Refugees/asylum seekers: Begin vs Netanyahu

Would Menachem Begin have supported Prime Minister Netanyahu's hard line on asylum seekers?

September 5, 2017 22:20
Refugees/asylum seekers: Begin vs Netanyahu

An African asylum seeker in Tel Aviv. ‘Most of Israel’s approximately 40,000 African asylum seekers chose Israel as their destination because that they knew that Israel was ademocracy and believed Israel would accept them because the Jewish People had gone through similar experiences.’. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Once again, the Likud-led coalition government, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, defiantly responded to a decision of the Supreme Court. On August 21, the court denied the state the right to deport African asylum seekers against their will.

The diverse reasons for rejecting the court’s decision included: a) defining democracy as majority rule and attacking the courts for overriding the rule of the people: b) arguing that the needs of the Jewish majority trumped individual and minority rights; and c) insisting that the “national camp” protected Israel against those threatening Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.

Visiting the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv and speaking to a select group of residents, Prime Minister Netanyahu vowed to return south Tel Aviv to Israelis while insisting that African asylum seekers were not refugees but infiltrators looking for work.

In criticizing the decision of the court, Justice Minister Ayalet Shaked claimed that the justice system was not giving sufficient consideration to Zionism and the country’s Jewish majority: “When we’re talking about infiltrators from Africa who have settled in south Tel Aviv and established a city within a city, pushing out the residents of the neighborhoods, the response of the judicial system in Israel is to strike down again and again the law that seeks to deal with the matter.”

Shaked then promised to draft legislation that would allow the state to deport infiltrators against their will.

If Menachem Begin were alive and head of a Likud government, would he agree with the Netanyahu government’s definitions of democracy, the role of courts, and policies concerning African asylum seekers? If we look at Begin’s philosophy and his policies during his tenure as prime minister (1977-1983), one could argue that he would be staunchly opposed to the current government’s approach to Zionism, democracy and African asylum seekers.

Like Jabotinsky, Begin viewed democracy as more than just majority rule and avidly defended freedom of expression, individual and minority rights, and equality for all citizens, including Israel’s Arab minority.

He very much aware of the dangers of unlimited majority rule. In 1952, he wrote: “We was have learned that an elected parliamentary majority can be an instrument for their tyranny.” Begin rejected the concept that it is the state that confers rights and that the state has the right to rescind them and stressed the importance of a constitution that would insure civil and individual liberties.

Begin believed in the rule of law and the need for the judiciary to be completely autonomous. When the High Court in 1979 ruled the Elon Moreh settlement to be illegal because it was founded on land belonging to Palestinians, prime minister Begin rejected the demands of many in his cabinet to ignore the decision. Begin insisted that once the courts made their decision, the government was obliged to honor and carry out those decisions.

When Israel’s Declaration of Independence was proclaimed on May 14, 1948, Begin immediately pledged his support to the provisional government headed by David Ben-Gurion. His speech was in part reproduced in The Revolt (1951), which was Begin’s personal account of his and the Irgun’s role in the battle for independence.

The speech also listed the elements needed to implement Zionist values rooted in the Bible and Jewish history and included a reference to treatment of foreigners:

“And within our Homeland: justice must be the supreme ruler over all rulers....There must be no man within our country – be he citizen or foreigner – compelled to go hungry, to want a roof over his head or to lack elementary education. ‘Remember ye were strangers in the land of Egypt’ – this supreme rule must continually light our way in our relations with the strangers within our gates.”

After becoming prime minister in May 1977, Begin’s first official act was to give orders to rescue 66 Vietnamese “boat people” languishing on a ship in the South China Sea after being denied asylum.

Begin then invited them to come to Israel where he offered them citizenship.

In making this decision, Begin evoked the memory of the Jewish refugees on the Saint Louis who were denied asylum, and the failure of the 1938 Evian Conference to mobilize support for taking in Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.

Most of Israel’s approximately 40,000 African asylum seekers chose Israel as their destination because that they knew that Israel was a democracy and believed Israel would accept them because the Jewish People had gone through similar experiences.

Begin would have understood that the vast majority of African asylum seekers in Israel were in fact refugees. He would have considered their claims and learned about the conditions in their countries which caused them to flee. He would not have called them “ïnfiltrators” to justify harsh treatment and efforts to deport them because he knew this term applied only to Palestinians and hostile Arabs from enemy countries seeking to enter Israel.

As prime minister Begin would have likely granted collective refugee status to the 7,900 asylum seekers from Sudan and the nearly 30,000 asylum seekers from Eritrea who make up more than 90% of asylum seekers in Israel. He would not have closed his eyes to the fact that Sudan is still ruled by a brutal fascist Islamist regime that still engages in ethnic cleansing of Sudan’s non-Arab Muslim populations.

Begin also would have discovered that asylum seekers had fled from Eritrea to escape the unlimited involuntary servitude imposed in the name of national service, a condition resembling that of the enslaved children of Israel in Pharaonic Egypt.

Likud and the “National Camp” are now controlled by leaders who do not share Begin’s liberal Zionist vision which included compassion for non-Jewish asylum seekers.

With national elections on the horizon, Israel’s citizens will be deciding whether they want Israel to continue the increasingly nationalist and authoritarian policies of the current government coalition or return to Jewish democratic values held by Zionists like Begin and inspired by Jewish democratic rooted in the Bible and the Hebrew prophets. The fate of Israel and certainly the African asylum seekers, depends on that decision.

The author is a Jerusalem-based political scientist and consultant on democracy and development issues in Africa.

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