Michael Hilkowitz
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How to hand a victory to the enemy

Packing 40,000 people off to a dangerous future is both immoral and self-defeating
African migrants take part at a protest in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90 /File)
African migrants take part at a protest in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90 /File)

I know it’s surprising to hear, but Israel is wrong. Now, I know what you are thinking. Anti-semitic, Hamas loving, son of the Ayatollahs. I hate to break it to you, but, I am a Zionist. I made aliyah. I live, work, pay taxes, and vote here in Israel. I teach here in Israel, I work for a non-profit that promotes Israel abroad. I want to have children here in Israel. I understand that Israel deals with uniquely complex issues and must navigate safely in a hostile world. I want what is best for Israel, now and in the future. All my opinions are based on wanting to see the end goal of a safe, stable, normalized, Jewish, democratic State of Israel. The problem is, sometimes (often) that puts me at odds with the government’s position on various issues. I speak out when I feel Israel is doing wrong just as strongly as I attack those who would unfairly try to tarnish it.

More than anything I believe in the potential of Israel. We could be an example to the world, a nation where race doesn’t matter, where Ethiopian marries Russian marries Iraqi marries German marries Indian. We are well on our way too. Israel can be a society that is the light unto the nations, an example for the whole world. A place where Jews can show others the hospitality we were shown, and often not shown, when we were strangers in strange lands. We can show the world that a nation of refugees understands empathy more than anyone else and that Never Again means never again, no matter who the people are or what race or religion they are. That’s why it pains me when Israel does the wrong thing. I know the potential that stands before me and anything that gets in the way of that potential, even a little, even for a moment, is depriving the whole world of what could be, and Israel is about to do something that really gets in the way of that potential.

(Michael Hilkowitz)

Israel is getting ready to undertake an aggressive plan to force people from Eritrea and Sudan out of the country, threatening them with imprisonment and deportation if they don’t “self-deport” (Where have I heard that before?)

Let me say first, this is a horrible crime. Israel is breaching its legal, but more importantly, its moral obligations as a member of the community of nations. This action will be a stain on our collective legacy. Future generations, more enlightened and less scared than our own, will look back on it much the same way that we look at nations that refused to allow Jews through their borders during the Holocaust. The same way we see those who refused visas to Armenians or Cambodians or Rwandans. This decision will haunt us for generations.

Reading the International Refugee Rights Initiative report based on interviews with people who were “voluntarily deported” paints a terrible picture of the prospects for these people. Every Israeli, especially those who support the government’s policy should read it. Know what you are supporting, take responsibility for it because we all will be held responsible for these actions once they are made. When the video of the black man with the slave collar comes over CNN and you find out he had been deported from Israel, do you think you will sleep well at night? Will you feel responsible?

(Michael Hilkowitz)

That’s not why I am writing this article, though. I’m not here to play on your emotions or empathy. I am not here to convince you to put someone else’s interests ahead of Israel’s. I am here to simply do one thing, let you know why the implementation of this policy is bad for Israel and Israelis. While I am terribly concerned with the plight of these human beings, I am also concerned with the war of public opinion that is being fought throughout the world when it comes to Israel. No country is more in the spotlight for every move it makes. It is an unending battle and this policy is a staggeringly boneheaded move in the context of that fight.

One of the strongest weapons the Soviet Union had against the US in the PR battle of the Cold War was the US’s record when it came to civil rights and racism. From the 1950’s to 70’s the US handed the USSR victory after victory on that battlefield. Every time the Soviet Union talked to the Third World it was about how America treated people of color. It seems we in Israel are going to fall victim to the same PR failures now as the Americans did then. If the government had chosen another way, another path, way back when they decided to pit the weakest members of society against each other it could have been different. If the government hadn’t pitted these people from Sudan and Eritrea against the Ethiopians or the residents of South Tel Aviv, creating a zero-sum game for everyone involved it could have been different.

