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The Big Mistake Israel Is Making Right Now

Posted: 06/15/2012 1:01 am

The past two weeks have brought disturbing news from Israel. No, it has nothing to do with existential threats to the Jewish state from the likes of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, nor does it relate to the usual political hot-button topics of settlements and peace processes. It is a conflict self-contained within uncontested boundaries and pertaining to Israelis, and only Israelis. And as the Jews of Israel terrorize and assault the African migrants living among them -- and as the Israeli government sets about rounding up these migrants for shipment back to their homelands -- in a display that is nothing short of disturbing, the world is strangely silent.

Sure, Human Rights Watch and left-leaning political groups have admonished Israel, but this isn't a right-left story, or at least it shouldn't be. Arresting migrants on the streets, sticking them in hastily built detention centres while organizing their mass export to likely unfortunate circumstances in their countries of origin is just plain wrong. If anything like that were to happen here in Canada I'd like to think a lot of us would have a problem with it.

The reticence to criticize Israel for these actions, in my estimation, is a result of a miscalculated analogy -- that the case of the African migrants is similar to that of the Palestinians. To be fair, on the surface some connection appears to be there -- specifically relating to the demographic challenge of maintaining a Jewish-run state. Left unchecked, the 60,000-plus Africans now living in Israel will grow and grow. (One of the more awful images of this story involves migrants' children being pulled out of school by authorities. These kids are far less likely to get a decent education once returned to South Sudan or Eritrea.) Over time, the fear is, they will gain the ability to democratically vote away Israel's Jewish essence.

This is uncomfortably close to the right-of-return scenario Israel has repeatedly rejected when it comes to the Palestinians. And some would offer the slippery slope argument: that is, if you're willing to let African migrants stay, thereby accepting that Israel's core Jewishness may be eventually wiped out via democratic means, why not let in the Palestinians, too. What's the difference?

The difference is that the African migrants lack -- in a good way -- a key attribute of the various Palestinian factions claiming their right to return to land and homes they once inhabited within Israel's borders: they have expressed no intention of destroying Israel.

Indeed, on their way to Israel most if not all of the migrants travelled through Egypt, where cultural similarities would, one assumes, have offered a great deal of comfort. By passing on Egypt they are implicitly celebrating Israel. Israel offers them foundational humanity -- a democracy and religious freedom, not to mention a relatively strong economy with jobs to be had -- they did not have in their lands of origin or would have been able to enjoy in Egypt. Religion, by comparison, appears to be far less important to them.

In short, the migrants pose no immediate threat to the Jews of Israel -- and even if the prospect of a demographic issue cannot be dismissed outright, it is a matter for the future, whereas the corresponding Palestinian demographic problem poses immediate difficulties.

There is another reason why Israel's treatment of the African migrants is troubling: The Jewish state has a proud history of welcoming immigrants, even seeking them out and rescuing them from persecution and poverty. Israel's heroic operations in the Soviet Union and Ethiopia are undoubtedly among the country's proudest moments. The xenophobia and violence being directed toward the African migrants tarnishes Israel's grand reputation of humanitarianism.

You can't blame Israelis for being on edge -- in the Middle East's only democracy, a country surrounded by enemies who appear to subsist mainly on their hatred for Israel and Jews, there is always something to worry about.

But the case of the African migrants shouldn't be heaped onto the pile of fear. These people are just looking for a second chance, an opportunity to leave behind misery, repression and poverty and build a happy, healthy life for themselves and their families among Israelis. Of all people, Israel's Jews should be able to relate to that.

 

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