Growing Pains: the Birth of Israel’s Illegal Immigration Crisis

A guest post by Gidon Ben-Zvi, an Anglo-Israeli freelance writer

A recent piece in the Guardian, Isareli PM: illigal African immigrants threaten identity of Jewish state, May 20, describing the simmering issue of Israel’s African migrants, included the following passage:

“Amid the anti-immigration clamour, some Israelis have argued that, in the light of Jewish history, their state should be sympathetic and welcoming to those fleeing persecution.”

To quote the sadistic prison captain in ‘Cool Hand Luke’:

“What we’ve got here is…. failure to communicate.”

To diffuse the powder keg that Israeli cities with relatively high African populations are now sitting on, the intellectual cobwebs regarding refugees and migrants need to be swiftly cleaned out and a rapidly metastasizing groupthink ought be remedied by way of a realistic appraisal of alternatives.

Unlike the situation in other relatively well-off countries, Israel’s illegal immigration challenge is a recent phenomenon. The influx of Africans can be traced to 2005, after the Egyptian police attacked Sudanese refugees who were camped out in Cairo and demanded asylum. Jerusalem proved generous and word spread that migrants would be greeted hospitably and provided with job opportunities upon arrival in the State of Israel.

Since Hosni Mubarak was swept up and out of power during the twilight of moderation known as the ‘Arab Spring’, government authority has all but collapsed in the Sinai Peninsula. One byproduct of this lawless state of affairs has been a spike in the rate of illegal immigration to Israel from Africa. Over the last several months, Israel’s southern border with Egypt, by way of the Sinai, has turned into the primary point of entry for thousands of work-seeking migrants.  

While some of these fortune seekers are refugees, the vast majority are illegal infiltrators who are, along with drugs and weapons, smuggled into Israel by Bedouin tribesmen. Furthermore, while many illegal immigrants seek asylum status under the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of the United Nations, only a fraction of all the illegal immigrants are actually eligible for this status.

In response, segments of the Israeli political establishment have been roused into action. Knesset member Danny Danon is pushing for a bill that would lead to the deportation of half the illegal migrants within a year and 80 percent within two years. And Interior Minister Eli Yishai recently proclaimed that most of the African refugees should “…be put into holding cells or jails…and then given a grant and sent back…” to their countries of origin.

Is this any way for the Middle East’s only true democracy to treat the most vulnerable segment of its society?  And doesn’t Israel have a special moral obligation, in light of Jewish history, to be sympathetic and “..welcoming of those fleeing persecution…”?

No, it does not.

For one thing, it’s important to consider the impact of illegal immigration on Israeli society’s most vulnerable members: native-born Israelis and legal immigrants with low skills and low levels of education.

Academics, media elites, lawyers, human rights activists and other professionals have the sweet luxury of claiming the moral high ground on the illegal immigration debate: their livelihoods aren’t on the chopping block; their opportunities for advancement aren’t being increasingly scuttled.

The plight of immigrants seeking refuge from some of the most forsaken corners on earth is a moveable tragedy worthy of our sympathy and outrage. Yet, Israeli society’s first and primary responsibility is to its legal citizens and immigrants.

Furthermore, the economics of allowing illegal immigrants to remain under the charge of local municipalities in particular and the Israeli government as a whole, which would have to maintain services such as law enforcement, health care, housing, and schooling, is prohibitive. Israel is not France and it simply doesn’t have the means to provide for the welfare of tens of thousands of migrants.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has said that African refugees will be treated with humanity, explaining that “… we will continue to care for refugees, but they make up a minimal part of the human wave. Entire populations are starting to move, and if we don’t act to stop this we will be flooded.”

Yet, how does Israel counteract this ‘human wave’?

There has been much talk and uneven implementation of plans to complete the Egyptian border fence, expand detention centers and increase policing of companies that do violence to the law by hiring undocumented workers.

The concept of detention camps in a Jewish state has been greeted with grave misgivings and gratuitous moralizing by large swaths of the international human rights community.

