Opposition leader Isaac Herzog hit back at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, accusing him of ignoring basic Jewish ethical concerns, hours after the the prime minister indicated the state would not be able to take in Syrian refugees fleeing from the raging civil war in their home country.
“You’ve forgotten what it is to be Jewish,” Herzog wrote in a Facebook post. “Refugees. Pursued. The prime minister of the Jewish state doesn’t close his heart nor his borders when people are escaping their pursuers, with their babies in their hands.”
The Zionist Union chairman urged Netanyahu to emulate former Likud prime minister Menachem Begin, who in 1977 let 66 Vietnamese boat people escaping persecution settle in Israel.
Herzog on Saturday said that the Jewish state cannot turn away refugees escaping danger.
“It is incumbent on Israel to take in refugees from the war and push for the establishment of an urgent international conference on the issue,” the Zionist Union chairman declared. “Jews cannot be apathetic when hundreds of thousands of refugees are searching for safe haven,” he said, referring to the plight of Europe’s Jews in the run-up to the Holocaust.
But on Sunday, Netanyahu rejected the possibility of Israel taking in refugees from war-torn Syria, saying that while the Jewish state was not unsympathetic to the suffering of citizens across its border, it simply did not have the capacity to absorb masses of people.
“Israel is not indifferent to human tragedy; we conscientiously handled a thousand [people] who were wounded in the fighting in Syria and we have helped them rebuild their lives,” Netanyahu said during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.
“However, Israel is a very small country. It has no demographic depth and has no geographic breadth,” the prime minister continued. “We must protect our borders against illegal immigrants and against the perpetrators of terrorism. We cannot allow Israel to be flooded with infiltrators.”
The prime minister’s comments came amid a growing debate among Israeli politicians over how Israel, with its national memory of the struggle by Jewish refugees to escape the Nazi regime, should respond to the regional migrant crisis to which the Syrian civil war is a major contributing factor.
Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid, who criticized the idea that Israel should contribute to easing the Syrian refugee crisis, came under fire from radio presenter Gabi Gazit, who told the son of former minister Tommy Lapid to think about the history of his father, who escaped the Nazis by fleeing to pre-state Palestine.
“Your father and my father asked themselves for years how and why the world was silent when Hitler tried to kill the Jewish people, and our fathers died before they were able to see the new refugees at the Budapest train station,” Gazit wrote. “Yes, the very same station where your father and my father tried 70 years to catch a train from to freedom, and only three years later there was the world war. Their train made it out of Budapest and took them to the Land of Israel.”
Lapid had come out against Israel providing a safe haven for Syrian refugees, stressing that Israel must not take any steps that may in the future legitimatize the implementation of the right of return for Palestinians.
Israel said in June it was bracing for an influx of refugees on the Golan Heights, which is divided between Israel and Syria, after fighting on the plateau intensified. Druze residents of Israel have appealed to the government to help safeguard their brethren living on the other side of the border, where fighting between regime forces and rebels has been fierce.
More than four million people have fled their homes in the war-torn country, with Turkey and Lebanon taking in the lion’s share of refugees. Thousands of Syrian refugees have also flooded into Europe in the four years of bitter fighting.
A global outcry last week over an image of the body of a three-year-old Syrian child washed up on the Turkish shore after he and his brother and mother drowned trying to reach the island of Kos spurred European leaders to increase the numbers of refugees they accept.
Stuart Winer and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.