Open Zion

05.31.12

African Refugees Are Israel's All-American Dilemma

Israel’s African refugee quagmire is providing the national equivalent of a cardiac stress test.  The challenge has highlighted Israel’s weakest, darkest side, epitomized by the recent anti-immigrant violence in Tel Aviv. But the challenge also spotlights Israel’s strongest, sweetest side, epitomized by mass revulsion against the hooliganism, along with generous efforts such as the internet entrepreneur Yossi Vardi’s success in making Tel Aviv’s Bialik-Rogozin school a model educational institution for children of refugees from 48 nations.

Given the constant attacks on Israel’s legitimacy, proclaiming what this problem “reveals” about Israel will reveal more about the judge than the judged. More productive is to appreciate the clashing values and seemingly-impossible policy choices involved.

Americanization is one thing, but this is ridiculous. Israel, America’s erstwhile ally, has created its own illegal immigration mess—calling them “undocumented aliens” instead of "illegals" won’t solve the problem. In Israel as in the US, the phenomenon represents a massive social breakdown, mocking the rule of law. Democracies, based on consent of the governed, should not have phantom populations flouting the law, with America’s estimated 11 million illegals constituting 3.5 percent of its 313 million people, and Israel’s estimated 300,000 foreign workers, refugees, and illegal asylum seekers, constituting 3.8 percent of its 7.7 million.  Functioning countries cannot have such porous borders, for security reasons let alone communitarian concerns. But as softhearted democracies—even with their respective blind spots—Israel and America are in a pickle because they will not compete with countries like Egypt in shooting refugees trying to enter illegally.

Both countries also share a dirty little secret—they are addicted to their foreign workers, whatever their legal status. The illegal immigrant mess irritates America’s greatest sore, its racial tensions, with many illegal non-Americans hired as supposedly more reliable and cheaper employees than young African Americans. In Israel, foreign workers replaced Palestinians after Yasir Arafat led his people away from negotiations back toward terror in 2000. More disturbing, relying on Palestinian and foreign labor represents the flip side of Israel as “Start-Up Nation.” It risks becoming another, spoiled “magiya li”—"I deserve it"—capitalist society outsourcing hard labor, and betraying the initial Zionist impulses championing autonomy, self-reliance and manual labor.

Beyond the story’s ugly side—the border breakdowns and advanced capitalist societies relying on non-citizens for “dirty work”—is the beautiful impulse propelling individuals to find liberty and prosperity in desirable democracies.  Immigration, overall, is good for the immigrants and good for the host society, ultimately fostering creativity, energy, and a healthy diversity, even though both the US and Israel have legitimate concerns about preserving social sameness and real worries about diversity’s steep social costs.

As immigrant societies, both Israel and America have long been Fields of Dreams, with most Israelis and Americans today appreciating their own immigrant roots. When the passage from immigrant to citizen is such a central motif in most individuals’ family stories, let alone our national narratives, it is not so easy to ban what Emma Lazarus in 1883 indelicately called “the wretched refuse” from the “teeming shores”—note how America’s ambivalence toward immigration goes way back.

Americans and Israelis should follow two paradoxical policies. Just as David Ben-Gurion famously taught Palestine’s Jews in the 1940s to fight the Nazis as if there were no problems with the British, but to fight the British as if there were no Nazis—both societies should work harder at keeping illegal immigrants out while doing everything possible to welcome those who are already in. Borders should be sealed, treating undocumented outsiders as interlopers. If Israel’s southern fence worked as it should to keep terrorists out, discouraged asylum seekers would look elsewhere. But now, too many get in, also feeding a corrupt no-man’s-land nightmare for them in the Sinai desert of bribery, robbery, and rape.

At the same time, the social cost of having partial ghosts in a democracy, invisible when it comes to getting rights but quite visible when it comes to hiring or scapegoating them, outweighs the practical problems of luring more by treating them humanely. Just as every outsider should be treated cautiously as potentially an illegal immigrant, every insider should be treated generously as a potential citizen. Israel should live by its bighearted vow in its 1948 Proclamation of Independence to “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants.” And there must be a national conversation spearheaded by the prime minister and president acknowledging these immigrants’ contributions, admitting—as the tabloid Yediot Achranot noted—that their crime rate is quite low—and affirming that “their” story is “our” story. Seeking salvation, building a better life for this generation and the next, is not just the American dream, it is not just the Zionist dream, it is a compelling worldwide fantasy that so many Israelis and Americans are lucky to fulfill.