A guest post by Gidon Ben-Zvi, an Anglo-Israeli freelance writer
A recent piece in the Guardian, Isareli PM: illigal African immigrants threaten identity of Jewish state, May 20, describing the simmering issue of Israel’s African migrants, included the following passage:
“Amid the anti-immigration clamour, some Israelis have argued that, in the light of Jewish history, their state should be sympathetic and welcoming to those fleeing persecution.”
To quote the sadistic prison captain in ‘Cool Hand Luke’:
“What we’ve got here is…. failure to communicate.”
To diffuse the powder keg that Israeli cities with relatively high African populations are now sitting on, the intellectual cobwebs regarding refugees and migrants need to be swiftly cleaned out and a rapidly metastasizing groupthink ought be remedied by way of a realistic appraisal of alternatives.
Unlike the situation in other relatively well-off countries, Israel’s illegal immigration challenge is a recent phenomenon. The influx of Africans can be traced to 2005, after the Egyptian police attacked Sudanese refugees who were camped out in Cairo and demanded asylum. Jerusalem proved generous and word spread that migrants would be greeted hospitably and provided with job opportunities upon arrival in the State of Israel.
Since Hosni Mubarak was swept up and out of power during the twilight of moderation known as the ‘Arab Spring’, government authority has all but collapsed in the Sinai Peninsula. One byproduct of this lawless state of affairs has been a spike in the rate of illegal immigration to Israel from Africa. Over the last several months, Israel’s southern border with Egypt, by way of the Sinai, has turned into the primary point of entry for thousands of work-seeking migrants.
While some of these fortune seekers are refugees, the vast majority are illegal infiltrators who are, along with drugs and weapons, smuggled into Israel by Bedouin tribesmen. Furthermore, while many illegal immigrants seek asylum status under the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of the United Nations, only a fraction of all the illegal immigrants are actually eligible for this status.
In response, segments of the Israeli political establishment have been roused into action. Knesset member Danny Danon is pushing for a bill that would lead to the deportation of half the illegal migrants within a year and 80 percent within two years. And Interior Minister Eli Yishai recently proclaimed that most of the African refugees should “…be put into holding cells or jails…and then given a grant and sent back…” to their countries of origin.
Is this any way for the Middle East’s only true democracy to treat the most vulnerable segment of its society? And doesn’t Israel have a special moral obligation, in light of Jewish history, to be sympathetic and “..welcoming of those fleeing persecution…”?
No, it does not.
For one thing, it’s important to consider the impact of illegal immigration on Israeli society’s most vulnerable members: native-born Israelis and legal immigrants with low skills and low levels of education.
Academics, media elites, lawyers, human rights activists and other professionals have the sweet luxury of claiming the moral high ground on the illegal immigration debate: their livelihoods aren’t on the chopping block; their opportunities for advancement aren’t being increasingly scuttled.
The plight of immigrants seeking refuge from some of the most forsaken corners on earth is a moveable tragedy worthy of our sympathy and outrage. Yet, Israeli society’s first and primary responsibility is to its legal citizens and immigrants.
Furthermore, the economics of allowing illegal immigrants to remain under the charge of local municipalities in particular and the Israeli government as a whole, which would have to maintain services such as law enforcement, health care, housing, and schooling, is prohibitive. Israel is not France and it simply doesn’t have the means to provide for the welfare of tens of thousands of migrants.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has said that African refugees will be treated with humanity, explaining that “… we will continue to care for refugees, but they make up a minimal part of the human wave. Entire populations are starting to move, and if we don’t act to stop this we will be flooded.”
Yet, how does Israel counteract this ‘human wave’?
There has been much talk and uneven implementation of plans to complete the Egyptian border fence, expand detention centers and increase policing of companies that do violence to the law by hiring undocumented workers.
The concept of detention camps in a Jewish state has been greeted with grave misgivings and gratuitous moralizing by large swaths of the international human rights community.
However, it bears reminding that these facilities will include classrooms, places of worship, community centers, medical centers and outdoor recreation areas.
No solution will be comprehensively effective and every solution will likely evoke the slippery law of unintended consequences. Yet, Israel’s much touted economic miracle, given official sanction when the country joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2010, has apparently brought with it a slew of ‘first world injuries’. Israel’s high standard of living and open society, in a region distressingly devoid of both, has ignited the imagination of fleeing Eritreans, Sudanese and citizens of other economically deprived peoples.
In the name of true moral equivalence, Israel should be allowed to deal with this internal crisis without being held to a unique standard that is apparently the special legacy of Jewish history to the modern Jewish state.