Political agendas in the refugee response in Greece; the case of Israeli and Jewish organisations


The state of Israel is notorious for not giving asylum to non-Jewish refugees arriving in the country. At the same time, its policies towards Palestinians, closer to home, are those of dispossession. Opposition from civil society to such policies inside Israel is very active. In the past two years, a number of Israeli organisations have been active in Greece in the refugee response. Interestingly, they are not the ones you would expect to be advocating on behalf of asylum seekers or Palestinians back in Israel, but rather organisations and individuals, who are either part of the establishment or rogue –often religious- individuals to the right of any Israeli government.

There are a number of well-established Israeli grassroots movements and organizations that advocate for solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. From ex-IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) soldiers (Break the Silence), to advocacy against demolitions of Palestinian homes (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions) to settlement watch (Peace Now) to medical ethics (Physicians for Human Rights) to co-existence groups (Seeds of Peace), Israeli civil society is quite vibrant and challenging to the status quo of their country.

One would think that medical, advocacy organisations or those struggling to bridge Arab-Israeli differences, would be present in Greece, but they are not. Jewish values per se aren’t the issue. After all, the religious Jewish precept ‘whoever saves a life saves the whole world’, is in accordance with the principle of humanity. What is problematic is the ethnic Jewish focus of many of these organisations, either in their boards or previous work and more importantly, positions in relation to the Middle East. A close analysis of the organisations and individuals in Greece reveals that, some of them at least, have political agendas related to the Middle East situation and do not provide independent assistance according to humanitarian principles[1].

Not many Eritrean refugees arrive on Greek shores and so I was surprised to hear the story of one that recently arrived in Lesvos from Turkey, speaking fluent Hebrew. I inquired about the route he took. He had sought asylum in Israel where many Eritreans arrive through Sinai but very few are accepted as refugees, even after drawn out procedures lasting often a decade. Israel had given him a large sum of money to make his way back to his country of origin and deported him to Uganda. Instead of returning to Eritrea though, he paid smugglers again to get out by going to Turkey (direct Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul, e-visa issued). He arrived in Lesvos where he sought asylum, because if he went back to Eritrea he would be conscripted to the army and if he tried to stay in a neighbouring country, he would be discriminated against. A few weeks later, this interesting article about Israel’s policies of return under secret deals came out confirming many details of the story of the asylum seeker in Lesvos.

In mid-January 2017 a group representing Israeli and Jewish organisations (Amaliah, iAID), led by Rabbi Shu Eliovson, distributed at the PIKPA camp for vulnerable refugees in Lesvos aid collected from donations in Israel. Clearly the information provided in advance to PIKPA about the nature of the organisations was scant.

Amaliah (www.amaliah.com), is a New York based organization, whose founder and CEO, Moti Kahana, is known for his rogue methods to rescue Jewish relics from Yemen and the last Jewish family in Aleppo. More importantly, he advocates through Amaliah -alleging support from the Israeli Defense Forces- to create a ‘safe zone’ in the south of Syria, bordering Israel.

Member of the team that handed over the donations to PIKPA was Shachar Zahavi, former IsraAID director and currently setting up a new initiative, called iAID. The only other activity of iAID publicly known (there is no website for the organization), is a distribution of solar lamps in a Yazidi camp in northern Iraq.

Rabbi Shu Eliovson, also known as ‘the Grateful Dead rabbi’ is the founder of Jam Shalom, an organization that pioneers Judaism with a modern face, through music concerts, based out of Kfar Maimon in southern Israel. Kfar Maimon was established in 1959 close to the Gazan border and is better known for the 2005 standoff between opponents to the Gaza disengagement plan (dismantling settlements in Gaza) and the Israeli police and army. For anyone familiar with the politics of the region, those settlers represent the most extreme right in Israeli politics, a major obstacle to any solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and racist positions towards all non-Jews.

Let us now turn to some of the larger Israeli or Jewish NGOs active in Greek response.

