The migration challenge

Israel's grappling with the challenges of integrating diverse populations into a state that defines itself as Jewish while being embroiled in an ongoing conflict with the Palestinian people.

AFRICAN man watches migrant demonstration 370 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger/Israel Post)
AFRICAN man watches migrant demonstration 370
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger/Israel Post)
Israel is by no means unique in its struggle with the growing problem of migrants, infiltrators and asylum- seekers. In Europe, waves of immigration, especially from countries conquered by the Europeans under 19th-century colonialism, have changed beyond recognition the societies of France, Britain, The Netherlands, Belgium, several Scandinavian countries and Italy. And this has sparked intense debate and the worrying rise of the radical Right.
In US states such as Texas and California, meanwhile, a Hispanic majority is expected by 2025. Arizona passed a controversial immigration law, presently being reviewed in the Supreme Court, that would give more powers to police to question and arrest suspected illegal aliens and to crack down on their employment. If Arizona’s law is okayed by the Supreme Court, Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah might adopt similar laws.
But in many fundamental ways Israel is different.
Most significantly, Israel’s situation is more precarious.
In addition to the tens of thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers from Eritrea, Sudan and elsewhere, Israel also hosts about 250,000 foreign workers, half of whom are illegal. Foreigners make up over 8 percent of the total workforce in Israel compared to 6% in OECD countries.
In addition, Israel has integrated some 350,000 non- Jewish immigrants from the Former Soviet Union and tens of thousands of Falash Mura from Ethiopia. Over 120,000 Palestinians have received Israeli citizenship under family reunion arrangements. Arab Israelis make up over 20% of the population. None of these populations identify with the goals and fate of the Jewish people, let alone see themselves as Jews.
Israel is grappling with the challenges of integrating all these diverse populations into a state that defines itself as Jewish while being embroiled in an ongoing conflict with the Palestinian people. Indeed, the “demographic threat” presented by the millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza is the major force driving broad support among Israelis for a two-state solution. The majority of Israelis wants Israel to remain democratic, but also Jewish – i.e. ruled by a Jewish majority.
Under the circumstances, it is only natural that Israelis are even more concerned about the threat posed by migrants and asylum-seekers than their American and European counterparts. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was voicing this concern when he declared at last week’s cabinet meeting that migrants and asylum- seekers are a “problem that currently stands at 60,000 [that] could grow to 600,000, and that threatens our existence as a Jewish and democratic state.”
However, there is absolutely no excuse for the sort of demagoguery witnessed at a rally in south Tel Aviv last week against the Sudanese and Eritrean migrants. Particularly loathsome were statements by MK Miri Regev (Likud) who called the migrants “a cancer.”
MK Michael Ben-Ari (National Union) and other lawmakers played on the understandable fears of about 1,000 south Tel Aviv residents who attended the rally.
These MKs’ irresponsible behavior certainly did not prevent, and probably encouraged, the outbreaks of violence against the highly visible Sudanese and Eritrean migrants during and after the rally.
Israel’s raison d’etre is not just to maintain a Jewish majority. The Holocaust proved beyond a doubt that the Jewish people could not rely on the compassion of the nations of the world and had to be allowed to return to its historic homeland where Jews could defend themselves militarily, culturally and, yes, demographically.
But because the State of Israel was created out of the lessons of the sufferings of the Jewish people, Israel has a special obligation to the foreigner, to the sojourner in a land that is not his. The Jew has a duty to remember his history, first in Egypt and later in other lands of exile.
With a sovereign state of its own, the Jewish people has the opportunity not only to ensure that a strong Jewish majority is maintained in a sovereign Jewish state, but also to serve as a moral example of how developed countries can and should host refugees and asylum- seekers, at least until it can be arranged, both practically and ethically, to have at least some of them repatriated to their respective countries.