His family remained in Tel Aviv until 2012 when they were forced to return to the fledgling country of South Sudan. This was the third time in his short life that he was forced to leave his home. After a brief quiet and period of hope, civil strife became civil war and Poogi was moved again. This time he was placed in a boarding school, Trinity Primary School, in Kampala, Uganda. To his good fortune, a family of one of his Israeli classmates is paying his tuition. All of Poogi’s five siblings are now in the school, but the parents remain in Juba, South Sudan. Recently, Theresa lost her job cleaning in a hotel and the family apartment was broken into and looted. They lost everything including the roof over their heads.
I just spoke to Theresa. She and her husband want to leave South Sudan. In their best case, the united family would take up residence in the United States, but Theresa has told me that she will be happy to save as many of her children as possible. Poogi is my son’s friend from the Aran School in Tel Aviv, and I hope we can start saving the Galuak family by saving him first.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Being Rich

Sometimes the clearest truths are hidden in plain sight, in broad daylight, right in front of your face. It’s like not seeing the trees because of the forest or not seeing the forest because of the trees; however that saying goes.

I am sitting on the porch of my high school roommate Gilli’s house in Kibbutz Mishmarot, just a few feet from the spot where my cabin was when I lived here in the army. I have a cup of Turkish coffee next to me, my wonderful partner getting dressed in the other room and a full day before me. I am a very happy guy.

Coming back to Israel has been the best homecoming ever. I feel rich with love and joy and so many good things. I arrive in a city or kibbutz, knock on a door and am greeted with love. My friendships make me so rich, so content, so happy. I fill with pride every time I introduce Diane to another of my friends. This trip has been proof that you are reflected in the company you keep. My friends all share a great commitment to our country. Gilli has always been committed to the security of the country. Snait cares about the ethical behavior of the government. Yair wants Judaism to be defined broadly and positively. He gave up on his orthodoxy, doesn’t believe and still shares my commitment to our sacred texts and the values we derive from them. Today we will have dinner with Sharon, Itamar’s friend Neveh’s mom, and the family. She wants her contribution to come through cinema just as my high school buddy Doron does. He has won 3 Israeli Oscars, hangs them in his washroom and thinks of his film work as his tikkun olam. Tonight we will sleep at my teacher and friend Lori’s house. Her contribution to my education can be summarized in one word, “Scope.” She taught me to see the world with eyes wide open. This morning we will, hopefully, see Marissa, Diane’s daughter. She is in the process of giving this country a place in her heart as she travels with Birthright. She is a very special girl and I am lucky that she is part of the package. And everywhere I go, people ask about my children with great interest and love. “Is Itamar still playing baseball?” “Is Sahar still as brilliant as she was when I knew her here?” “Has Maya taken that beautiful face out of her books? She’s depriving the world of her smile.”

Life is wonderful. Israel is a rich and magnificent miracle, but really not a miracle, the product of the hard work of my people. I feel good.