Friday, September 28, 2007

Some More Good News from Israel -- Elisheva Milikowsky and the Sudanese Refugees

Moadim le-simhah (loosely: Holidays are for rejoicing), and this is the Sukkot (Tabernacles) Holiday. I simply cannot write anything critical about Israel, at least not directly. So my next three posts will feature good Israelis doing good things.

The first is Elisheva Milikowsky, a social work student at Ben Gurion University, who has overnight become the most important address for Sudanese refugees in Israel. I am reproducing the entire Haaretz article and interview with her below. But first I want to write something personal about the Milikowskys.

My wife and I are old friends of Elisheva's parents, Chaim and Ella Milikowsky. Chaim is a professor of Talmud at Bar Ilan University, and the chair of the department. Ella for many years worked with cancer victims who are children. (You will note that at the end of the article, Elisheva's very supportive parents are worried about the "emotional cost" of Elisheva's volunteer work; they know whereof they speak.) Although they live in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, they are certainly among the most liberal of the people living there. More to the point, they are fine, upstanding people.

What Elisheva Milikowsky is doing on behalf of the Sudanese is a kiddush ha-shem, a sanctification of God's name. In a country, and among an orthodox community, where the knee-jerk reflex is "Take care of your own first" (for which, see my post on the Torah Morality according to Tony Soprano), but which usually means, "Take care only of your own," Elisheva shows that we have a responsibility to take care of the most pressing cases of need, especially when nobody else is stepping up to the plate. "In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man" the Talmud adjoins. Elisheva is that "man" in this time and place. The responsibility is a heavy load, and I hope that she can get help very soon to bear it. But, I just want to tell her how proud she makes us feel, and how proud I know her parents must feel, of the melekhet kodesh, the truly sacred work, she is performing.

One more thing -- as I have written here before, I am a tribalist, and I am hence proud that it is a woman from an orthodox Jewish family (one I am privileged to know) that is the leading activist on the Sudanese refugees in Israel. As I have said repeatedly, it is a little known fact that many of the most prominent activists against injustice and insensitivity to the suffering of others in Israel today come from orthodox Jewish families. It is not their orthodox Judaism that leads them to do what they do -- please read what Elisheva has to say on that score below -- it is the moral upbringing and version of orthodox Judaism that they have received in the homes, and the example set by their parents. Of course, one can bring many more examples of orthodox Jews -- or of any people -- who are not fighting injustice (including myself). But allow me to "kwell" a bit when one of my tribe sanctifies God's name in this way.

The article is here -- please send it around.

One-woman rescue mission

By Nurit Wurgaft

"Shalom, I've come to visit the Sudanese who are here." Elisheva Milikovsky wasn't asking permission; she was informing the reception desk of Beit Hahayal (Soldiers' House) in Be'er Sheva. Two military policewomen who were sitting at the entrance rose without asking questions and took her to the third floor, which was serving temporarily as a detention center for refugees for whom no room had been found in prison. That was at the height of the summer vacation, but the shouts of the children in the swimming pool did not penetrate to the dark lobby of the third floor. There sat two women, refugees from Eritrea, who together with the cleaning women were watching a telenovela whose language was incomprehensible to all of them.

Milikovsky pulled out a notepad, asked what they needed and made lists. "I'll bring you a change of clothes and phone cards," she said, adding: "I can't take you out of here. I'm only a student volunteer."

Milikovsky, 25, "only a student volunteer" from Ben- Gurion University of the Negev, has become the address for anyone connected to the refugees who arrive in Israel via Sinai: soldiers at the border, social organizations, journalists, employers and politicians. How did it happen? Almost by chance, she replies. As part of her bachelor's degree studies in social work at BGU, she participated in a practical course about the Sudanese refugees, who at the time were beginning to leave prison for alternative detention arrangements, in line with a decision by the High Court of Justice.

