Two years ago, on the way to visit my daughter who lived then in the Florentine neighborhood of Tel Aviv, I decided to make a slight detour and go through the Shapira neighborhood, just south of the New Central Bus Station. Then the neighborhood had many migrants from Eretria and Sudan living there. The migrants, or, as some call them, refugees, were quite noticeable, with many women in their non-Western dress with their children in clean and colorful clothing. I can’t say in the least that I was intimidated by their presence (nor by the many migrant men also on the street), but I did feel as if I were in another country and not in Israel. It was both exhilarating and yet confusing and alienating.
Yes, exhilarating. For someone who doesn’t have to deal with noise, overcrowding, and vagrancy (not to mention the occasional cases of assault), connected with the migrants, I find it impossible to hate them and unsavory to dislike them. What I do see is a potential future when the same children holding their mother’s hands grow up and become quasi Israelis and contribute to Israeli society. Will they feel at home? Will they too feel alienation as I felt walking through their neighborhood? What does the future have in store for them, and for us, the Israelis?
The last couple of weeks have seen in the Times of Israel and the Jerusalem Post‘s internet version numerous opinions stating why the proposed law to remove the migrants, or in their term, refugees, to third-party countries, even when the migrant does not wish it, is wrong and against “Jewish values”. This constant drip, a continuous plucking at the reader’s heartstrings, complete with egregious comparisons to darker times, plays havoc with any rational discussion of the government’s proposed actions.
Yet, the issue, even though cloaked in terms of black and white, of the acolytes of Light standing opposed to the forces of darkness, has many gray shades between. The issue rarely gets the balance it deserves in the media, the nuances ignored.
For example, are the Eritreans in Israel refugees or economic migrants or infiltrators? Well, for one, infiltrators, is a technical legal term only describing how the migrants arrived in Israel: by surreptitiously crossing the border. Refugees, by definition, are those fleeing persecution in their home countries based on their race, religious affiliation or political views. In 2011 the UNHRC expanded that definition to include “who are outside their country of nationality or habitual residence and unable to return there owing to serious and indiscriminate threats to life, physical integrity or freedom resulting from generalized violence or events seriously disturbing public order.”, but it isn’t clear that that would be a binding definition.
With no doubt, Eretria is a troubled country run by a once revolutionary with Marxist-Leninist leanings and now a dictator for the last 25 years. Conscription is mandatory and akin, some say, to almost slavery (though some differ on that). Yet most of the migrants in Israel are working-age males and that suggests that not all who have come to Israel are real refugees. Real refuges might have chosen to go to some other country in Africa (say Kenya or Djibouti or even Ethiopia), rather than make the arduous journey through Sudan, Egypt, and the Sinai to Israel. Unless, of course, if work and a better life awaited them in Tel Aviv. Quite possible that the Eritreans “skipped ” or left Eretria for varied reasons, including the desire to build better lives for themselves far away from Africa.
That, it is argued, is the reason why the government in Israel considers the Eritreans and most of the Sudanese to be economic migrants and not refugees protected by the UN convention. And the High Court of Justice agrees to that definition and has given its approval to the implementation of the government plan to expel some economic migrants to third-party countries.
It seems that there are some who are protesting this and have gone on a semi-coordinated shaming campaign to bring pressure from outside of Israel to bear on the elected government of the country. As part of their campaign, they seem ready to stoop to any means in order to succeed. Remember the “withdrawal” or the expulsion of over 8,000 Jews from Gush Katif? Well then, when Holocaust comparisons were made by the Right, the mainstream press protested vigorously, but today it seems just fine to compare the “refugees” from Africa to our grandparents’ generation fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe as if they know neither our history nor today’s reality. The Holocaust analogies, the not-so-accurate quotes of “Jewish Ethics”, and the political correct virtue signaling are all just tools to an end.
Yet, it is good to listen to what some have said, for some of the claims have merit:
“We should let them stay, for, in reality, 40 thousand refugees won’t upset the demographic balance in Israel.” Okay, this is true in my opinion. However, the measures proposed are not because Israel’s demographic balance is in danger (though the same people consider that annexing Area C to Israel does endanger the demographic balance in Israel, but I egress), rather the measures proposed are intended to uphold Israeli laws that require Israel’s acquiescence to those requesting entry. And, no mistake, if indeed, the “refugees” are economic migrants, then Israel’s proposed measures will discourage others from coming.
“Asylum-seekers can provide Israelis with a greater understanding of African conditions and culture needed for Israel to promote development, expand trade, and make friends in Africa.” Hence the feeling of exhilaration I felt when I saw them. Yet the plan is to concentrate on single working-age males and not to expel families with children. The children have a chance of becoming “Israelis,” even exemplary citizens, and to be such a “bridge” although being Christians or Muslims, they may face social barriers in the future when they wish to marry.
“The law targets Eritreans and other Africans because the government of Israel is catering to racists, for example as when the MK Miri Regev called the infiltrators a “cancer in the heart of Tel Aviv.” This is a basic smear, showing the hypocrisy of those on those in the Left, who freely call the “settlements” “a cancer” yet get in an uproar when someone on the Right uses that term. The immigration service routinely goes after Romanians and Ukrainians too, and they are white. And the so-called “white infiltrators” didn’t infiltrate but came on tourist visas and just overstayed their permits and are much harder to find and expel. Not enforcing laws (on enforcing legal entry into Israel) just because those who broke the law are from Africa is also a type of racism. In my opinion, calling the ultra-religious Haredi “bloodsuckers” or “parasites” is also racism, but that doesn’t stop anyone either.
“The money allocated to send migrants back to Africa could be better spent on improving the lives of all in South Tel Aviv.” This is sort of a like a “pitter-patter of pathetic platitudes”. For sure, more money should be spent on urban renewal in South Tel Aviv and perhaps Tel Aviv’s mayor could answer what is taking so long. Anyone could point at the government’s budget and identify places that could be trimmed and others that should be expanded. Money should be spent on urban renewal whether or not the government deals with the economic migrants there. Maybe, if done together, the result would be more successful.
“Absorbing the refugees is a Zionist response.“ Maybe, but shouldn’t our charity start with our own poor? The resources and funds spent on making Eritreans Israeli could better be spent improving the lives of those Israelis, both Jews and Arabs, living in South Tel Aviv. Wouldn’t that be a better “Zionist response”?
In fact, over the past several years tens of millions of dollars from foreign European governments and the New Israel Fund have been spent by eight different NGOs in Israel with the purpose to overturning laws passed by the Knesset. Having failed in their last attempt they will probably spend many millions more to persuade American Jews how bad Israel is for exercising her sovereignty. I have low expectations for the NIF or for organizations like J-Street or T’ruah who regularly trash Israel, but it seems a pity that HIAS and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism have joined this campaign of misinformation without checking the facts first.
As for the press, It is important to present the economic migrants/refugee issue with all it complexities. This isn’t a case of black and white; there is a large gray area that needs to be explored. Something I have yet to see in either the Times of Israel or in the Jerusalem Post.
So I will not hate the migrants from Eretria in my heart. In my heart, I hope that the government will implement the new law with leniency, selectively and as with as much sensitivity as possible. Yet, what my heart does not sanction, my reason demands. The government plan must be implemented and the law upheld. There is no justice for Israel’s own civilians in keeping all the existing migrants in Israel. They entered Israel illegally and it is Israel’s right, even responsibility to have most of them to return to their own countries.
And the sooner, the better for us all.