Moral posturing as serious thought: Context-Free essay on migrants in Israel by Seth Freedman

Gidon Ben-Zvi, in a guest post on these pages yesterday titled “Growing pains: The birth of Israel’s illegal immigration crisis” made a few important points:

  • Israel’s illegal African immigration challenge is a recent phenomenon, going back to 2005, after the Egyptian police attacked Sudanese refugees who were camped out in Cairo, demanding asylum. Jerusalem proved generous and word spread that migrants would be greeted hospitably and provided with job opportunities upon arrival in Israel.
  • Since Hosni Mubarak was swept up and out of power during the ‘Arab Spring’, government authority has all but collapsed in the Sinai Peninsula. One by-product of this lawless state of affairs has been a spike 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 (economic migrants, as opposed to political refugees).

Ben-Zvi was responding to a May 20th report by Harriet Sherwood titled “Israeli PM: illegal African immigrants threaten identity of Jewish state” which was characteristically devoid of such context – instead playing the ‘Jewish state should be held to the higher standard’ card, ending thusly:

“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.”

Seth Freedman’s piece – Israeli politicians are fanning the flames of anti-migrant tension – includes fair criticism of some unnecessarily hyperbolic rhetoric from a couple of Israeli politicians but, true to form for many Israeli Left commentators on the pages of CiF, Freedman’s rhetorical excesses are numerous and include the following:

  • Framing Israeli policies he finds disagreeable in the most extreme, unserious manner 
  • Imputing anti-black racism to Israel
  • A  failure to offer a concrete policy alternatives to a vexing political problem
  • Transparent moral posturing (Freedman is ‘the good Jew’) 
Framing Israeli policies he finds disagreeable in the most extreme terms:
The first dynamic is apparent in the opening passage, which quotes a counter protester at an anti-immigrant march in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, May 22nd, which tragically turned violent. 

“In 1936 my grandfather stood against the fascists in Cable Street. Today I did the same in Tel Aviv.” After five years on frontlines, Nic Schlagman is used to untrammelled hostility towards the African refugees and migrants with whom he works, but he says the situation has never been as critical as it is at present.”

The comparison to Blackshirts in London (circa 1936), in the context of a growing Nazi-inspired fascist movement throughout Europe, is morally, historically and intellectually unserious. It represents one of those rhetorical perversions which says more about those advancing the analogy (or those uncritically repeating it) than the analogy itself.  (See CiF commentator Mya Guarnieri hysterically advancing the narrative that Israel is moving in a “fascist” direction, here and here.)

Imputing racism: 

 There was this passage by Freedman:

“The climate of fear amongst the African community is at fever pitch,” [Nic] Schlagman said. “Mothers pulled their kids off the streets in anticipation of the marchers arriving, and everyone’s saying it’s only a matter of time until someone gets killed.” The spectre of such violence is hardly unfounded…[and] has revealed the level of hate coursing through the veins of Israelis furious at the influx of non-Jewish Africans into their country.” [emphasis added]

The accusation of racism against Israelis is of the most facile and lazy arguments employed in the anti-Zionist arsenal.  Israelis, like people in many states in the world, are of course struggling with the dilemma of balancing humanitarian concerns with the requirements of national cohesion and economic security. Concerns about unlimited immigration do not suggest that Israelis have “hate coursing through their veins”.  

Twenty percent of Israelis are Arab and among Jewish Israelis, roughly half are ‘Jews of color’ – that is Jews from the Middle East, North Africa (or Ethiopia). So, there is simply no rational reason to believe that the reaction to the influx of illegal immigrants would be any different in they were not from Africa.

A  failure to offer a concrete policy alternative to a vexing political problem:
In 900 words of criticism, Freedman fails to include anything resembling a concrete suggestion regarding how Israel should deal with the influx of immigrants. Freedman doesn’t even acknowledge the scope of the problem, nor is there a single policy proposal or a passage devoted to what he believes should be done by the Israeli Knesset in order to develop a codified series of laws and regulations to handle the influx of African migrants.  Such journalistic Israel critics are continually defined by their failure to offer real-world alternatives in addition to their scathing and often scurrilous critiques of the state, and its foreign and domestic policies.
Transparent moral posturing (Freedman is ‘the good Jew’):
Freedman is an Israeli Jew, and leverages that fact to opine at ‘Comment is Free’ quite effectively. His critiques of Israel are leveled, ostensibly, as is the case with so many other CiF commentators, ‘As-a-Jew’.
Indeed, a necessary corollary to the former principle (Israel’s critics’ failure to offer any specific alternatives to the government policies they’re admonishing) is the dynamic I’ve expanded upon previously: the vanity and moral posturing of placing oneself above the fray; beyond the day-to-day real life and necessarily imperfect decisions of a modern democratic nation-state.
To be clear, those Israelis using irresponsible, incendiary rhetoric against illegal immigrants should rightly face social opprobrium and, if the facts warrant it, even be arrested under Israel’s anti-incitement laws.
However, the Jewish state need not be held to a higher standard than other states similarly dealing with the moral dilemma of economic migrants crossing its borders.  
Finally, commentators like Freedman (and his Jewish fellow political travelers at the Guardian) need desperately to see Israel through a more mature, sober lens, and avoid the endless hyperbole, clichés and posturing. 

Ultimately, they fail to recognize a vital political and moral truth: in responsible statecraft rarely is there the luxury of making choices which will lead to perfect justice for all concerned.

Rather, with every serious decision in front of her, Israel (like all nations) must carefully weigh the costs and benefits of various possible actions and try to make the decisions which are most likely to result in a positive outcome for as many of her citizens as possible.  The perfect will always remain the natural and mortal enemy of the good. 

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