To honor thy neighbor

What Israel can do for Syrian refugees – and what it cannot

Four-year-old Rashida from Kobani, Syria, part of a new group of more than a thousand immigrants, sleeps as they wait at border line of Macedonia and Greece to enter into Macedonia (photo credit: REUTERS)
Four-year-old Rashida from Kobani, Syria, part of a new group of more than a thousand immigrants, sleeps as they wait at border line of Macedonia and Greece to enter into Macedonia
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As the Syrian refugee crisis has dominated headlines across the world this week, there have been numerous calls, both from inside Israel and from Diaspora communities, for the Israeli government to take in thousands of Syrian refugees.
The plight of the Syrian refugees is beyond heartbreaking.
The situation is deplorable beyond expression. But the calls for Israel to take in refugees are folly. This is not because we are callous to the plight of Syrian families stranded by war and a murderous regime, but because the Jewish state simply cannot afford to do so.
Those who have called for Israel to absorb refugees, foremost among them Labor Party chairman and Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, argue that Israel will benefit from absorbing Syrian refugees in a myriad of ways.
Firstly, they argue that Israel has a moral duty to help those in need. They invoke the biblical credo “Help thy neighbor,” and conjure up images of the plight of Jews in Europe 70 years ago. The moral duties of the Jewish state are unquestionable, and this argument would be very convincing – if not for the many potential pitfalls.
One such pitfall refutes the dubious claim that by performing this good deed of humanitarianism, Israel would be commended and recognized throughout the world, that Europe and even some of the moderate Arab states will begin to see Israel in a different, more appealing light. Thus, absorbing refugees would be s strategic victory for Israel. But this is the epitome of naïveté. While it is very conceivable that the world would recognize and applaud an Israeli gesture to aid Syrian refugees, the idea that the media would devote more than one news cycle to it is preposterous. In the next war with Hamas or Hezbollah - will anyone remember that Israel gallantly accepted Syrian refugee families in September of 2015? Absolutely not. There is a widespread culture of collective amnesia about Israel’s commendable record of humanitarianism - even when it was one of the first to send aid halfway across the world, to Haiti, during its disastrous earthquake, even when it sent supplies to Turkey (a country with whom it has a bitter feud and no diplomatic relations) during a mudslide, and the like. But the world does not care to remember.
Yet, the most important reason Israel cannot acquiesce to calls for aiding Syrian refugees is Israel’s “demographic threat,” which refers to the erosion of Israel’s majority Jewish population it rejects a Palestinian state and annexes the West Bank.
If Israel gives citizenship to every Palestinian in the West Bank, it will eventually cease to be the nation-state of the Jewish people, and transform into a bi-national Jewish-Arab state, and eventually an Arab state. Say goodbye to Hatikvah. Say goodbye to the blue and white Star of David flag. Unfortunately, absorbing any amount of Syrian refugees will only increase this demographic threat.
Combating this threat is not an exhibition of racism or a pursuit of ethnic purity – it is about preserving the Zionist dream of a democratic Jewish nation-state that respects national minorities. But admitting Syrian refugees, none of which are Jewish, would be antithetical to this.
Instead of endlessly debating the impossible idea of refugee absorption, we must consider other avenues for Israel to fulfill its moral duty and help ease the burden of the crisis.
One such avenue should be a joint effort on the part of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, in which the Palestinians would agree to absorb a number of Syrian refugees, with Israel providing funding for the initiative and its necessary infrastructure, such as housing and basic services.
Provided the project goes well, it is conceivable that it could even open the door for the resumption of peace negotiations.
While the Syrian crisis has proved to be one of the most difficult challenges for world leaders this century, it cannot be solved by Europe alone. The Arab world has a duty to offer refuge to its Syrian brethren, who have suffered far too much at the hand of a murderous despot and an evil terrorist group.
The United States has a duty to fulfill its role as a beacon of hope and the provider of safe harbor for downtrodden peoples.
Israel, too, has a moral duty that it must exercise in order to help Syrian refugees - but one thing it cannot do, is offer them a home.
The writer is a student of International Relations and Israel Studies at American University in Washington, DC.