Let the children stay!

A different perspective: Has the time come for Binyamin Netanyahu to step in and stop the expulsion of native-born Hebrew-speaking children?

Children playing at a nursery 311  (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Children playing at a nursery 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Israel soon will have the world’s biggest detention center for illegal migrant workers. The new facility will have room for 12,000 detainees.
It will enable the law enforcement authorities to lock them up without trial for up to three years instead of 60 days, which has been the limit until now.
Meanwhile, the special law-enforcement unit that arbitrarily rounds up men, women and children whose presence here is deemed demographically dangerous by Interior Minister Eli Yishai and his narrow- minded Shas party will press on with its coldhearted operations.
One of the most despicable of these was the recent seizure of a little girl who was on her way to a birthday celebration in Tel Aviv. She was taken off the sidewalk and straight to the holding area for prospective juvenile deportees at Ben-Gurion Airport.
The reason: Her mother’s work visa expired long ago and therefore her (the child’s) stay was no longer permissible.
Totally disregarded and legally irrelevant was the fact that this girl, like many other children in her category, was born in Israel, spoke Hebrew like a Sabra, attended a local school, had many Israeli friends her age and never was in the Philippines, her parents’ country of origin.
Cases like hers do not square with the popular slogan recited by Israeli Jews that they are “the merciful who are the descendants of the merciful” – in Hebrew: “Rahmanim B’nai Rahmanim.”
It is hard to believe that a nation that experienced mass expulsions during the 2,000 years of its Diaspora and whose surviving remnant was denied entry into the biblical Land of Israel by the British authorities who ruled Palestine from 1917 to 1948, most of that period on the basis of a League of Nations mandate to foster the establishment of a Jewish national home here, could expel economic refugees and their offspring.
The latest official figures put the number of illegal migrants who came from Africa – mainly Eritrea and Sudan – in the past three years at 45,000.
Others in that category, including Filipinos as well as Eastern Europeans, increase the total to approximately 75,000.
It is hard to understand what kind of threat they pose to Israel’s nearly six million Jews. Intermarriage is not their goal nor do they have any political aspirations that would change the status quo. Nor are these impoverished individuals likely to dominate any of the country’s economic sectors. The only conceivable rationale is outright racial or ethnic prejudice – an attitude that cannot be reconciled with or explained by the Jewish people’s historical experience.
Anyone with even a small degree of social sensitivity (one of the qualities that Interior Minister Yishai and his hard-hearted religionists evidently lack) can see nothing justifiable in the official crackdown against the illegal migrants.
In actual fact, their offspring quickly adjust to Israeli culture and norms, speak Hebrew like natives (which many of them are), learn Hebrew poetry and songs in the state schools which they attend and prove that Israel can be a very good place to live, especially when it is compared to the economically depressed and politically unstable countries from which their parents came.
Besides, Israel can reduce the number of illegal entries or stop them entirely by completing an antipersonnel fence along the Egyptian border. This project is several years behind schedule, partly due to Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s failure to give it high priority and the requisite financing. At the same time, the passport controllers and the officials who supervise them at Ben-Gurion Airport should be much more aware that those who come here from the Third World may intend to remain indefinitely and that consequently there should be a follow-up by Interior Ministry officials before their entry visas expire. The time frame specified should be enforced promptly rather than being allowed to lapse for a prolonged period.
Well-meaning Zionists who campaigned for the establishment of a the Jewish state expected it to set an example to the rest of the world insofar as its treatment of non-Jewish refugees would be concerned.
Their assumption was that Israel would not emulate the many other countries that barred entry to Jews who needed refuge from their persecutors or a haven in which they could lead normal lives.
How can an Israeli who takes pride and pleasure from the Hebrew culture that prevails here not enjoy hearing children from Africa, the Far East and Eastern Europe recite the poetry of Chaim Nahman Bialik or sing the songs of Naomi Shemer? How can Israelis who welcomed and advocated the revival of Hebrew after two millennia during which it was confined to synagogues and houses of study not hail its use as a modern language spoken, written and understood by non-Jews as well as Jews, not take pleasure in its use by the children of non-Jewish migrants? It takes an unbelievable degree of ethno-centrism and ersatz religiosity to ignore these developments.
The time has come for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to step in and stop the expulsion of native-born Hebrew-speaking children who are culturally identical to their Jewish counterparts, and grant them automatic citizenship by dint of their place of birth (Israel) as is done in the United States in similar cases. Israel’s demographics will hardly be affected by such an enlightened policy. Nor will Israel’s excessive rhetorical emphasis on its status as a Jewish and democratic state be undermined.
If the inclusion of these children in Israel’s demographic mix is a source of concern to dubious Zionists like Yishai and his fellow-believers, let them make a realistic effort to attract more Jews to come here from North American and Western Europe and thereby increase the Jewish majority. That is a much more preferable way to ensure that Israel will be the kind of state its enlightened citizens and their supporters abroad want it to be, and to terminate the arbitrary and shameful expulsion of innocent children whose only “crime” is that their parents are citizens of foreign countries (all of which belong to the Third World) and dared to remain here illegally.

The writer is a veteran foreign correspondent.