However, it bears reminding that these facilities will include classrooms, places of worship, community centers, medical centers and outdoor recreation areas.

No solution will be comprehensively effective and every solution will likely evoke the slippery law of unintended consequences. Yet, Israel’s much touted economic miracle, given official sanction when the country joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2010, has apparently brought with it a slew of ‘first world injuries. Israel’s high standard of living and open society, in a region distressingly devoid of both, has ignited the imagination of fleeing Eritreans, Sudanese and citizens of other economically deprived peoples.

In the name of true moral equivalence, Israel should be allowed to deal with this internal crisis without being held to a unique standard that is apparently the special legacy of Jewish history to the modern Jewish state.  

27 replies »

  1. Tony Blair when discussing the legacy of the USA said you need to judge a country by how many people are trying to get into that country instead of trying to get out of the country. We should view Israel the same way. It is the legacy of Israel that there are people willing to risk life and limb to enter that nation. What is even more interesting is that these immigrants are black-African-Moslems, shunned by other Moslems. The place they run is to a Jewish nation.

    It would behoove Israel to try to find a way to help these people once they are in country. Honestly I doubt that their small numbers will change the character of the country from Jewish to Moslem. But they are there and need to be dealt with, with dignity.Figuring out how they can live in descent conditions and work honestly would go along way to solving the crime issue. Also you will never be able to solve the crime issue in total. But to blame an entire group of people for the actions of a handful is unfair as well. (We have that issue here in the USA.)

    In many ways Israel is going through the same issues that we are facing here in the US and that the EU faced with their immigrants. No multiculturalism does not work and the immigrants need to be incorporated into the existing nation. Deportation is a relevant alternative but remember what exactly are you returning them to and is that truly the “Jewish” thing to do?

    Yes, it is a “first world” issue. But whether Israel likes it or not she is a first world nation, both educationally, economically and politically. I am not certain you are being held to a higher standard with this issue. We hold ourselves here in the USA to a pretty high standard when it comes to our immigration issues too. No we have not been recently successful in solving this issue (And it is a blackmark on our nation) but our goals are in the right place and so should Israel have proper and human goals for this issue too.

    • I largely agree with asd2mom – although we’re still waiting for the Sherwood piece on the PA’s immigration policy.

    • There numbers, compared to the population of Israel, are not small. This is rapidly becoming a problem shared by all first-world countries, and quite understandably – would you prefer to live in Sudan or Israel (or a European country)?

      Nevertheless, if estimates of 60,000 Africans are correct, that your represent approximately 500,000 – 600,000 in the UK, or 3,000,000 or so in the US, for example – and that is not a small number.

      There is a growing backlash – sadly, but given the issues of crime, different cultures, and so forth it is not surprising, specially given the feeling that Egypt should be stopping this whole trade in refugees through Sinai byu the Bedouin.

      • I’d add thyat virtually all of the illegal immigrants are living in a relatively small area – South-Telaviv. It’s something like 250,000 illegals living in Manhattan or the same number in the inner city area of London

        • I would like to add, I personally would lay odds that here are atleast 250,000 illegals in Manhattan without blinking an eye.

        • They live in poor areas where cheap illigal work is available.
          Eilat, South TA and Beer Sheva are some examples.

          As for the 60000 example, I’d like to point out that these do not make a difference between the migrants who are married to Israelis and have kids by now.

          I expect a lot more from MK Regev than to chant slogans inciting the hatred.

          She should have been sorting the immigration policy and paving badget for a better border rather than sitting on her hands.

          • BTW, South TA and Yaffo was always a crap area.
            It’s not like there is a crime wave all of a sudden.
            It’s just that it is not Jewish all of a sudden.

      • Actually its believed that the numbers of illegal immigrants in the U S is over 12 million. A large majority of these have found a way onto the social welfare rolls as well. In many cities and sttes ( such as Caliornia) the number of illegals and their use of services (including education) is part of the state government defiits.

