Create a Temporary Israeli Haven for Darfur Refugees

by Stephen Solarz and Rafael Medoff

The Israeli government has announced that it will not admit any more refugees from the Darfur genocide, and has begun deporting to Egypt many of those who recently arrived.

Do memories of the abandonment of Jews during the Holocaust obligate the Jewish state to shelter today’s refugees? Or is Israel, saddled with its own problems and limited resources, justified in turning them away?

The answer to this dilemma can perhaps be found in a plan hatched in 1944 by two unlikely American activists: a young Treasury Department lawyer and an outspoken newspaper columnist. Their little-known efforts changed history — and offer a powerful lesson for our own era.

Over the past few years, hundreds of thousands of residents of Darfur have been massacred and many more left homeless by government-supported Arab militias. A small number of the refugees have recently managed to trek all the way across Egypt and the Sinai desert to reach Israel’s border.

At first, Israel let them in. As longtime targets of genocidal Arab and Muslim regimes, Israelis feel a kinship with those fleeing the mass murder in Darfur. Moreover, Israel was born in part as a refuge for those who were abandoned by the international community during the Holocaust; Israelis naturally feel sympathy for those who, today, find themselves abandoned in the face of genocide.

But last month Israel announced a reversal of its policy and began turning away Sudanese refugees. Israel is, after all, smaller than New Hampshire, and is still struggling to absorb the many Jewish refugees who have arrived from Russia and Ethiopia in recent years. It does not have the resources to take care of large numbers of Sudanese refugees.

Moreover, not all of these refugees are fleeing Darfur. Some have come from safe parts of Sudan in search of a better life. Like most developed countries, Israel attracts many such economic refugees, and admits very few of them.

How can Israel resolve this conflict between its humanitarian instincts and its financial limitations? History offers a possible solution.

Josiah DuBois, Jr., was a senior official of the War Refugee Board, an American government rescue agency that President Franklin Roosevelt established in early 1944 in response to pressure from Congress, the Bergson Group and the Treasury Department.

One of the first proposals DuBois initiated was to create “temporary havens of refuge” in the United States for Jews fleeing Hitler. Since the refugees’ status would be similar to that of prisoners of war, they could be admitted outside America’s tight immigration quotas. And the refugees would agree to leave the United States after the war ended, thus countering fears that America would be flooded with Europe’s downtrodden.

“It is essential that we and our allies convince the world of our sincerity and our willingness to bear our share of the burden,” DuBois pleaded in a memo to Roosevelt. The United States could not reasonably ask countries bordering Nazi-occupied territory, such as Spain and Switzerland, to take in refugees if America itself would not take any, DuBois argued.

The president, nervous about public opposition to immigration, hesitated to embrace the plan. And Secretary of War Henry Stimson vigorously opposed DuBois’s proposal, arguing that Jewish refugees were “unassimilable” and would negatively affect America’s “racial stock.”

Public pressure was needed to push the plan forward. That’s where newspaper columnist Samuel Grafton came in. Alerted — probably by DuBois — that the proposal had stalled, Grafton authored three columns advocating what he called “Free Ports for Refugees.”

“A ‘free port’ is a small bit of land… into which foreign goods may be brought without paying customs duties… for temporary storage,” Grafton explained. “Why couldn’t we have a system of free ports for refugees fleeing the Hitler terror?… We do it for cases of beans… it should not be impossible to do it for people.”

Grafton’s catchy slogan and straight-from-the-hip reasoning gave the DuBois plan the crucial PR push that it needed. His columns were syndicated by the New York Post and appeared in 40 other newspapers across the country, with a combined circulation of more than 4 million.

As a result, Grafton’s “Free Ports” articles generated numerous sympathetic editorials in major newspapers and magazines, and helped win public endorsements from prominent religious, civic and labor organizations, including the Federal Council of Churches, the American Federation of Labor and the YWCA.

On May 11, 1944, the War Refugee Board’s director, John Pehle, brought a book full of newspaper clippings to the White House to demonstrate the growing public support for “Free Ports.” Roosevelt, who told Pehle he had read one of Grafton’s columns the previous night and liked it, agreed to admit a group of 982 Jewish refugees. They arrived that August and were housed in an abandoned army camp in upstate Oswego, N.Y.

The Oswego “Free Port” gave shelter to Jews escaping from the Holocaust. An Israeli “free port” near its border with Egypt could likewise give refugees from Darfur some temporary shelter from the storm. Once it has been determined that the threat of genocide has subsided, they would be able to return home safely.

Of course, it is the entire international community, not just Israel, which bears moral responsibility for stopping the slaughter in Darfur and aiding the refugees. During the Holocaust, there was no United Nations to intervene on behalf of the targets of genocide; today there is. The U.N. should finance an Israeli “free port” and also create new shelters in areas bordering Sudan — such as southern Egypt, eastern Libya and northern Uganda — to supplement the refugee camps already operating in Chad and the Central African Republic.

In one respect, such U.N. action would represent an important departure from the Oswego experience. The tragedy of the 1944 Oswego shelter was that it was the only one.

DuBois and Grafton hoped the United States would take in tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Jews, fleeing Hitler. Sadly, Roosevelt was interested in nothing more than an election-year gesture that would deflect potential criticism.

Famed investigative journalist I.F. Stone once called the Oswego shelter “a token payment to decency, a bargain-counter flourish in humanitariansm.” Our generation must not repeat that mistake.

(Published in The Forward – September 7, 2007)

September 2007