Magazine

The foreigners among us

It’s getting downright ugly out there. It’s bad enough that people have been infiltrating our borders for decades looking to kill and maim us, many say.

Foreigners
Photo by: Reuters
It’s getting downright ugly out there.

It’s bad enough that people have been infiltrating our borders for decades looking to kill and maim us, many say. Now they’re threatening to take away our jobs! To bring mayhem to our streets and dishonor to our women! To dilute our very identity! When I hear these complaints about African migrants, I tend to slough them off as the xenophobic rants of a populace that often looks down on the “other” (especially the rant about bringing dishonor to our women, a staple of the Kahane crowd, which seems to have taken many of its racist cues from America’s Jim Crow south). But something is definitely going on out there, and it’s not good for us no matter which way we slice it.

IN THE LATE 1970s, an Israeli cargo ship in Southeast Asian waters took aboard a boatload of waterlogged Vietnamese. They were part of a phenomenon known back then as “boatpeople” – individuals and families who escaped the communist rule of postwar Vietnam in vessels that were barely seaworthy to begin with, and grossly overcrowded.

When the cargo ship docked in Israel, the authorities decided the boatpeople could stay and even become citizens. They were only 66 in number – a drop in the ocean, to make the metaphor complete – and even when several hundred more of these refugees were allowed in it was no big deal. In fact, it scored the country a few public relations points, making the whole enterprise more than worth it.

Fast-forward three decades. Instead of high seas halfway around the world, the meeting point between Israel and foreigners seeking haven is now the unsealed border with Egypt’s Sinai, a mere three-hour drive from Tel Aviv.

International organizations such as the UN define some of these foreigners as refugees, meaning individuals who have been displaced by war or other forms of upheaval, or asylum-seekers, meaning those who, if they return, face personal danger at the hands of authorities. Having signed international pacts and conventions, Israel knows that those so defined cannot be turned away.

But the vast majority of these foreigners are simply economic migrants. It is a set of rigged and deeply entrenched systems of economic and political hierarchies that drives these people to seek a better life in the closest available entity that can offer it.

We Israelis may justifiably gripe about a few wealthy families and cartels that control our economy, but to an African who aspires to little more than a roof, basic foodstuffs and a bit of healthcare for himself and his family, and for whom the term “upward mobility” means little more than the trudge up the next in a long line of hills, this country of ours is El Dorado. The “closest available entity” is us.

It is estimated that there are many tens of thousands of African economic migrants already in the country, with 2,000 to 3,000 more entering each month. This does not include those we call “foreign workers,” people who legally enter the country, usually from places like Thailand, the Philippines and China, as part of package deals to fill labor demands in employment fields we Israelis look down upon. Of course, many foreign workers – probably many thousands of them – overstay their visas and disappear into the country’s societal netherworld and can therefore in effect be lumped in with the African economic migrants in that they are here illegally.

No matter who these people are or what they’re looking for, to Israeli authorities the Africans who enter from the Sinai are “infiltrators,” the same word used through the decades almost solely for Arab terrorists who slipped across borders to slaughter and die as spectacularly as possible in order to keep their grievances on the front page. Back in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the word “infiltrator” evoked a deep sense of dread. Now, primarily because of the numbers involved, it evokes mostly loathing.

I’VE BEEN for the most part immune. I don’t live in any of the cities that so far have been most affected, like Tel Aviv, Ashdod, Eilat or (strangely enough) Arad. I haven’t had to deal with next-door neighbors who rent out apartments to dozens of migrants sleeping 10 to a room, or with local greenswards where people without jobs loll about passing time, often with bottles of cheap whiskey or wine to make it go faster, who urinate on sidewalks and harass passersby for spare change.

None of the thefts or recent high-profile rapes and assaults allegedly perpetrated by illegals have directly affected me. So when angry and frightened locals take the law into their own hands by throwing firebombs and ganging up on individual migrants, my first reaction is, “What primitives; what racists.

Don’t they know that the vast majority of these people are decent human beings just looking to better themselves?” But on second glance I realize that the locals populate the lower socioeconomic deciles. They often resent their social standing as it is. We can be sure they resent it even more when the rug that society sweeps its problems under is their own.

The migrants will keep coming as long as their societies fail to change, as long as our economy and way of life twinkle enticingly and as long as the Sinai Beduin understand that human smuggling is a fine way to enrich themselves. They will keep coming as long as our borders remain porous, as long as our policies on illegals remain half-baked, and as long as so many of us are good people of conscience who know that tikkun olam, the Jewish notion of repairing the world, extends beyond just fellow Jews. The problem is, when it comes time to clean up the mess we can be sure we’ll do it in a way that reinforces the world’s mistaken perception of us as experts in “ethnic cleansing.”

Perhaps calling the migrants “infiltrators,” with all the negative connotations, is a good thing, because while the human being deep inside every one of us can surely feel for them, what we have now and the way we’re coping with it just doesn’t work, and we must keep this at the forefront of our awareness.

So yes, it’s getting quite ugly out there. And if we don’t do something to put an end to the migration, or at least to the way we handle it, things will be getting a lot uglier.


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