      • There is a backlash here too in the US. No I am not surprised that there is one in Israel. My point is that as in the US there are humanitarian ways to deal with the issue that is all and I am not certain that Israel in this case is held to a higher standard than the EU or the US. Of ourse the standard of The Arab world that again is another matter altogether.

  2. Since Israel’s home-brewed illegal immigration crisis is a relatively new development, it remains to be seen if the country will develop a codified series of laws and regulations to handle the influx of African migrants. Still, it’s worth noting that neither the U.S. nor the U.K. are expected to show any ‘special’ sensitivity vis-a-vis the undocumented members of their respective societies. A humane, just and ultimately effective response is how Israel, if it need be judged at all, should be evaluated on this matter. Thanks for reading and responding to my piece!

    • I am sorry but you are wrong on one account. We are consistently told to be “sensitive” to the issues pertaining to the illegal immigrants in the US and understand who they are, why they are here. In fact there are several bills before the US Congress with different versions of the DREAM Act proposed for illegal aliens. There are sanctuary cities and laws that detail how illegal immigrants are entitled to education, welfare and support from legal immigrants and citizens.Spanish which is the language of the majority of the illegal immigrants has become the defacto second language of the US.

      I don’t live in the EU but I see on TV and read in articles that their attitude toward the illegals is much the same as in the US and in some countries they are actually destroying their own culture inorder to give preeminence to the culture of the illegal alien. Yes the EU are just out of their minds.That there is a backlash of racist proportions in the EU to ward their governments acquiescence to illegal immigrants is no shock either.

    • “Still, it’s worth noting that neither the U.S. nor the U.K. are expected to show any ‘special’ sensitivity vis-a-vis the undocumented members of their respective societies.”

      Absolute nonsense… in the US is badgered constantly to accept anyone and everyone who wants to come here… and Jewish advocacy groups like the ADL are usually on the forefront of this and make a lot of money(in grants) doing this badgering.

      • The question isn’t whether the U.S. is “badgered constantly to accept anyone and everyone who want to come here…”. Rather, it’s the reasoning behind this proposed policy. In some quarters, Israel is perceived as a ‘special’ case, due the long, sorry history of pogroms, persecutions and worse experienced by the Jewish people. I doubt that the ADL’s argument for ‘letting them all in’ is based on the history of pogroms and persecutions that America’s founders experienced in their respective ‘mother countries’. There are arguments to be made on both sides of the illegal immigration debate. However, Israel should not be hamstrung by the Holocaust and other dark episodes. In essence, this belief in the Israel’s uniqueness will only push the country to suffer indignities that ‘less special’ countries don’t. Thank you for your comment!

  3. I agree with the main gist of this article. While the actions being taken by Israel are in the main justifiable, the author glosses over the very unpleasant rhetoric coming from people in leadership, who should be countering not inflaming the understandable but not excusable wave of xenophobia: Yishai’s statement that most of the African refugees in Israel engage in crime is outrageous and statistically quite wrong.
    For Danon to use words like plague is unforgiveable given the history of that word used in inciting pogroms and genocide against Jews through the ages.

    However, I document in the link below my visit last year to the current detention camp Saharonim and the various gvt agencies trying to develop policy on this issue, as part of a group of UK lawyers studying this fraught problem and was very impressed at the attitude and practice of the gvt departments, civil servants and officers at the coal face, as distinct from the populist rhetoric of the politicians.

    • The question of immigration is always among the hardest and most sensitive for any open, democratic country to deal with. It is so tough to find a balance between wishing to deal fairly and humanely with desperate people whose stories evoke justifiable sympathy while at the same time protecting the equally justified needs and wishes of the legal, settled population.

      It is always regrettable when the terms of the debate leak over into racist or abusive language and worse when fringe elements of society use the issue to reinforce their warped views, but there are reasonable concerns about Israel’s ability to cope with this number of migrants, arriving over such a short space of time.

      I am proud of Israel’s astonishing record of not only tolerating, but actively encouraging migration – and not solely rich, skilled people from Western Europe, S Africa and the US, but also poor and relatively unskilled people from e.g. Ethiopia and Russia – and I believe that the government now has to decide on its position, state its policy clearly and enforce it firmly but humanely.

