On Monday, Israeli police began rounding up illegal African immigrants as the first step in a campaign of mass arrests and deportations around the country. Earlier this year, the Knesset passed an “anti-infiltration” bill, which allows police to detain illegal immigrants for years without a trial and punishes Israelis who employ, house, or transport illegal immigrants. In reference to the illegal African migrants, Interior Minister Eli Yishai has said that Israel must “prepare more military bases where we can jail all of them without exception.” It is a messy issue that has inspired debates about what kind of moral and political obligation the Jewish State has toward these migrants. Writing in Haaretz, Rabbi Aaron Leibovitz and Rabbi Joel Seltzer argue that Israel’s Jewish identity should influence its policy on the issue, and embrace migrants in the spirit of “loving the stranger.”
The rabbis’ passion is admirable—but it conflicts with a more essential facet of the Jewish state: its Jewish majority. As difficult and unsettling as the movement to deport Israel’s African migrants may be, the alternative is even worse.
If this sounds hyperbolic, consider that Israel’s refugee population has more than doubled in the past two years, according to the Interior Ministry. Most of the African migrants come through Egypt—and there is a reason they didn’t stay there. Next door, Israel’s strong economy, political stability, and generous social services—in comparison to its neighbors, at least—make it the most attractive Middle East destination for illegal immigrants, so they’re going to keep coming.
How might this present a demographic threat? It is difficult to measure the number of migrants who have entered the country, but the official count from the past two years suggests that roughly 14,000 Africans—refugees or economic migrants—find their way to Israel each year. And as they continue to arrive from Sudan and Eritrea Israel will likely face further migration from other war-torn regions. The number of Sudanese refugees alone nearly outnumbers Israel’s Jewish population.
Even if migration continues at its current pace, African migrants will constitute a sizable minority group within a decade. When coupled with growth from other minority groups, Israel’s already precarious Jewish majority will be history. Suddenly, the Jewish state is merely kosher-style.
None of this, to be sure, excuses the racism that has colored the debate in Israel. The rhetoric from Knesset members has been nasty, misinformed, xenophobic, and occasionally racist. This is bad—but it is no worse than the rhetoric used by anti-immigration groups (and mainstream politicians) in America, France, or England. There are racists in Israel because, well, there are racists everywhere, and not—as Lara Friedman suggested last week—as a result of the occupation.
In this situation, pursuing the Jewish values that Seltzer and Leibovitz admire can only be accomplished at the expense of the demographic Jewish identity that they surely seek to maintain. Preserving a Jewish majority in Israel is not an easy task, morally or politically. Promoting a dangerously open immigration policy—while also feigning support for a Jewish majority—does not make it any easier.
Israelis, at least, seem to get it. According to a study conducted in 2010 by the Israel Democracy Institute, 73% of Israelis feel that the country’s Jewish component is as important as, or more important than, its democratic character. A Yedioth poll from last year found that 78% of Jewish Israelis oppose mass immigration from Africa, as it poses a threat to Israel’s Jewish character.
There are no winners here. Israel cannot absorb the 60,000 migrants currently living in its borders—or the thousands more that will continue to come—without grave social and demographic consequences. Yet African migrants, seeking political refuge or simply an easier life, have nowhere else to turn.
One wishes that Israel could take the moral high ground on this issue—even at its own material expense—as an embodiment of its founding values. But when the issue of immigration becomes an issue of survival, Israel must look out for the wellbeing of its citizens first. The current policy of roundups and mass deportation is far from perfect. It should be refined to carefully distinguish between political refugees and economic migrants, while preserving domestic quality of life, rule of law, and a measure of social justice. But for now, Israel is making the difficult choices necessary to protect its borders and identity—as it should.