The attitude of Israelis to African “infiltrators” or “asylum seekers” or “refugees” – what you call them is indicative of how you feel about them – is a manifestation of a broad cultural divide in our society.
There are about 50,000 illegal immigrants (estimates vary) from various African countries, mostly Eritria and Sudan but also numerous others, who came to Israel in the period between about 2005 and 2013, when Israel completed fencing its border with Egypt. In 2012 a law was passed that permitted the detention of illegal immigrants, although the Supreme Court, responding to petitions from various “human rights” NGOs, prevented its implementation. Nevertheless, the flow of immigrants seems to have been stopped, primarily by the physical barrier. Here is an interesting analysis of the immigration phenomenon and the attempts of the state to deal with it, albeit from a left-wing perspective.
Most of the immigrants have applied for humanitarian asylum and have been given visas that must be renewed every three months. They are de facto permitted to work, although many receive welfare benefits. Technically, only a few are eligible for humanitarian asylum as refugees, but the government has decided that most of them can’t be deported to their home countries because conditions there are so bad. Most are Muslims. The majority live in neighborhoods in South Tel Aviv.
The Tel Aviv neighborhoods have been severely impacted by the influx. Local residents say that they are afraid to go out at night because of violent crime committed by immigrants. Resources to help disadvantaged people of all backgrounds have been strained to the breaking point by the needs of the immigrants and their children. Long-time residents of the area that own property find themselves trapped, unable to sell apartments for enough money to move somewhere else.
Although it is irrelevant to the argument about what to do about them, I should point out (probably unnecessarily) that no other Middle Eastern or African country would treat illegal immigrants as well. The Egyptians regularly shoot migrants trying to cross their borders, and other countries deny them the right to work or education for their children. And they certainly would not get welfare benefits!
One can argue about their status endlessly – are most of them “economic migrants” or true refugees? But it should be clear that life in Israel is infinitely better in every way than in the places most of them came from, for both human rights and economic opportunities. It’s understandable that they took great risks to get here. What should we do?
On the one hand, you can say that now that the flow has been stopped they do not pose a demographic danger to the state and we should try to integrate them into the state, give them permanent residency and official permission to work, improve their living conditions and try to absorb them. After all, their children already speak Hebrew as their first language.
On the other, if it becomes known that Israel will welcome illegal immigrants, no fence will stop them. They will find a way, and the influx that has been stopped will resume. The ones that are already here have a high birthrate, facilitated by generous welfare benefits, and the 50,000 that are here now present a demographic threat to the Jewish majority, already under pressure from a growing Arab population. There is also the danger of creating a permanent dependent class. Israel is a small nation-state, and its continued existence depends on maintaining an ethnic majority. While the migrants have human rights, they must be balanced against those of the residents of South Tel Aviv, who have received a very raw deal through no fault of their own.
The government has been trying to find a way to reduce the number of migrants in the country. The current law permits the deportation of illegal immigrants to a “third country” where they will not be endangered. Israel has agreements with several African countries to take deportees, but only if they voluntarily agree to go. Last year, the Knesset passed a law that would withhold some of the salary of the migrants, which would be returned to them if and when they leave (the employer also must contribute to the fund, which discourages them from hiring migrants). This has only been in effect a few months and it’s not clear how effective it will be.
In some cases, the government wishes to deport someone who is uncooperative. Until now, this has been possible by incarcerating him until he agrees to leave “voluntarily” to one of the countries with which Israel has agreements.
But this week, the Supreme Court decided (in response to petitions from various “human rights” NGOs) that illegal immigrants can’t be incarcerated for more than two months, because then their agreement to leave wouldn’t truly be voluntary. Paradoxically, it also ruled that Israel does have the right to involuntarily deport them, but since no third country will take them unless they agree, this right can’t be exercised. The court also suggested that the best solution for the Tel Aviv residents was to disperse the immigrants around the country, which would multiply the problems for both local residents and the migrants. This is the latest in a series of decisions which have stymied attempts to deport illegal immigrants.
And this is where we get to the cultural divide. The government believes that it has an obligation to protect the rights of the immigrants, the Tel Aviv residents, and the Jewish majority in the country. But as Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said in a powerful speech at the Bar Association this week, the Court recognizes only the rights of individuals, and not the Zionist imperative to maintain a Jewish majority and Jewish character to the state:
… Shaked sought to make clear that she doesn’t make light of … individual rights, saying she considers the system maintaining them to be “almost sacred.”
“But not devoid of context,” she clarified. “Not detached from Israeli uniqueness, our national tasks and our very identity, history and Zionist challenges. Zionism should not—and will not—bow before a system of individual rights interpreted universally in a manner detaching it from the chronicles of the Knesset and the history of legislation we’re all familiar with.”
Shaked said the Israeli judicial branch operates as if in a “dream,” adopting a “utopian and universal worldview sanctifying individual rights to an extreme degree and ceasing taking part in the struggle for Israel’s very existence.”
Shaked was criticized by Yitzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni, both of whom oppose such a law. Livni said, “Zionism isn’t bowing down to human rights. It is proudly raising its head, because protecting [human rights] is also the essence of Judaism and part of Israel’s values as a Jewish and democratic state.” In other words, the Jewishness of the state is nothing more than its democratic nature. This pernicious idea comes directly from the former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, and is precisely why Shaked correctly demands a Nation-State Law.
It is the primary purpose of a government and all of its subsidiaries, including the judiciary system, to protect the nation’s citizens against internal and external threats. This is the case even if the particular citizens are poor and have little political power, like the residents of South Tel Aviv. The Supreme Court struck down one attempt after another to deport the illegal immigrants that have made their lives hell, and the suggestion that the immigrants be dispersed throughout the country – which, even if it were possible, would mean dispersing their pathologies to other disadvantaged communities, because they certainly aren’t going to be allowed to move next door to Supreme Court justices, or Livni or Herzog – is obnoxious and insulting. It is a subterfuge to justify choosing the welfare of the migrants over the Jewish citizens of the state.
Israel does everything she can to be a moral actor in a world where morality is usually a joke, both when she has to use force to defend herself, and when she can deploy her advanced technology to save lives (e.g., Syria, Sierra Leone and Houston, Texas).
But as Hillel said, if I am not for myself, who will be for me? In this case, justice is on the side of the state. And the Supreme Court should be on the side of justice.