Israel faces a racially, visually, politically and historically charged dilemma: whether to deport black Africans who have entered Israel illegally in the tens of thousands.
The current government’s proposal is to give those who do not face persecution in another country a $3,500 check, a one-way ticket, and a deportation order.
Among the arguments in the debate, almost always offered stridently, are:
• Israel, of all nations, cannot deport escapees of persecution. A nation built in good measure on survivors of the Holocaust dare not resummon Holocaust-like images: people turned away at the border, people condemned to die, people seeking shelter from strangers.
• Israel, on a per capita basis, has taken in African refugees in numbers far larger than other countries. Israel has done enough. It must preserve its Jewish character.
• Israel certainly seems to find a way to tolerate tens of thousands of maids, au pairs and blue collar laborers from the Philippines, Romania and other non-African countries. To deport black Africans is racist.
• Refugees have taken advantage of Israel’s porous southern border and liberal welfare policies. Can Israel afford to take in an unlimited number of welfare cases from Africa?
• African immigrants aren’t “immigrants”; they are individual stories of flight, poverty, sometimes persecution and absence of national identity. In many cases, their children speak Hebrew fluently and Israel is the only country they know.
• To legitimate illegal immigrants from Africa is also to encourage the brutal tactics of the human traffickers who are responsible for many of the immigrants’ transportation from sub-Saharan Africa through Egypt to Israel’s border. Starvation, beatings, rapes, transportation under inhuman conditions — that’s how the traffickers work. It is the growth in illegal immigration that directly increases the number of traffickers.
These and other perspectives etch a very complicated picture. This is how we add it all up:
However they arrived in Israel, illegal immigrants, whatever their country of origin, cannot in good conscience be returned to countries where their lives are endangered. Israel has sought to avoid this by deporting immigrants to safe places.
The idea that the deportation of black Africans, in the face of the acceptance of Filipino blue collar workers, is racist ignores two critical distinctions: First, Filipinos are in Israel because they were asked to come and guaranteed employment; the Africans entered the country unasked, via illegal border crossings. Second, although the Africans entered illegally, thousands of them are gainfully employed, though some of them, like some Filipinos, are not treated well, even if they do not face deportation. Those who face deportation are those who have flooded Israel after 2006, once the word got out that the first influx of illegals were treated better than in Africa.
The Holocaust comparisons strike us as so overwrought as to border on the obscene. Israel has not set up concentration camps; has not starved anyone, let alone engaged in mass killings. Israel has not rounded up any group based on race, for if that were the case, then all of the black Ethiopian Jewish citizens of Israel would also face deportation. It is the immigrants’ method of entry into Israel — illegal border crossings in large numbers — that is the only classification in the government’s deportation policy.
Amidst all this, a simple political truth seems to have gotten lost. It is a truth that every country in the world holds, with perhaps the single exception of the United States: A country has the right to its own immigration policy, and a right to enforce it.
That said, Israel in a way invited its immigration crisis on itself decades ago when its citizens forsook manual labor and began to look to Palestinians and various other nationalities, such as Romanians and Filipinos, to do this work. Word got out. All the talk about the relatively positive working conditions of manual laborers in Israel — salary, job security and benefits — reached Africa. It is not exactly surprising why, first, African refugees of persecution, then, other Africans, saw Israel as a safe haven. This does not mean, however, that Israel can simply absorb an unlimited number of non-Jewish refugees and retain its raison d’etre: a Jewish state. Given the per capita number of non-Jewish refugees that Israel has taken in, the current government policy of deportation + cash bonus + travel does not strike us as draconian.
Provided — and it’s a big proviso —the countries of destination for the deportees are safe. This is an indispensable requirement, not because of Israel’s Holocaust roots, but because of simple humanity.
Speaking of which, an unrestricted Israeli open border policy, which would entail an unrestricted invitation to human traffickers, hardly meets any humane standard. The dangerous water crossings — and drownings— on the way from Africa to Europe, stimulated in part by human traffickers, finds its analogy in the long and unsafe trek across the deserts of Africa to Israel. At the same time, it is often very difficult to verify claims of persecution in many countries and sometimes tricky to verify the safety of destination countries for deportees. Especially since most of the illegal black Africans in Israel do come from a safe country, Eritrea, it is best for Israel to close its border to illegal immigration on the grounds of removing the motivation for traffickers, and of preserving Israel as a Jewish state, and to deport the Eritreans in Israel.
It is not a perfect solution, but then again, if there is a national obligation of all countries to absorb recent immigrants, Israel has done more than its share.
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