Israel’s opposition leader Isaac Herzog raised a ruckus when he suggested that Israel should lead the way in accepting refugees fleeing Syria.
The reaction was well justified. After all, Israel is a small country and the dangers of accepting unlimited refugees is known to all.
However, the tone of those opposing the idea of granting asylum to refugees was as problematic as the idea to grant such asylum.
Those attentive enough could discern that the response of some Israelis was too similar to the response of various countries to the Jewish refugee crisis during the Holocaust.
“Zero refugees! Zero! Zero!” one could read in some comments to Herzog’s proposal, in statements all too reminiscent of one made in early 1945 by a Canadian immigration agent who replied, when asked how many Jews would be allowed in Canada after the war, “None is too many.”
In 1938, the Evian Conference was convened to try to find a solution for the increasing number of Jews fleeing Germany. Walter Mondale described the tragedy of this conference, which failed to find a proper solution, in these terms: “At stake at Evian were both human lives and the decency and self-respect of the civilized world. If each nation at Evian had agreed on that day to take in 17,000 Jews at once, every Jew in the Reich could have been saved. As one American observer wrote, ‘It is heartbreaking to think of the... desperate human beings... waiting in suspense for what happens at Evian. But the question they underline is not simply humanitarian...it is a test of civilization.’” Of course, the differences between the Holocaust and the current refugee crisis are striking. In the Holocaust, there was a small minority population that was threatened with extermination. While there are such populations today in Syria and Iraq, such as the Yazidis and the Christians, most refugees are simply people who were on the losing side of the war, some of them even being direct participants in the fighting and fleeing after they lose.
Yet, an instinctive response automatically refusing any refugees whatsoever is misguided. Rather, a framework must be built through which Israel can properly evaluate whether to agree to accept refugees.
When thinking of such a framework, we must first ask: What are the dangers of accepting such refugees? There are, in fact, two such dangers.
The first is demographic. Israel is the one and only nation-state of the Jewish people. The world is a better place when Israel exists, and there is a strong ethical and moral argument for the existence of a Jewish state in Israel. If the refugees accepted within Israel would change, even slightly, the demographic balance in Israel, which is already quite delicate, that could endanger the very nature of the State of Israel. Israel should not agree to such a scenario, which would signify the disappearance of the only Jewish state and would be a historical and moral disaster.
The second danger is much more clear and present. Many of the refugees are sworn enemies of Israel. More than they hate those who caused them to flee their own homes, they hate Israel.
They hate the Jews. “Israel is the ultimate enemy,” “Zionists are my enemy,” “Israel is a colonial power” – these are statements made by Syrian refugees in Italy this week. Instead of focusing on their plight, they keep focusing on their hatred of Israel. Even if we were to assume that most refugees are friendly to Israel (a false assumption), those who aren’t could become a serious security threat if allowed to enter Israel’s borders.
These two dangers make it increasingly clear that Herzog’s naive suggestion that we should simply accept all refugees was not only misguided but a further sign that Herzog is not fit to be the leader of the State of Israel.
Still, the response of those who automatically reject calls for help without a more nuanced approach is also not fit for the State of Israel, with its unique history. At least in theory, if we could be 100 percent sure that the refugees accepted into Israel are not security threats but, rather, helpless refugees who would be grateful to Israel for accepting them, we should take in a limited number of them. This number should be as big as possible, but small enough not to affect the demographic nature of Israel.
Should this number be five, 500, 5,000 or 50,000? It is unclear. Demographers would have a say and policy-makers would argue as to the exact number.
We are left with the security argument.
On this argument, we must defer to the decisions of policy-makers and security analysts, who have much more information than we do about every person requesting refugee status. One thing must be clear: the onus of proof must be on the refugee. If we are not absolutely certain before giving him security clearance, then we should not accept him into the borders of Israel.
Here, too, however, a clear initial “no” without further examination would be misguided.
Between Herzog’s delusional suggestion and the popular outrage against it, one person was able to properly define the correct framework for deciding whether to accept refugees: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu said in a press conference: “Israel is not indifferent to the human tragedy of the refugees from Syria and Africa. We have already devotedly cared for approximately 1,000 wounded people from the fighting in Syria and we have helped them to rehabilitate their lives,” thus acknowledging the problem and expressing pride at Israel’s participation in finding a solution.
“But Israel is a small country, a very small country, that lacks demographic and geographic depth,” Netanyahu continued. “Therefore, we must control our borders, against both illegal migrants and terrorism.”
Thus he expressed the need to be extremely careful and to take into account the two main dangers when accepting refugees – demography and security.
This type of nuanced and balanced leadership is exactly what a country with a situation as complex as Israel needs.
Six months after the elections, we must once again conclude that Israel is lucky to have Netanyahu and not Herzog as prime minister. The writer is an attorney and a former legislative adviser to the Knesset’s coalition chairman; he previously served in a legal capacity at the Foreign Ministry. He is a graduate of McGill University Law School and Hebrew University’s master’s program in public policy.