Friends of Israel — and Israelis themselves — like to boast that despite the tough neighborhood the country is in, walking the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is safer than the streets of New York, Chicago or Washington. While that may or may not be true, it is clear that Israel is safer than Rwanda and Uganda. So the talk of sending some 20,000 of the 38,000 African migrants now living in Israel to these countries raises some concerns.
The African migrants are men, women and children from South Sudan and Eritrea. They claim fear of persecution back home, but critics say they entered Israel because of its strong economy, not for any love of the country or its people. Even so, it is a rule of human nature that people who live under threatening regimes migrate to places that are more wealthy and stable. Europe, with its hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and elsewhere, has recently learned that lesson.
Still, large-scale migration can be destabilizing to a host country. “The State of Israel is too small and has its own problems. It cannot be used as the employment office of the African continent,” Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s minister of justice, wrote on Facebook.
It is true: Israel does not have the relative stability of Europe. Nor does it have the size of the United States. It is a small country in a less-than-hospitable neighborhood, and does not have the luxury of open borders, no matter its liberal ideals. Still, Shaked’s remarks come across as insensitive and somewhat disingenuous. For example, Israel would never claim that it “is too small” or invoke too many of “its own problems” to decline letting in 100,000 Jews who might want to make aliyah. So, there is, at the very least, a balancing exercise that is going on here.
Some have said that what is at work is racism, a charge the Israeli government denies. We agree with the denial. But no country — particularly a liberal democracy — looks good turning away refugees and asylum seekers. As with many other controversial issues it is facing, Israel needs to find a better way to explain why it’s doing what it’s doing.
Perhaps it makes sense for the Israeli government to suspend its plan to deport the Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers — including an offer to pay Rwanda $5,000 for each person it takes — at least long enough to implement a comprehensive asylum determination process in accordance with Israel’s obligations under the 1951 International Refugee Convention. That process would afford an opportunity to vet issues fully, including efforts to safeguard asylum seekers’ human dignity and rights. By doing so, Israel could also focus on necessary security issues at the same time it honors its founding values as a compassionate, Jewish and democratic state.