The refugee crisis in Ukraine has illuminated a deep moral divide among Israelis, which I think reflects a similar division in the moral consciousness of humans everywhere. On one side we have Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, who announced yesterday that Israel would accept all Jewish refugees – that is, all of those, according to the Law of Return, who have at least one Jewish grandparent – but that only up to 5,000 non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees would be accepted, and those would have to agree to leave after three months. There are 20,000 non-Jewish Ukrainians who are already living in Israel illegally, after overstaying tourist visas, and they will also be allowed to stay temporarily.
On the other side, we find Ha’aretz writer Zvi Bar’el who argues – in a remarkably sarcastic article – that Israel’s concern for the Jewish people is racist, and that true morality calls for us to open our doors equally to all who suffer. And that not only includes Ukrainians, but also the Eritrean and Sudanese illegal immigrants who found life hard and dangerous under kleptocratic and brutal regimes. The Supreme Court, apparently sharing Bar’el’s point of view, threw a series of monkey wrenches into the attempts to deport them. They were bused to South Tel Aviv on arrival, where they colonized the area around the main bus station. The crime rate there has soared as a result.
Bar’el also thinks we have no right to complain about the Russians invading and occupying Ukraine, because we have “occupied” Judea and Samaria. I am embarrassed that it’s necessary to explain to an educated, adult Israeli that Ukraine was an independent country that did not attack Russia, while Judea and Samaria were parts of the original Mandate that were occupied illegally and ethnically cleansed by Jordan, whose army then attacked Israel in a war intended to end her independence.
It’s obvious which side I’m on. But where I disagree with Bar’el is not, as he might say, because he loves all mankind and I am a racist who thinks Jews are better than non-Jews. Actually I too believe in human rights, justice, and equal treatment, even for cultures, like the Palestinian Arabs, whose values happen to be despicable.
Where we differ is this: I think the State of Israel is different from the great majority of countries, because it has a mission: the preservation of the physical and cultural existence of the Jewish people.
Other countries may also be ethnic nation-states like Israel, which means that they represent the realization of self-determination for a particular people. Or alternatively, they may be like the US, which in essence defines the “American People” as those who are born there or who choose to receive citizenship, with no ethnic consideration at all. But I can’t think of any state other than Israel that was born with the specific objective of preserving an endangered people. This is implied in Israel’s Declaration of Independence:
The catastrophe which recently befell the Jewish people – the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe – was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of its homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz-Israel the Jewish State, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew and confer upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the comity of nations.
This doesn’t mean that the founders (probably these are the words of Ben Gurion) thought that the Holocaust was in itself a justification for the establishment of the state; that this is not what they thought is clear from the rest of the document. But it is emblematic of the fact that Israel was established as a bulwark against the forces of antisemitism, assimilation, and cultural dilution that were erasing the Jewish people from the world.
In order to carry out her mission, the State of Israel must, minimally, maintain a Jewish majority; but she also needs to limit the expansion of non-Jewish religious and cultural influences. Israel is a very small country of 9 million people, 21% of whom are not Jewish. There are, from time to time, antisemitic outbursts right here, such as the Arab riots of May 2021 in which Jews and Jewish property were attacked. Several years ago, there were even incidents of antisemitism involving violence and swastika graffiti perpetrated by Russian-speaking antisemites!
Israel is no. 100 on the list of countries by population. Following it are Switzerland, Togo, Sierra Leone, Hong Kong, and Laos. I haven’t noticed pressure on these countries to take tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees.
I know that a large number of Israelis, often the ones called the “Ashkenazi elite,” find this point of view distasteful. They say that those of us who are concerned about the erosion of the Jewish character of the state are “intolerant” of other cultures.
I suggest that they are the ones who need to exercise more tolerance, in this case for the continued existence of the one, only one, Jewish state in the world. If that upsets them so much, then rather than trying to change it into something else, they should move to any one of the countless countries that are “states of their citizens.” I see advertisements in the newspaper on a regular basis for companies that offer help in obtaining European passports. I recommend them to Zvi Bar’el and the rest of the Ha’aretz crew.