Every coin has two sides. That’s the reality of our complex lives. This week, Israel dealt with a very complicated issue–the Illegal refugees from Sudan and Eretria-and it turns out that there are more than just two points of view. Some 60,000 illegal immigrants currently reside in Israel, including 35,000 Eritreans and 15,000 Sudanese. (These numbers are in addition to approximately two hundred thousand foreign workers, legal and illegal, who currently live in Israel.) Most of these African refugees are escaping from ongoing military conflicts. In February, Israel’s Interior Ministry announced that South Sudanese nationals must repatriate by March, arguing that they no longer need protection since South Sudan gained independence. Israel promised each refugee $1,300 and a plane ticket, but anyone who did not repatriate would be deported. This week, the government launched a nationwide operation to detain all illegal refugees with the intention of deportation.
How did we get here? How did Israel, a state founded to house a rootless, wandering people, find itself needing to expel thousands of desperate refugees? And how did these tens of thousands of Africans find themselves in a strange country with a strange culture, religion, and language?
The refugees endured an extremely dangerous journey from their countries through Egypt to Israel. The Egyptian security forces shot many of them, and they faced torture, organ theft, rape and assault by traffickers in the Sinai desert. To get control of its border, Israel began building a fence in 2010 and publicized plans to build a detention facility for border-jumpers. Still, growing numbers of Sudanese and other African asylum seekers kept coming. Once they crossed the border, the government granted them residential permits for four months, first aid when needed, basic supplies and transportation to Tel Aviv. There growing numbers of them wander the streets, trying to pick up day labor and depending on NGOs for assistance. Naturally, young people pair off and have children, so now there is a growing population of Israeli-born Hebrew-speaking African children.
This situation exists all over the developed world. Desperately poor people move to richer areas, and invariably large numbers of foreign poor people cause fear and consternation. Some of them turn to criminality, and most of them use government and civil services and resources. Some native citizens-usually the ones who live close by–resent the disruption and cost. Others empathize with the migrants and advocate for them. In Israel, the situation is made more complicated by the anxiety Israelis feel over the Jewish nature of their country.
In Israel today, there are mixed feelings about how and what we should do about this phenomenon. May marked the first vocal and emotional demonstration against the refugees to take place in Tel Aviv. Several sexual assaults blamed on refugees motivated these demonstrations. Two sides of this very complicated matter reflect what we hope to be and what we can afford to be: We know what it is to be refugees, seeking for shelter when country after country seals its borders. We know that our history and our Jewish ethics demand that we provide these miserable human beings with hope, with a new safe start, with a future, with life.
But can we afford it? Can we risk our own safety and security in our own homeland? Do we want South Tel Aviv, Israel’s first Hebrew city, to lose its Jewish/Hebrew identity to hundreds of thousands of foreign refugees? It’s not a simple matter. Whatever our decision, it has consequences; each approach leads to realities we will need to face and deal with. A reality that will impact who we are and who we want to be.
“…v’ger lo toneh v’lo tilkhatzeinu, ki gerim heyitem b’eretz mitzrayim ” – don’t wrong the stranger and don’t oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex 22:20)
Leah Garber , Vice President, JCC Association Israel Office.