Jewish loyalties

Israeli policy should be carefully balanced with fealty to our foundational mandate as a state with a clear Jewish majority.

December 14, 2010 23:17
3 minute read.
African Refugees

African Refugees 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

On Monday evening, 150 Sudanese migrants were flown from Ben-Gurion Airport to an undisclosed third country en route to repatriation in southern Sudan. William Tall, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ representative to Israel, said that the UN had vetted all the deportees, verifying that Israel had not coerced any of them and that all had volunteered to return to their homeland.

We applaud this move as a partial solution to an explosion of asylum-seekers, refugees and illegal migrants, primarily from African states, whose numbers have reached upward of 30,000 in just a few years.

Israel, which faces numerous other challenges that endanger its Jewish majority – family reunification of about 130,000 Palestinians since the signing of the Oslo Accords, and the migration of about 250,000 foreign workers, not to mention a large Arab minority and an unresolved Palestinian conflict – simply cannot be expected to absorb all of these individuals.

Nevertheless, as a signatory of the International Convention on the Status of Refugees, Israel is loyal to the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits returning refugees and asylum-seekers to their country of origin if they might suffer persecution there on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality or political activities.

Many of those who agreed to return to Sudan had managed to find employment in Israel and had saved enough, together with a small stipend of between $400 and $500 provided by Israel, to make a new start.

Another factor enabling their return is the approaching referendum on southern Sudan’s independence, slated for January 9. All of the deportees, who were routed through an unknown third country to hide the fact that they had sought refuge in Israel, will settle in southern Sudan, with its predominantly Christian and animist populations, as opposed to the predominantly Arab and Muslim North. A major conflict is not expected to break out over the split, though with most of Sudan’s oil located in the South, it is hard to believe the North with simply let it go. Some Sudanese migrants in Israel and elsewhere are now evidently willing to take the chance.

Many might also have been influenced by Israel’s decision two weeks ago to prohibit employment of asylum-seekers while their status is uncertain. This prohibition is set to go into effect after a huge detention center is built in the Negev where the state can provide the migrants with food, shelter and medical treatment. Until then, Israel does not have the legal or moral right to forbid them to work.

Still, as we have already warned, along with the barrier being built along the Egyptian border, the government should take steps to build additional detention centers, since the 10,000-person capacity of the one being planned is far from adequate to handle the present migrant population, let alone the estimated 1,200 who arrive monthly.

ISRAEL IS not the only Western nation coping with an unprecedented wave of migration from various “weak states” to countries that offer stability and economic opportunities. New Zealand stations officials at foreign airports to prevent improperly documented persons from reaching the country. The UK has legislated criminal sanctions against persons who land at its airports without documents. Austria refers asylum-seekers on its borders to the third country from which they arrived. Italy uses marine police patrols to prevent boats carrying Libyan asylum-seekers from reaching its shores. Australia established in law in 2005 that a cluster of islands to the north of the country lie outside “Australia’s migration zone.”

However, while Israel, like other countries, has the right to decide who may and who may not enter its borders, it also has a unique moral legacy, reborn as it was in the shadow of the Holocaust.

Menachem Begin understood this when in 1979, as prime minister, he called to absorb about 100 Vietnamese refugees, stating, “It is a natural thing for us to grant asylum in our country because such is the humane Jewish tradition.”

This same sentiment guided Israeli policy in 1993 when Bosnian refugees received asylum here; in 1999 when ethnic Albanians fleeing Kosovo were granted entry; and in 2008 when prime minister Ehud Olmert gave temporary status to 600 Darfur refugees.

Israeli policy should continue to be informed by this spirit, carefully balanced with fealty to our foundational mandate as a state with a clear Jewish majority that realizes the self-determination of the Jewish people.

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