"Apparently it attracted me for some reason, because I no longer needed the points," she says. "It also seemed important and interesting because it was a less theoretical and more practical course. We had an initial meeting, the students and teachers in the course, with Yiftah Milo from Assaf (Organization for Psychological Aid to Refugees and Asylum Seekers), and I was shocked at the fact that the refugees, who had experienced so many hardships, were being put into prison here. I thought that we had to examine who was making these decisions, how the subject could be brought to people's attention and how to change it."

So in effect you weren't intending to take care of changes of clothes for them, you wanted to work for socio-political change?

"At first, yes. That was in February. The big wave hadn't begun yet and people barely knew that there were refugees here. We began with a registration booth in the university. In April we organized a conference and screened the film 'Hotel Rwanda,' about a hotel owner who in the 1990s saved thousands of Tutsi refugees who were persecuted by the Hutu. We brought one of the Sudanese refugees from Sde Boker to speak and make the event relevant. I remember that after the conference, my roommate said to me, 'It's over, now you can relax.' But even that same night I couldn't fall asleep. The thought that people were sitting in jail for no reason gave me no peace. And then the large wave of refugees began, and since then I haven't been doing anything else."

Is this the first time you've been drawn into something this way?

"In such a total manner, yes. We have a forum for social justice and we were involved with the unrecognized [Bedouin] villages in the Negev, and we led a struggle about the employment conditions of contract workers in the university. But in the other areas there are many organizations that are active. Here there was nothing and we had to do everything."

And she did do everything. Within the few months during which she was involved in activity for the refugees, she located host families, interviewed potential employers, conducted contacts with the social welfare and health services, and spoke of the distress of the refugees in the Knesset and the media.

She says her involvement began with a telephone conversation in which Milo told her about a refugee who was hospitalized at Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva and suggested that she go visit him. "He had fainted and lost consciousness at the border crossing, apparently from exhaustion," she says. "That's how it happened that he was hospitalized, while his friends were sent to prison, and when he was released from the hospital, he went to Tel Aviv. This arbitrariness drove me crazy - that just because he had fainted he was outside, while the others may still be in prison.

"At about the same time we heard about reservists at the border who had to buy Materna [infant formula] and disposable diapers with their own money. We sent e-mails to request help and received responses and donations from all over the country. I turned to the [Israel Defense Forces] Southern Command to offer help, so they had my phone number. Apparently that's why they called me later on, when they would bring the refugees and leave them in various places all over Be'er Sheva."

Total helplessness

The first time the army called, they informed her that they had left a group of refugees in front of the police station in Be'er Sheva. Milikovsky was sure it was an isolated incident, the result of official helplessness in dealing with the growing stream of refugees. And still, "This first meeting with people who were left in the street in the middle of the night, this total helplessness, drew me in completely," she says.

From then on, Milikovsky and her friends in the group would go to the public parks where the refugees had been left (or to sidewalks and abandoned areas in the industrial zone), equipped with food and drink and diapers for the babies. They located places to sleep for the first nights and sometimes arranged makeshift ones, and accompanied those in need of medical care to the hospital.

With the help of her friends in the group and the Hotline for Foreign Workers, she began to act as a liaison between the homeless refugees and potential employers, helping the refugees to avoid sitting in jail. "The first employer who contacted me was an elderly woman who had heard me speaking about the refugees over the radio, and asked to employ Sudanese in her family's pipe-manufacturing plant," she recalls. "That was still during the stage when I thought I wouldn't get involved with such things, because I'm only a social work student, what do I have to do with employers? And then I realized that I am involved with such things. It began with the contact with the companies that employ the Sudanese in hotels in Eilat and at the Dead Sea, which still seemed logical to me. Then farmers and private employers also began to turn to me, and my involvement increased, because there is great potential for exploitation here, and if I send someone to work somewhere, I feel responsible."

She speaks with enthusiasm, convinced of the justice of her path, although she does not receive sweeping support from people close to her, and the intensive encounter with foreigners is entirely new to her. In effect, she says, "The first time I saw Africans was on television." There were no non-Jewish foreigners in the religious settlement of Efrat, where she grew up, and certainly not at Pelech High School for girls in Jerusalem. Her first encounter with flesh-and-blood Africans was as a volunteer with the Bnei Akiva religious Zionist youth movement, working with the children of Ethiopian immigrants.