It could have been so much different. Just imagine for a moment, the Israeli representative to the UNHRC walking into the chamber and pointing out that Israel is treated as the world’s worst human rights abuser, the only country with a permanent agenda item, yet, it is Israel that people in need of safe haven come to. It is Israel where they are welcomed and supported until they can safely return home. Sudan doesn’t have a permanent item, Eretria doesn’t have a permanent agenda item. All these countries with a stream of refugees, where do they want to go? To Israel. Now imagine 10 or 15 years from now as the UNHCR representative from the new democratic and free Eretria gets up before the councils and tells the story of how she was given protection, hope, and a future in Israel, making it possible for her to be standing where she is. There is something so powerful about the idea of a country built on the ingathering of Jewish refugees from all across the world being a safe haven for other refugees in need. Instead, we handed these same countries fuel to throw on their Zionist effigies.

(Michael Hilkowitz)

Think of what it would have been like if the government had allowed these people to live in safety and dignity, working to provide for their families until the day they could return to their homeland with skills and resources, provided by Israel, to lead an economic and technological revolution in their country, helping not only themselves but their whole nation. A country that now would have looked at Israel in a different light, as a true friend. We work so hard on diplomacy with African countries, we spend so much to fight against BDS, yet think of the power of helping to rebuild a quality, skilled population after years of conflict and repression in the heart of Africa. Could there be a more powerful answer to claims of racism made against Israel? Instead, Bibi has decided to politicize the issue, because that is what Bibi does, he tells us what our biggest fear is and who to blame for it.

As if that weren’t enough, this decision doesn’t stand on its own, it needs to be put into context. There have been a string of decisions made recently by the government that makes fighting claims of racism against Israel harder and harder for people like me, who are Zionists, who lend our voices, time, and resources to defending Israel and promoting it. We have to contend with Israel deporting a Kenyan convert with a valid visa coming to study in a conservative yeshiva, without allowing him so much as a phone call. We have to deal with the year after year battle that plays out of whether to continue to provide resources for Ethiopian Aliyah, which yet again is under threat of leaving thousands of Ethiopians Jews and their family members behind. Yet Israel processed almost 10,000 refugee status requests for Ukrainians in the last year. It makes it easy to call us racists, and I am not sure how to argue against it. Of course, there are racists in any society, and Israel or the Jews will not be immune, but we aren’t talking about individual people here, most Israelis aren’t racist, but rather, this is a pattern of government policies that make it very hard to argue against the idea that the Israeli government is racist. I guess it’s good that Bibi has gotten us all convinced that if it doesn’t come from the Likud or the Republican Party, it’s just fake news.

(Michael Hilkowitz)

What will happen now is condemnation, yet another missed opportunity in the only battle that is an existential threat to Israel, the battle of public relations. Many Israelis think this battle doesn’t matter, but it is the only true threat to Israel, the only thing that could really lay us low. It won’t be through military combat, it will come in a loss of trade, a loss of prestige and a loss of our remaining allies. We will be alone in the world and then, we are at risk. You think a 2nd Trump term is a lock? If not, what comes next? Will we be forced to stand alone in the world because Bibi decided to back the wrong American horse?

This is the battle we must be focused on, and not only are we missing a prime opportunity to develop ammunition against the enemy, we are actually producing the ammunition and giving it to them to use against us. More importantly and I couldn’t be more serious or somber about this, we are about to put 40,000 human beings on an airplane to an unsafe future, one that could lead to homelessness, slavery, or death. If the government of Israel follows through with this plan, we will deserve all the condemnation that comes from it, as well as the victory we are handing to our enemies in BDS, the UN, and the Arab world.

These views are my own and do not represent the views of The Israel Innovation Fund.

About the Author
Michael Hilkowitz holds degrees in History and Secondary Education from Temple University and is a graduate of the Philadelphia High School for International Affairs. He is currently a Masters student in Security and Diplomacy Studies at Tel Aviv University. Living in Israel since 2012, he formerly served as the Chief Content Office for The Israel Innovation Fund, a 501.c.3 working to promote Israeli culture, art, and humanities innovation abroad.
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