(photo credit: 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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.