Israid (http://www.israaid.co.il/): One of the largest Israeli NGOs, which though proud of having Israeli Arabs on the ground in Greece, does not feature a single Arab on its  board of directors, the team or the advisory board. Funding comes mainly from international Jewish organisations and the ministry of foreign affairs of Israel. Israid is providing health assistance (including mental health) to Arabic-speaking refugees and has been present on the beaches of Lesvos (where refugees first arrive and are at their most vulnerable) since the autumn of 2015. Many Syrian, Palestinian and Iraqi refugees were taken by surprise to be met on arrival in Greece by an organization that brands the Israeli flag on its logo. The Greek prime minister met with and praised Israid during his visit to Israel in November 2015.

Natan (http://www.natan-iha.org/our-board/): The organization is a partner in a community centre for refugees in Lesvos (One Happy family). Just like Israid, Natan’s board is fully Jewish. Its chairperson worked for twenty years in the office of the Israeli prime minister, although the website doesn’t state in what position. The organization’s partners include the Multi-Faith Alliance for Syrian Refugees whose partners in turn include the Anti-Defamation League and the World Jewish Congress. Other partners are American Jewish and Evangelical Christian (often referred to as ‘Christian Zionists’). There is no information on the website regarding sources of funding, but it’s safe to say that partners are also donours.

HIAS (www.hias.org): An American Jewish organization (its initials stand for Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society but the full name is rarely used, even on the website) guided, as mentioned in their website, by Jewish values, established in 1881 to rescue Jews from the pogroms of Eastern Europe and continued facilitating resettlement of Jews fleeing wars and hotspots in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and Ethiopia until the 1990s, to the USA and Israel. It was only in the 2000s that HIAS expanded its work to non-Jewish refugee resettlement in the USA and in 2002 to include protection in countries of first refuge. In Greece they provide legal assistance.

Advocates Abroad (advocatesabroad.org): An organization that consists of essentially one individual, Ariel Ricker, without a support structure, established in Greece after the EU-Turkey deal, initially presented as associated with HIAS. While the main focus is legal assistance, the organisation also purports to be advocating on behalf of refugees in public medical facilities and on issues of safety (because of its founder ‘expertise’ from the IDF, although unclear whether she has served).

The special case of the Yazidis: The Yazidi community’s homeland and sacred site of Sinjar mountain in Iraq, has international strategic value because of the connection of Mosul (and its oil) towards the west and the Mediterranean sea. It is the only community that was granted by the Greek government its own camp in Petra Olympou, managed by CYCI. The justification for the special arrangements for Yazidis in Petra was that they are survivors of massacres and need to be with their community. Interestingly, smaller numbers of Yazidis are present with other communities in camps and alternative accommodation in Lesvos, Athens and other locations and don’t face any issues. Looking into CYCI, one realizes that the organization consists of its Canadian Jewish founder, Steve Maman and one volunteer. The organisation was initially questioned by some Yazidi activists but Israel is generally seen as an ally of the Yazidis in the Iraq conflict.

From the above short analysis it becomes clearer that there are ethical questions. How reliable can Israel be when it promises, through NGOs, to resettle Syrians, to assist Yazidis, when it has a history of dispossession of Palestinians in its midst, for the past 69 years? Or, when the state of Israel mistreats and deports asylum seekers under shady agreements with African governments willing to oblige? To what extent can we consider organisations that support based on religion or ethnic background to act independently? Officially Israel has declared it is neutral in the war in Syria. In reality, it has bombarded areas close to the Syria-Israel border, the Golan Heights (occupied by Israel since the 1967 war) and Damascus airport.

Why is the Greek government giving a free hand for such organisations to operate inside Greece (energy cooperation between the two countries aside)? Why aren’t the organizations operational in Israel and the West Bank bringing closer together the two sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, not among the ones working in Greece? Rather, the organisations active in Greece represent the long arm of the deep state of Israel or extremes that Israel itself officially distances itself from. Last, but not least, why bring the implications of the Middle East conflicts to Greece?

[1] A definition of the principle of independence, guiding humanitarian action: ‘Humanitarian action must be autonomous from the political, economic, military or other objectives that any actor may hold with regard to areas where humanitarian action is being implemented.’ Source: https://docs.unocha.org/sites/dms/Documents/OOM-humanitarianprinciples_eng_June12.pdf

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