One of the most difficult questions for any policy maker today is how to deal with illegal immigration. This is especially a problem for countries whose economy is relatively decent and who border or are close to countries where the basic institutions needed to look after the needs of the population are dysfunctional or nonexistent.
One of the governments having to deal with this issue is Israel. Nearby Eritrea and Sudan have been inefficient towards their citizens for as long as one can remember and Sudan in particular has seen and is still seeing prolonged periods of violence. In the past few years Eritreans and Sudanese have been seeking refuge in close-by countries such as Egypt and Israel.
The Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has recorded an influx of 60,000 refugees with 2,000 to 3,000 more every month. For a country with a population of 7.6 million it is a high number indeed. Many of these immigrants end up living in neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv. This has caused rising bitterness among locals who accuse the immigrants of all sorts of “dirty” deeds.
Slowly but steadily, and also due to the recent case of three Eritrean immigrants being accused of sexual assaulting a 19 year old girl, this bitterness has metamorphosed into hatred which has been manifested through a variety of attacks against the immigrant community. The incidents include the throwing of molotovs against a building housing immigrants, verbal abuse against Hotline for Migrant Workers, an aid organization, and, most importantly, an anti-immigrant protest which ended with the demonstrators attacking random immigrants on the street.
Such reactions on behalf of the local population, however heinous, are not irrational bouts. On the contrary, they have a logic of their own, that is, they are the result of specific circumstances. In Israel, these circumstances take the form of political and social institutions imbued with racist and xenophobic values.
In other words, what we are witnessing right now in Israel is the logical outcome of the racist ideology pervasive in its public institutions. The central principle of this ideology is that Israel is and has to remain a Jewish state and it needs to preserve its “Jewish character” by whatever means possible. This ideology can be observed by looking firstly at the statements made by top ranking politicians and secondly at the decisions taken by the political establishment as a whole.
Eli Yishai, Israel’s Interior Minister, commenting on the possible deportation of migrant workers from Israel in October 2009, asked rhetorically ‘Do [the workers] not threaten the Zionist project in the State of Israel?’. Netanyahu has explicitly declared that the influx of immigrants is jeopardising Israel’s Jewish character. At the anti-immigrant rally held in south Tel Aviv, several Members of Knesset (MK), Israel’s parliament, were present. One of them, Likud MK Danny Dannon, called for deportation. Another, Likud MK Miri Regev, shouted “the Sudanese [are] a cancer in our body”. Notice that these remarks, and the first two in particular, do not mention economic difficulties as obstacles for absorbing immigrants but the preservation of the Jewish character of the state.
The measures the government has taken against the influx of immigrants also manifest xenophobic values. Firstly, the biggest detention centre in the world is being built in the Negev desert, capable of housing up to 11,000 immigrants. Human Rights groups have criticised the construction of the detention centre pointing out at the inhumane conditions it will subject the inmates. Secondly, the government has resorted also in this case to building a wall on its southern border, just as it is doing in the north with Lebanon and in the occupied Palestinian territories. Thirdly, politicians have pledged to deport the immigrants against their will and knowing that they face severe consequences in their countries of origin. Fourthly, the Knesset passed a bill which defines anyone crossing the southern border of Israel illegally as an “infiltrator” who can be detained up to three years. Fifthly, the government is not recognising the immigrants’ status as refugees. Out of the 60,000 plus people who crossed illegally into Israel in the past few years, only six have been bestowed with a refugee status (and only 170 since 1949), meaning that all the others do not enjoy the rights accorded to refugees. The last of these measures violates the first article of the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees adopted by the UN General Assembly and of which Israel is a signatory.
Moreover, the police have been accused of feeding the public incorrect data about immigrants. For instance, the media has quoted the police as stating that immigrants were responsible for 40% of crimes, a figure repeated by MK Danny Dannon. But at a meeting held by the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers, police data showed that in 2011 immigrants were responsible only for 2.24% of crimes thus showing that much of the fear raised among locals was unnecessary and illogical.
To be sure, the social phenomenon where the local population resorts to extremist actions against immigrants is certainly not peculiar to Israel, far from it. What needs to be appreciated, though, is that the background structure of Israeli society is responsible for and supporting this phenomenon. Although the government boasts of being the only democratic country in the region, it is actively inciting the population to such actions by both pronouncing inflammatory and racist remarks and taking concrete steps in maintaining the “Jewish character” of the nation, that is, getting rid of anything which threatens the “Jewish demographic”, as the native Arab population knows all too well. In fact, the unjust treatment of both illegal immigrants and Arabs stems from the same racist values which are so pervasive in Israel’s public institutions. And let us not forget the incentives the Israeli state has designed in order to attract Jews wishing to become citizens of Israel, starting with the Law of Return, which shows that influx itself is not the problem.
The sick irony in all of this is unmissable: while Israel points to the repeated persecution of the Jewish people and its culmination in the racist policies of Germany during the 30s and 40s, it turns away foreigners escaping very similar situations precisely in order to preserve its purity.