Whoever is advising and coordinating the current migrant protests is doing its constituency a huge disservice.
Israelis are deeply torn about the plight of the tens of thousands of Africans who crossed into Israel via Egypt before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu belatedly sealed the border fence. This was a country founded too late to save millions of Jews from Nazi genocide, but a country that since 1948 has been able to serve as a place of refuge for persecuted Jews the world over, and its citizens know all too well the pitiful situation of oppressed masses turned coldly away at closed borders.
So long as the majority of the migrants were largely congregated in a limited area of south Tel Aviv, most Israelis allowed themselves to feel that the country had done the right thing in letting them stay, and could afford not to internalize the potential impact that a large influx could have on the wider country. Go to the areas around Levinsky Park and the appalling site that is Tel Aviv’s “new” bus station, and you cannot ignore the fact of a part of Israel that has become alien and downright scary, albeit not solely because of the new arrivals. Stay away, and you need never empathize with the outraged veteran residents of that area.
By massing tens of thousands of migrants shouting for their rights in Rabin Square on Sunday, drawing thousands in protesting throngs around the US Embassy on Monday, and preparing now for a march on Jerusalem, however, those who conceived of this campaign have placed Israel’s new migrant reality front and center. And while some Israelis will have been moved by their pleas, by their insistence that they are not criminals and ought to be accorded refugee status, it’s a fair bet that many more Israelis will have been a little shaken by the sight of the throngs and influenced by Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s talk of millions more Africans looking to get out of their countries — with Israel as the only developed nation to which they can contemplate gaining access over land.
The international attention being given to Israel’s migrant crisis, meanwhile, smacks of hypocrisy — not for the first time on an issue where Israel can be made to look racist and inhumane.
Europe is deep in crisis over the movement across the continent of citizens from relatively impoverished new European Union member nations. One need only read the coverage in some of Britain’s more xenophobic newspapers, for instance, to recognize the hostility to the influx of Poles and, most recently, Romanians — purportedly changing the face of Britain, putting Brits out of work, begging in the streets, spreading disease, turning neighborhoods into no-go areas. But Israel, a country of eight million people, being disinclined to keep open its borders and grant general refugee status to a potentially vast influx, oh, that’s just further proof of our country’s lost morality.
Best of all is the hyping of the crisis in countries, such as Iran, to which no African, no matter how endangered his or her life, is likely to voluntarily run for refuge.
If we’re that awful, one might ask, why would so many people from the continent to our south want to try to rebuild their lives here?
Among other things, one might then answer, because here they get to march in safety, and demonstrate with police protection, and have their demands freely and accurately reported, and castigate the policy of the very government to which they are appealing. Just as protesters can in Iran. (Not.)
A transparent process
Where Israel might help itself, however, is in maintaining a more transparent process for dealing with refugee claims. The widespread assertion that Israel’s bureaucracy does not deal openly and efficiently with the issue has not been credibly disproved. Attorneys working for the relevant government bureaucracies have only underlined the concerns by indicating, in interviews in recent days, that a certain unwritten policy applies when it comes to employing migrants: that employers have been given to understand that an asylum-seeker who has registered with the authorities can be semi-legitimately employed even if any official paperwork says the opposite.
Like any sovereign nation, Israel has the right to determine its policies on granting refugee and residency and citizenship and employment rights, in accordance with its own laws and the relevant international frameworks to which it has bound itself. The process should be clear and coherent — so that everybody involved knows where they stand.
A (just about) manageable dilemma
Before Israel moved to seal off its border fence with Egypt in the last couple of years, the rate of the illegal influx had reached 2,000 people and more per month.
If that border had been closed sooner — as you might have expected it would be, for basic security reasons, not because of the unexpected flow of asylum-seekers/economic migrants — the scale of the crisis would have been far more manageable today.
Just imagine, though, if the inflow was still continuing. A 50-60,000-strong community would have been double the size and more, with exponential birthrate consequences. At which point claims by Netanyahu and his former interior minister, Eli Yishai of Shas, that the very essence of the Jewish state was threatened, would start to look a little less fanciful.