Israel, Knesset member Einat Wilf was saying, is the only first-world economy where migrants from Africa can literally walk across the border. She was speaking on September 10 at the American Jewish Committee headquarters in New York alongside Mark Hetfield, interim president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), about the challenges of coping fairly and responsibly with migrants from Sudan, Eritrea, and other troubled African nations who have entered Israel in increasing numbers in recent years, most of them helped across the Sinai border by Bedouin traffickers. The informal luncheon program was in conjunction with the meeting of the administrative council of the AJC’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights.
While African migrants arrived in Israel at a relatively modest rate until 2005, the numbers increased sharply in 2006, and the best estimate is that there are now approximately 60,000 African migrants and asylum seekers in Israel. The issue has become charged in the last several months, in the wake of protests in Tel Aviv and several incidents of violence against Africans in the spring of 2012. Interior minister Eli Yishai has ratcheted up the rhetoric further, calling overtly for the mass deportation of African migrants.
Hetfield and Wilf emphasized different aspects of the issue. For Hetfield, the central problem is that Israel has not faced up to its legal and moral obligations to ascertain the real status of those who cross the border into Israel. Did they flee their countries of origin because of threat of persecution or violence? If so, they have certain rights to care and protection under Israel’s own commitments to international law. If they arrived for other reasons (for better economic opportunity, for example), Israel may indeed have the right to deport them, if it does so in a manner that respects due process (and, I would add, human dignity).
The issue, as Hetfield presented it, is that Israel has simply stalled on the process of determining who is a legitimate refugee, instead terming all of the African migrants “infilitrators” and detaining large numbers indefinitely in isolated holding facilities. Hetfield called for a new level of “honesty” — that is, a ratcheting down of the rhetoric and investing in the human resources to consider the situations of the migrants on a case-by-case basis. The angry rhetoric, he argued, not only deprives men and women of basic rights — it also threatens to contribute to Israel’s negative image in the international community.
Wilf, while acknowledging the imperfections of the current system, insisted that Israel had to look for ways to limit the flow of African migrants. “We feel left alone with this problem,” she said. From her point-of-view, the issue was also one of honesty — how to speak honestly about the face that Israel cannot possibly absorb an unlimited number of economic migrants. Conceding that the angry rhetoric against Africans by Israeli leaders is counter-productive, Wilf argued that those outside Israel frequently over-react to the customary hyperbole of Israeli political expression.
(As for this last point . . . Wilf is obviously right that Israeli politicians exaggerate for effect, and that Minister Yishai knows full well that mass deportations are not on the horizon. But . . how can Israelis expect the world to take seriously the ugly rhetorical fulminations of Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, while at the same time excusing their own leaders’ hyperbole as raised voices in a family quarrel?)
In any case, the issue of the African migrants to Israel is powerful, important, and under-reported. Jews, better than most, understand the pains and perils of crossing borders to flee persecution and violence. Israel, like other open societies, has a steep price to pay for its spirit of freedom and its economic prosperity — it has become a magnet for distressed peoples. How can it maintain its commitment to being a homeland for the Jewish people, while at the same time doing its share to shelter others in flight from violence? Are there any Israeli leaders who have the will to confront the various forms of racism, discrimination, and inequality that are corroding the fabric of Israeli life? These problems are by no means unique to Israel — but for better and worse (and mostly for worse), Israel is under an international microscope. How it treats some of the world’s most vulnerable people will have ramifications beyond the consequences for individual men, women, and children.
n.b. For an account of work in south Tel Aviv with an NGO serving migrant populations in Israel, see 2011 Sorensen Fellow Shani Rosenbaum’s essay, “Giving Voice.”