The African Question by William Mehlman



The division over Israel’s plan, beginning in April, to gradually relocate a major portion of the 38,000 African economic migrants who infiltrated a porous Sinai border until it was walled off in 2012, has created an effluence of demagoguery, half-truths, distorted pieties and incendiary analogies reminiscent, however faintly, of the post-Rabin abandonment of civil discourse.

With high-pitched opponents of the decision accusing everybody else of forgetting that ”refugeedom is in our DNA and seeking asylum in our blood” and of casting aside “the history of the Jewish people from the Exodus to the Holocaust,” one hardly knows where to begin undoing this knot. Perhaps with the half truths. The most blatant of them, flogged by the Israeli far left and more or less subscribed to by the liberal ADL, HIAS, J Street, Truah and the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center, is that the African illegals would be at risk of discrimination, poverty, incarceration and possibly even death in voluntarily accepting Israel’s generous offer of $3,500 and a free air ticket to Rwanda or Uganda, which have agreed to accept them, or to their countries of origin. While the last would not be an option for the small percentage among the group from a still toxic Darfur, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is on record as declaring both Rwanda and Uganda safe havens for the African repatriates. Moreover, even Eritrea, from whence the majority of the migrants originate, has been declared beyond any threat to the lives of its returning nationals by the Administrative Court of Switzerland.

The Court’s ruling was a follow-up to a report by the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), a EU think tank, which noted that Eritreans were now ineligible for asylum or refugee status since they face no danger as repatriates. “Let’s be honest,” observes Douglas Altabee, chairman of the national Zionist NGO Im Tirtzu , “the idea that Africans returning to Africa puts them in mortal danger, is a classic example of the racism of low expectations.”

In step with that white plantation allusion is the largely uncorrected impression that all 38,000 of the migrants are ticketed for relocation. In fact, the program does not include some 5.000 children, their parents or guardians, anyone recognized as a victim of slavery or human trafficking or those who had requested asylum prior to the end of 2017. All of which “brings down the actual number of those subject to deportation,” Ha’aretz’s Ilan Lior notes, to “between 15.000 to 20,000.” While, as the reporter adds, the Population, Immigration and Border Authority and Interior Ministry charged with carrying out the relocation have offered no guarantees that current exceptions may not later be included in the program, pending more favorable conditions in Africa, the chances of that happening seem increasingly unlikely.

No less in need of correction is the claim of burgeoning Israeli support of sanctuary for the asylum seekers touted by, among others, Miklat Yisrael, a group organized by Rabbi Susan Silverman, the Israel-based sister of U.S. comedian Sarah Silverman. “We are exploding the myth that ordinary Israelis don’t want them,” Rabbi Nava Hefetz, one of the group’s leaders, told the New York Times. It is no myth. In the face of her assertion that Miklat’s volunteers were having trouble handling a flood of phone calls and emails from Israelis offering to adopt the migrants and even hide them in their homes, Israeli support for their relocation stood at 58 percent, versus 23 percent opposed and 19 percent with no opinion in a recent poll by Yisrael Hayom, the country’s most widely read Hebrew daily.

Are we looking at a case of Israeli hard-heartedness? Racism? Nativism? While no society can claim absolute immunity to such afflictions, the one that has singularly imbibed within its body politic over the past 70 years enough cultures, languages, colors and lifestyles to create a mini-United Nations of its own, hardly fits any of those descriptions. If the absorption of 125.000 (and counting) Ethiopian Jews – at the bottom of the ladder but rising fast – is insufficient testimony to a people free of racial distinctions, we’ll have to find a fresh definition of e pluribus unum.

What Israelis perhaps resent most of all are the fatuous analogies and distorted pieties tossed at them by those who will face none of the consequences of the self-congratulatory bromides they’ve been peddling. Yes, Menachem Begin did indeed open Israel’s doors to 350 Vietnamese “boat people” in 1977. But how that justifies Israel’s unlimited responsibility for 38,000 Africans who used a border security lapse to ensconce themselves on its territory defies explanation. And yes, Leviticus 19:34 does urge civilized treatment of the “stranger who resides among you,” but most Israelis believe they’ve more than fulfilled that obligation over nearly a decade to a group that was never in their house by invitation.

At the end of the day, diminishing Israeli empathy for the African migrants finds its base in both the state’s limitations, physical and fiscal, and its raison d’etre. “Israel is simply too small and too burdened with its own problems to serve as employment agency for the African continent,” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked argues. Im Tirtzu’s Altabee avers that while showing compassion to the world’s displaced, Israel’s “moral imperative” is to “provide for the continuity of a Jewish state for its as yet unborn” and uningathered. Already in Tel Aviv, he asserts, one out of nine children are being raised by non-Israeli parents and  the “only” 38,000 Africans some insist on the nation absorbing, would be the equivalent of 1.8 million in the U.S. He finds no surprise in the post-Zionist advocates of absorption at any cost. “What I find most surprising,” he submits, “is how otherwise realistic and levelheaded people are getting caught up in heart-over-head emotional manipulation.”

Though well to the left of Altabee and Im Tirtzu’s national Zionist perspective, Jerusalem Post Editor in Chief Ya’akov Katz is no poster boy for “heart-over-head emotional manipulation” on any issue, African migrants included. What drives his thinking on the question, he informs us, is his allegiance to “Israel’s [sole] right to determine its immigration policy.” That, in his view, takes precedence over the phalanx of actors, psychologists, academics and rabbis, from New York and Los Angeles to Tel Aviv who have butted their heads against relocation, as well as those among the El Al pilots who have threatened not to fly the returnees to the two African countries that have agreed to receive them.

“The vast majority of these migrants,” Katz asserts, “are young men in their 20s. The ratio is 5-1 male…who came here not because they were running away from genocide like the refugees from Darfur, but because they were pursuing a better life. While this is perfectly legitimate, it does not mean that Israel has to agree… This can be argued,” he adds, “but it is also a legitimate decision by the State of Israel and one that in this case has been approved by the High Court of Justice. We may not all agree with it, but that is the government’s job – to steer the country in a direction based on the platform on which it was elected.”

Katz sees balancing policy and values as probably the most complicated of democratic governmental decisions. “No state is ever going to get it perfectly right,” he laments. No state, to its credit, has ever tried harder than Israel.


William Mehlman represents AFSI in Israel.

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