By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
Less than 20 000 Jews came on aliyah last year, mostly from Europe and the United States. Some 70 000 illegal immigrants are said to be currently in Israel, mostly from Africa. Whereas the Jewish Agency for Israel through its various affiliates is making valiant efforts to bring more Jews to Israel, the Government of Israel is trying hard to get rid of the Africans who’re here now and to prevent others from entering.
The reasons for the small number of Jewish immigrants from the West and the relatively large number of illegal – obviously non-Jewish – immigrants from Africa are very similar: economics. Jews in the Diaspora are staying put because they’re said to be comfortable there – not only culturally but also financially – and Africans from Eritrea, Sudan and other countries want to come to Israel to improve their economic lot in life.
The early pioneers who built Israel for ideological, not economic, reasons looked down on the Jews who didn’t join them. The Holocaust and the continued evidence of anti-Semitism, especially in Europe, are seen as a vindication of the stance of the builders of the Jewish state. To this very day, anti-Semitic outbursts abroad get a lot of coverage in the Israeli media as an argument, sometimes explicit and often implied, why a Jewish state is essential for the survival of the Jewish people.
Because the state has to be there for Jews, the influx of non-Jews is viewed by most Israelis with great discomfort and by some with outright hostility. International conventions about refugees and asylum seekers legally inhibit expulsion as some in the government may have wanted it, and the experience of hapless Jewish refugees during the Holocaust morally inhibits or should inhibit Jews from expelling the Africans, especially as there’s evidence that they’ll be severely punished if they go home.
That’s the dilemma that Israel is facing at present. Even if the government would find a way of absorbing those who’ve already come, there’s the fear that lenient treatment will encourage untold others to join them. Whereas a liberal approach was possible in the early days of countries that depended on immigration – the United States, Canada, Australia and others – even there restrictions were placed, including on Jews fleeing the Holocaust. (“None is too many” has become a Canadian byword.) Restrictions against others are still in force.
To this very day, many countries with infinitely greater resources than Israel are restricting immigration, especially from Eastern Europe and specifically the Roma who in many ways have taken the place of Jews in the world. Israelis rightly say that the citizens of these countries should put their own house in order before turning to or on Israel.
Though there’re many legitimate ways in which the Government of Israel is being criticized for the way it’s dealing with immigrants, I’ve seen few sensible answers that both guarantee the freedom of the Africans who’ve come here and prevent a further influx from elements that might destabilize the country.
As a Jew I find it unbearable to see today’s “Jews” being treated the way we were treated. As a Zionist, I find it unthinkable that Israel not be a Jewish state. I, therefore, crave for suggestions that grant the current immigrants full rights without tampering with either justice or morality, or in any way constituting a threat to the State of Israel. As soon as I find hints to that effect, I’ll be extremely happy to share them.