      The worst messes (and I see them daily at work) arise when policy is confused or contradictory and when there is no transparency or consistency in its application. THAT is what Israel must avoid.

  4. I agree that some of the rhetoric is overheated. Sadly, the sounds of bloviating politicians ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ is all too routine. A reasoned, rational response needs to be accompanied by reasoned, rational speachifying. Thank you for your response!

  5. “Academics, media elites, lawyers, human rights activists and other professionals have the sweet luxury of claiming the moral high ground on the illegal immigration debate: their livelihoods aren’t on the chopping block; their opportunities for advancement aren’t being increasingly scuttled.”

    This is often said as a way of attacking those who oppose draconian anti-immigrant laws. It’s a fallacy ad hominem, playing the man and not the ball. The problem with that argument is that draconian anti-immigrant laws tend to keep people undocumented but are not that effective at stopping the immigrant flow. As a result, you get a hidden population that still competes with the working classes, but doesn’t pay taxes and usually accepts even worse conditions than they would if their situation was regularized.

    Making sure that you don’t lead immigrants outside the law is actually the best way of protecting the rights of the workers. The EU is a good example. Spaniards used to go to Germany and Switzerland and competed with the local working classes. Because most of them were Gastarbeiter or even illegal, they usually accepted worse labour conditions. Freedom of movement and freedom to work made the situation much more controllable and more beneficial to both German and non-German workers.

    It’s not a policy without problems, but the draconian policies have often shown to be a lot of noise and little results.

    “does Israel have a special moral obligation, in light of Jewish history, to be sympathetic and “..welcoming of those fleeing persecution…”?”

    That’s for Israelis to decide. But if a country prides itself for its democratic values, international solidarity and openness (virtues that I do think Israel has shown many times), some people might think that it does have such moral obligation…

    • I see your ‘ad hominem’ and raise you a ‘straw man’. I never implied that the “Academics, media elites, lawyers, human rights activists and other professionals …” are either for or against ‘draconian’ anti-immigration measures. You seem to be fudging the point of the paragraph. Namely, the point is that Western guilt, a most pervasive affliction especially among the aforementioned groups, drives them to a passionate and wholly unreasonable advocacy of amnesty and other crack pot schemes. While supporting law breakers may assuage a lingering sense of shame regarding the collective sins of all white men ever, it makes for spotty public policy. Thanks for your comment!

      • Yes – as is here demonstrated. There are those who will support the rights of immigrants, be they legal, illegal, economic, political refugees or whatever – at all costs and who have compelling arguments for their view. There are also those who hate all forms of immigration (other than that involving the “right” sort of people in a controlled manner) and advocate draconian measures against anyone who attempts to circumvent the system, and they too have compelling arguments. Most people are somewhere in between.

        As I said earlier, the trick for any governement, Israel’s included, is to decide where they stand on this spectrum, develop a cogent set of rules and policies and apply them consistently.

    • The parallel between Spaniards seeking work in Germany and Sudanese seeking shelter in Israel is not very close. Spain and Germany have been closely tied, politically and economically (and to a lesser extent culturally), by the EU and its predecessors for decades. In that context, and that of the relative balance in economic power between the states (not to mention the balancing mechanisms included in the European treaties to prevent the residents of the poorer members flooding the richer ones), the European freedom of movement/employment rights make sense.

      Israel and Sudan etc share none of these ties. Israel just happens to be the closest “safe” country for these Africans in distress. There is also no balancing mechanism, and a far greater disparity between the countries in every way possible. A similar open door policy enjoyed in the EU is simply impractical.

  6. it remains to be seen if the country will develop a codified series of laws and regulations to handle the influx of African migrants.

    Gideon, certainly the people we met last year were very serious about studying other legal systems with a view to developing a viable system for Israel and had done a fair amount of work on this. They have to start from scratch.

    • I don’t want to read that either. Exaggerated and tenuous connections to facist ideology couched in antisemitic language. You won’t advance your position if you use source material like this.