The last few years have seen a remarkable increase in what was previously a comparatively marginal phenomenon: illegal immigrants from outside the region, with no connection to the Jewish people, seeking to live here for purely economic reasons.
The Knesset and the government have been actively debating the best way to deal with the issue. There seems to be a general consensus that the phenomenon needs to be kept under control without treating the immigrants in a callous fashion.
There are many reasons given for opposition to the immigrants. One is that they compete with local residents for jobs, thereby increasing native unemployment and driving down wages. While there is a legitimate debate on this topic, I remain skeptical that this threat is meaningful.
A distinct economic objection is that immigrants become a strain on the social-welfare system. This concern also seems exaggerated to me. Most immigrants are able-bodied people who are anxious to earn money and are not eligible for most government programs. I am personally inclined to think that the immigrants bring more economic benefit than harm.
A distinct concern is that immigrants are disproportionately involved in criminal activity. I haven't seen any real evidence for this concern either.
The main challenge created by immigration is the social one. In countries where social solidarity is based primarily on ethnic identity, absorbing outsiders is a real threat. A prime example is Japan.
Japan is one of the world's wealthiest countries and suffers from an acute labor shortage due to its low birth rate. So we might expect it to be a magnet for immigration. But Japan is also a country where nationality and ethnicity are closely identified, and immigration to Japan has remained very low and very difficult.
We need to acknowledge that Israel probably has the greatest identification of nationality and ethnicity/religion of any country in the world. It was founded as a country for people who didn't live here, and through the Law of Return continues to define itself in this way to a large extent.
There is also a related political problem. Despite a wide divergence of political views in Israel, there is a very broad consensus that our little Jewish state cannot absorb large number of Palestinian Arab refugees. Opening our doors to large numbers of other refugees could endanger the international understanding for that policy. From that point of view, being the Jewish state gives us a reason to be particularly strict about admitting non-Jewish immigrants.
But there is another aspect to the Jewish question. Jewish history and tradition cultivate sympathy for the refugee. Our national history, from the sojourn of Abraham in Egypt, through the subsequent exiles in Egypt, Babylonia and ultimately the worldwide Diaspora, is a history of seeking refuge.
Jews brought economic blessing with them wherever they went but still had to endure residence restrictions, ghettoization, violence and repeated expulsions. So we have an understandable tendency to identify with the refugee and his plight.
And the tendency is not only emotional; it is also a recurring theme in the Torah. The Torah commands not to exploit the ger (stranger or refugee); not to oppress him; to give him status comparable to the citizen; to love him. All of these are motivated by the reminder that "you were refugees in the land of Egypt." Our religion explicitly instructs us to make empathy the lesson of our own exile. This sympathy plays a prominent role in the public debate over the refugees' fate in Israel.
The dichotomy between the two Jewish faces of Israel's refugee problem is not necessarily irreconcilable. Our experience as refugees over thousands of years teaches us to treat other refugees humanely. Our status as a small, embattled, ethnically homogeneous country teaches us to limit the number of refugees we take in.
The best way to reconcile the two would seem to be taking stern measures to keep refugees out, just as we take stern measures to keep out terrorists, but to avoid draconian treatment of those who are here.
Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).