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Israel’s ‘special’ obligation to its illegal immigrants

Israel's 'special' obligation to its illegal immigrants cannot trump its obligation toward its citizenry

Over the last several days, local news coverage has honed in on the growing public clamor over the influx of illegal African migrants into Israel. Dire warnings have been voiced about the threat that tens of thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese fortune seekers pose to the security and identity of the Jewish state.

In the international court of public opinion, a disturbing trend can be discerned regarding the correct, measured response that the government sitting in Jerusalem should take in addressing this simmering issue. Israel, so goes this appeal to the better angels of our nature, should “be sympathetic and welcoming to those fleeing persecution.”

In other words, Israel should heed the ancient call to act as a “light unto the nations.” Sadly, the prophet Isaiah’s designation of the Jewish people as a mentor for spiritual and moral guidance for the entire world is being corrupted into an ever-so-subtle attempt to subvert Israeli sovereignty.

Growing tension between the residents of South Tel Aviv and the local African migrant communities has roused segments of the Israeli political establishment 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.

Deportation. Detention centers. Expulsions. Doesn’t Israel have a special moral obligation, in light of Jewish history, to be “sympathetic and welcoming?”

African migrants in South Tel Aviv (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
African migrants in South Tel Aviv (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

In true Talmudic fashion, let’s attempt to answer that question by posing a couple of other questions. The United States contains roughly 11 million illegal aliens. Many of that country’s Founding Fathers were descendents of immigrants who fled persecution in Ireland, Scotland and the United Kingdom. Is the United States, circa 2012, obliged to be sympathetic and welcoming to those seeking to benefit from American prosperity? Is the United Kingdom expected to show any “special” sensitivity vis-à-vis the nearly 1 million undocumented members of its society as a result of the human rights violations suffered by the native Anglo-Saxon population during the Roman conquest of Britain?

No, they do not.

Similar to the socio-economic effects of undocumented workers on the well-being of these other countries, 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.

The plight of immigrants seeking refuge from some of the most forsaken corners on earth is a 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.

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. 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 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.

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 border fence between Israel and Egypt is littered with clothing items left behind during an migrant crossing (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)
The border fence between Israel and Egypt is littered with clothing items left behind during an migrant crossing (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

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 hell holes.

Since Israel’s home-brewed illegal immigration crisis is a relatively new development, it remains to be seen if the country will develop a codified series of laws and regulations to handle the influx of African migrants.

In the meantime, the Israeli government should be allowed to deal with its undocumented migrant population without being hamstrung by a Jewish history replete with mobs, looting, murder and organized massacre.

Let’s not forget that, at its core, the issue of the African migrants is an economic one. Whether Israel develops a just and effective response to the rapidly growing presence of undocumented population centers inside its borders is how, if it need be judged at all, the country should be evaluated.

About the Author
Gidon Ben-Zvi, former Jerusalem Correspondent for the Algemeiner newspaper, is an accomplished writer who left behind Hollywood starlight for Jerusalem stone in 2009. After serving in an Israel Defense Forces infantry unit from 1994-1997, Ben-Zvi returned to the United States before settling in Israel, where he and his wife are raising their four children to speak fluent English – with an Israeli accent. Ben-Zvi's work has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, the Algemeiner, American Thinker, the Jewish Journal, Israel Hayom, and United with Israel. Ben-Zvi blogs at Jerusalem State of Mind (jsmstateofmind.com).