Israel's Interior Minister said that he is putting the needs of Israel first by sending back illegal African immigrants. But does Israel, of all countries, have a right to be xenophobic? Do we concentrate on our internal problems at the expense of isolating ourselves from the needs of others?
In certain ways this is a very easy question and in other ways it is a very difficult question. However, at the risk of sounding discourteous (and I deeply apologize if what I am about to say comes off this way), I cannot answer the question as you phrased it.
Your direct questions are phrased more as rhetorical statements than as questions. No, Israel of all countries does not have a right to be xenophobic. No, Israel should not concentrate on internal problems at the expense of isolating herself from the needs of others. However, I believe you already know this, and the issues surrounding illegal immigration are significantly more complicated than this.
To be clear, I have no sympathy for some of the racially based anti-immigration propaganda that has unfortunately seeped into the political discourse in Israel, especially in South Tel Aviv. The rabbinic organization with which I affiliate—the IRF—put out a statement to this effect, which I fully supported as a board member.
That said, I would like to address a more complex question: Assuming the government is not acting (or stops acting) xenophobically, and does not give in to racial prejudice, what is the proper way for the government to think about immigration policy and how should illegal immigrants be treated?
Here, I believe, we have a classic example of competing values. On the one hand we have “love the stranger in your midst” (åàäáúí àú äâø; Deut. 10:19) and the exhortation not to oppress the stranger in your midst (åâø ìà úåðä/åâø ìà úìçõ; Ex. 22:20, 23:9). On the other hand, since Israel, like any other country, is a place of limited resources, we come up against the requirement for Jews/Israelis to make sure their own needy are protected first (òîé åðëøé – òîé ÷åãí, òðéé òéøê ÷åãí; b. Baba Metzia 71a).
The exact way to navigate between these two values is a complex one, and I am far from qualified to answer such questions. But I would say this: I believe Israel has a right to have an immigration policy based on an attempt to ascertain how much immigration from foreign countries Israel has the ability to absorb without creating undo pressure on the economic stability of its own citizens, especially its poorer citizens.
Much of what occurred in South Tel Aviv had to do with lower class Israelis feeling that they were paying for the government’s unwise immigration policies. As horribly as the situation played out, and recognizing that the flames have been fanned by cynical politicians and racially-colored rhetoric, one must not forget that in the midst of this there are poor Israeli citizens who feel that they have been sidelined by their government policies and made to absorb more than their “fair share” of underemployed illegal immigrants. Much of the crime that occurs in South Tel Aviv, (up to 40% in recent estimates)—including violent crimes like the rape of the 15 year old girl that helped set off the protest—is committed by the immigrant population.
On the other hand, I believe that Israel should be especially open to refugees from persecution; our own recent history tells us the horror of being persecuted with nowhere to go. Israel should be that somewhere (so should America, in my opinion). Of course, the Israeli government must think long and hard about how they can do this without the poorer elements among the actual citizenry having to pay the price.
I do not know what should happen with illegal immigrants. I am not knowledgeable about deportation policy and how this affects deportees. I know there is an attempt to build a fence across the Egyptian border to help control illegal immigration, but I don’t know much about how this works or how effective and humane it will be. However, I will offer a few broad comments from a Jewish values perspective. (For a similar take to mine, see Dov Lipman’s excellent and nuanced op-ed.)
First, one cannot take a “rosh qatan” policy where one ignores what will happen to the refugees if they are returned home. It is one thing if the illegal move to Israel was simply an attempt at a “step up”, socially or economically. It is something entirely different if the homeland of the immigrant poses a threat to his or her person. It is immoral to send an immigrant back under those conditions.
Second, I do not know if there is a statute of limitations on illegal immigration, but there should be, especially if there are children involved. Once someone has lived in Israel long enough—I do not pretend to know how long this is—that he or she feels like an Israeli, deportation should no longer be an option. De facto, this has become their country. This is especially true for children who grow up Israeli.
Finally, as long as the immigrants are in Israel, they have to be treated with the upmost fairness and respect. It is forbidden to mistreat a stranger just because he or she is not “one of us.” “úÌåÉøÈä àÇçÇú åÌîÄùÀÑôÈÌè àÆçÈã éÄäÀéÆä ìÈëÆí åÀìÇâÅÌø äÇâÈÌø àÄúÀÌëÆí” (Num. 15:20), the laws of Israel and fair treatment apply equally to citizens and foreigners alike.
In 1951 Israel was instrumental in writing the UN Refugee Convention. Legally and morally, Israel has to uphold the obligations that it took upon itself with drafting up the Refugee Convention and signing it: the African refugees that have recently entered the State of Israel have a right to be able to submit official asylum applications. Currently they are held in a legal limbo. Despite that Israeli authorities have recognized that these refugees would face significant danger for life and health if deported, they are held in "group protection" which means that the individual refugee's asylum application is either not accepted or not assessed and at the same time none of these refugees is deported. It results in a limbo in which the refugees cannot work, study or in any other way meaningful interact with Israeli society and have no future.
It is in my eyes highly problematic if a representative of the Israeli government refers to these refugees as "infiltrators" a choice of words that clearly indicates that somebody is in a place he/she doesn't belong.
Yes, Israel has a legal obligation (from the UN Refugee Convention) and a moral obligation to assess the case of each refugee to determine wether or not he/she should be granted asylum.
There are two separate issues here: xenophobia and immigration policy. Your question, which I believe is an important one, already assumes the answer. In the first chapter of the Torah we learn that G-d created humans in the divine image (Gen. 1:26-27). Torah does not specify white humans or brown, but all of us. Jews have been on the receiving end of xenophobia almost from the beginning of our story in Torah. Abraham experienced it, the Israelite slaves in Egypt experienced it, Jews living in exile for almost two thousand years experienced xenophobia in every imaginable way – culminating in the most tragic and horrible of our historical sufferings: the Holocaust. Every Passover we are urged to see ourselves as if we ourselves had been slaves and were redeemed from Egyptian bondage. One of the reasons the Hagaddah emphasizes this teaching is to remind us that we are no better than anyone else. In fact there are multiple midrashic traditions that explicitly state that we, the Chosen People, were not G-d’s first choice. We were just the first ones who said “yes” to Torah. Saying “yes” to Torah means saying “no” to xenophobia.
Torah also has something to say about immigration policy. The commandment for the community to look after the needs of the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our midst is repeated over 30 times in the Torah alone. Today, Israel, like the United States is primarily an immigrant society – and in this way Israel has mirrored the commandment to care for and welcome the stranger with a robust immigration process. Yet, like any nation, it must develop and implement immigration policies. Such policies should be guided by ethics rather than xenophobia. However, the realities around illegal immigration are incredibly complex, and I hesitate to make any blanket statements about what such a policy should specifically say. In the best of all worlds, there are limits to the ability of any nation to absorb new immigrants. In Israel, the issue of immigration is complicated because of Israel’s commitment to remaining a democratic Jewish State (which requires a Jewish majority in order to exist). It seems to me that refugees should not be sent back to places where their lives could be in danger. I could argue such a forced return as a violation of the commandment not to commit murder. Beyond that extreme, however, I am less sure. Illegal immigration and the policies around it, especially concerning temporary workers who stay after their visas expire, has been a serious problem in Israel for many years. In south Tel Aviv alone, where many illegal immigrants settle, I have personally seen the work of well over a dozen outstanding organizations – actively supported by the municipality – who work to help illegal immigrants. These people are doing the work of Torah, and in my opinion, if we follow the values of Torah then how we approach our internal problems will actually bring us closer to the needs of others rather than isolate us from them.
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