During that period, she says, "there was an idea of establishing an absorption center for Ethiopians in Efrat, and there was opposition in the community. I and several others organized a demonstration in favor, but it didn't exactly help."

What is the attitude toward your activity with the refugees?

"There's admiration, but there's also a lot of criticism, mainly from girlfriends who saw me on an everyday basis and thought I was harming myself. Once I told a friend that I wasn't sleeping at night because of it, and she said that there are many good reasons for not sleeping at night, and why the refugees of all things? On the other hand, I have also formed personal ties with students and social activists from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. That's very important, because during this entire period it's as though you're in another world entirely, and people from outside don't understand you.

"During exam period I remember walking around the university not understanding how people still had a normal life, how they could be so interested in exams and grades. A gap formed between me and friends, one reason being that people didn't understand what was happening to me. My roommate recently got married, and I remember how one day I returned to the apartment after a terrible day, when the refugees were in the street and we had to take care of food and clothing for them, and she was talking about invitations and about her dress. I felt that I was terribly alone in this business."

What does your family think?

"In my immediate family they understand what I'm doing, and they're proud of me. They ask what will happen with my studies and are worried about me because of the emotional cost, because I would sometimes return home tired and depressed, and they are also worried about the social life I'm neglecting. They wanted me to get away a little, to manage to maintain some distance, to do some other things. Mother wanted me to travel abroad with a girlfriend; but they support me."

And in the extended family?

"In principle, they generally admire my activity that helps others, but they certainly think that charity begins at home, and Africans are not part of our home. That's also obvious with neighbors and friends. I try not to get into arguments. If I get into an argument I use Jewish explanations - remembering the Holocaust and loving the stranger - although that's not what motivates me."

What does motivate you?

"That these are people who are fleeing from wars and from terrible situations, and if they come to us, we have to take care of them. Because that's the humane and proper thing to do, without any connection to the Holocaust and to history and to our Judaism."

Paradoxical solution

In a discussion held in June in the Knesset Committee for Children's Rights, headed by Shelly Yachimovich (Labor), Milikovsky gave the following description: "At 10:30 P.M. we get a phone call that there's a group of 40 refugees, 15 of them children. We get there, we, the students, the only ones who are there aside


Anonymous said...

Quite a shame her family are settlers... otherwise (and it's a big otherwise) I would certainly admire her. I know I raise only the most obvious irony, but what about the millions of Palestinian refugees - she may have similar concern for them, but there's no evidence of it in the article. In any case, thanks for this post.

Anonymous said...

Hello Mag,
Im new to this blog - and i came just in time for the last 2 posts...;)
anyway I wanted to ask your opinion about the iran issue and specificly colombia university and the speach ahmadinigade gave.
moadim le simcha!

Anonymous said...

Quite a shame her family are settlers

Whats wrong with that?

2 good posts magnes zionist!! although I did mean in a broader sense to write some good things about Israel.

Jerry Haber said...

Hi, Choz

I will say a few words about President Ahmanijedad and the "introduction" by President Bollinger. For the moment, I can only echo the comments of Columbia professor, Rashid Khalidi, who said:

“The tone from the host of an event was uncivil and uncalled for.

“The president of the university had every right to state his differences.That was more than acceptable. But I believe it was embarrassing to the university, frankly, that they should decide to invite him and then treat him in this manner.”

In other words, there was no obligation to invite the Iranian president. If he is a "petty and cruel dictator," he should not be invited. But once he was invited, there was an obligation to be civil and courteous, and to disagree respectfully. Bollinger sent the wrong message, as I will argue in a later post.

Anonymous said...

I guess the commenter here, Kevnin, realy didn't get it. It is rare enough for people of this background to indulge in human rights activities. She should be admired anyway.

And anyway, its her parents that live there, not herself...

Saving lives is saving lives... there is no room for irony there