Over the last few weeks, a crisis is brewing in Israel, the likes of which we have not experienced in many years.
Dozens of spontaneously organized groups of citizens from a wide range of sectors of society, communities, and professional circles are calling on the government of Israel to cancel the plan to expel immigrants from Sudan and Eritrea to other African countries. Among these groups are educators, leading businesspeople, high-ranking retired IDF officers, former diplomats, writers, artists, rabbis and clergy, El Al pilots, psychologists, Holocaust survivors, and many others.
Government officials are trying to claim (in a way that sounds like a broken record) that left-wing NGOs and foundations are behind these organizations. However, anyone who is honestly analyzing this movement understands clearly that without a guiding hand, significantly large elements of the Israeli public feel that the plan goes against core values of the nation of the Jewish people, and of a democracy.
Analysis of the many position papers, petitions and declarations that have been publicized on the issue shows that the people who oppose the government’s plan believe in the right of a sovereign nation to set a carefully thought-out immigration policy, and to prevent illegal immigration. Furthermore, they stress the responsibility of the government to first deal with the conditions of its existing citizens and residents.
Many of these statements take into account as well the unique aspects of the challenge in dealing with the immigrants, which should not be ignored. This includes issues like the land border between Israel and Africa and the issues of internal security and border security that Israel must deal with; continued absorption of olim each year and the deep economic and social gaps that exist in Israeli society; and more.
With that said, all the statements and position papers remind us that Israel’s dealings with the challenge of immigration from Africa has two additional unique characteristics that must not be ignored.
First of all, the moral responsibility of Israeli society is to heed the lessons from our Jewish historical experiences over generations, and to follow the international agreements that deal with appropriate policies toward refugees and asylum-seekers. These policies were defined and instituted to a great degree because of the disaster that our people experienced in the 1930s and 1940s.
The second unique aspect of our dealing with the issue relates to the general sensitivity of Jewish tradition to the “stranger” living in our midst, and toward the refugee or escaped slave who is fleeing from those who enslaved them.
While none of the position statements are ignoring Israel’s right to have a carefully reasoned immigration policy that takes Israel’s special needs into account, they are still stressing the requirement that the government follow international treaties and guidelines, and act according to Jewish tradition.
IT IS NATURAL that in many cases the statements and demonstrations include petitions and signs that carry strong emotional and sentimental rhetoric.
Nonetheless, when all the facts are taken into account, it is clear that the growing public opposition to the government plan is based on firm principles.
The most important of these principles is that the government plan calls for expulsion of immigrants from Sudan and other African nations who did not apply for political asylum status before the end of 2017. The meaning of this decision is completely clear. Among the people expelled from Israel will be many whose claim for refugee status will never be examined by the government. Therefore, the government’s claim that it will not expel asylum-seekers is far from the truth.
To this we must add the disturbing fact that the government failed in its examination of asylum requests of immigrants from Eritrea and Sudan that did apply prior to the end of 2017. The percentage of requests that were examined is significantly lower than the averages throughout the democratic world, and the requests approved after they were examined are extremely negligible compared to other democratic nations.
An additional fact that proves that the public sentiment in opposition to the government’s plan is not mistaken, is the complete lack of clarity regarding the agreements signed with the African nations meant to absorb the immigrants expelled from Israel. These agreements have not been presented to the public and the dealings concerning them have been completely without transparency. Furthermore, according to media reports, the African nations, and Rwanda in particular, are not willing to receive immigrants or asylum-seekers who have been forcibly expelled.
Were this not enough, it is clear that the public knows that the economy over the last 20 years leans on the immigrants. One does not have to be an expert on economics or the workforce to understand this. Every Israeli who goes to a restaurant or vacation in a hotel meets immigrants from Sudan and Eritrea. Every morning Israelis see these immigrants working for the municipalities in cleaning sidewalks and roads. Every day many Israelis give tips to the immigrants who deliver their food from the nearby supermarket.
At the same time that the government is discussing plans to expel these immigrants to Rwanda or Uganda, it is enabling workers from other countries to enter Israel. This “revolving door” policy primarily serves the interests of intermediaries and brokers, and deepens the social and economic hardships caused by the lack of a clear and systematic long-term immigration policy.
FINALLY, THE majority of the public knows that while over the years the immigrants have become part of the reality of life in Israel, the government has done nothing concrete to strengthen the neighborhoods that have been affected, especially in south Tel Aviv. Government ministers often make statements about the need to relieve the suffering of the residents of these neighborhoods, but examination of the situation reveals that aside from rhetoric blaming the immigrants and asylum-seekers, very little has been accomplished to help these neighborhoods cope with the challenge.
These facts have not been answered intelligently by the government ministers who defend the expulsion plan, proving that Israel is not fulfilling its basic responsibility in regard to immigrants and asylum-seekers from Sudan and Eritrea and is ignoring its responsibilities to the neighborhoods in which they live.
Without accepting these two responsibilities, the government’s plan to expel the immigrants to Rwanda and Uganda is not appropriate, not fair, and most importantly, goes against Israel’s core values as a Jewish and democratic nation.
The growing public voice opposing the government’s plan is a badge of honor for the Israeli public in its internalization of Jewish and democratic values in a period of time when the tension between these values in the country’s public discourse is growing. Cancellation of the government plan and creation of a systematic and balanced immigration policy will be an important step in Israel’s development as a Jewish and democratic nation – way more than the laws dealing with mini-markets on Shabbat.
This would be an important gift that the public will bestow to the nation as we enter our 70th year of independence and sovereignty.The author is president and CEO of the IMPJ – The Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism.
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