Finding the right balance in Israel’s deportation dilemmas

By Elli Fischer, Jewish Ideas Daily

Migrants in search of freedom or economic opportunity are inevitably attracted to developed countries; no less inevitably, some citizens react negatively, even violently, as neighborhoods change and cheap labor threatens livelihoods. Historically, the U.S. has hardly been immune to such stirrings; presently, anti-immigrant parties in Europe are enjoying electoral success.

And so a backlash in Israel against the country’s many illegal migrants was predictable, coming in late May in response to the alleged rape of an Israeli woman by an African migrant. As protests broke out, accompanied by scattered acts of violence, the government announced a decision to implement a policy of selective deportation.

But despite typical appearances, several factors also make the Israeli case unique. First, though long a magnet for migrant foreign workers, Israel is a relative latecomer among the world’s most developed nations, so only in the last two years has the sheer number of illegal immigrants produced anxiety. Second, the greater freedom and economic opportunity offered by Israel relative to its neighbors means that migrants are unlikely to leave voluntarily. Third, the migrants are largely able to evade any sort of border control. 

Most importantly, as a small state, uniquely with a Jewish majority, Israel already has justified concerns about its demographic balance; with millions of Palestinian Arabs claiming a right to repatriation, no wonder that Israel sees non-Jewish immigration as an existential threat.

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A competing impulse, though, is the Jewish state’s predisposition to abnormal displays of compassion, fostered by the Jewish memory of estrangement stretching back to Egypt and reinforced by centuries of persecution. Scripture enjoins Jews to be welcoming—for we were migrants in the Land of Egypt.

Can Israel uphold concern for the stranger without compromising its demographic balance? Some on the far Left vehemently oppose construction of the border fence with Egypt and deportations. In contrast, some Knesset members have denounced migrants as a “cancer” and a “plague”; one even demanded that anyone trying to cross illegally into the country be shot. Interior Minister Eli Yishai accused migrants of spreading AIDS by raping Jewish women, and proclaimed—despite his own North African heritage—that Israel belongs to “us, the white man.”

Between these extremes, an emerging political consensus favors a sensible middle way, and government policy appears to be moving fitfully toward a mixed and balanced resolution.

This balance has been struck largely through inaction: on the one hand, the state acknowledges that deportation to a dangerous regime like Sudan or Eritrea (which both account for the vast majority of migrants) is a non-starter; on the other hand, granting any de jure right of residence would encourage increased migration. So illegal migrants remain in limbo, but for the most part are not deported. There is even an official agreement not to enforce laws prohibiting illegal migrants from working.

In practice, then, migrants arrested along the Egyptian border are briefly detained as a token effort is made to determine their legal status, and then delivered to the central bus station in south Tel Aviv. They usually make their way to the nearby Levinsky Park, a de facto absorption center and the focal point of non-governmental relief efforts, and eventually move out of the park into overcrowded apartments, finding work as manual laborers.

But this arrangement was developed before migration reached its present levels and is now proving untenable. Coming under sustained pressure for its failure to foresee or contain the burgeoning numbers, the government is slowly forging a more comprehensive policy.

First, the border fence with Egypt, scheduled for completion by the end of this year, is designed to slow migration to a fraction of current levels. Second, a large detention facility under construction in the Negev will house migrants for up to three years while their status is being resolved. Third, though Sudanese and Eritrean migrants will not be deported to their dangerous regimes, Israel has begun to turn back illegal migrants from the safer South Sudan and Ivory Coast, both of which maintain diplomatic ties with Jerusalem. Meanwhile, racist rhetoric and violent behavior have been condemned by government officials. 

By making it harder to enter the country and delaying access to civic life, Israel hopes to deter economic migrants. But bona fide asylum seekers will be processed and, if approved, granted some sort of permanent status. Those already in Israel will likely receive some form of recognition or amnesty.

So although the situation on the street could deteriorate, there is reason to be optimistic that Israel will succeed in balancing the need to preserve its demographic character with the Jewish tradition of care for the sojourner—just as there is reason to hope that responsible government policy will trickle down to a restive citizenry.