Likud MK Danny Danon's editorial today in the Jerusalem Post on African illegal immigration to Israel is nothing short of ludicrous. MK Danon showcases himself as a virtuoso chutzpan in the piece, which argues that Israel's 25,000 African illegal immigrants are a "strategic threat that endangers the existence of the Jewish homeland."
Calling these economic and political refugees a "strategic demographic threat," Danon glosses over the many different kinds of African refugees who have come to Israel. In the eyes of his Deportation Now! organization, all illegal immigrants are the same. Even if they come from highly undeveloped countries and face no prospects for employment back home. Even if children of the immigrants were born in Israel and speak Hebrew. Even if they are refugees from Darfur, Sudan who fled to Israel seeking protection from the janjaweed militia during the genocide in the region.
Unfortunately, in making these blanket generalizations MK Danon delegitimizes what is a real problem for Israel. In Israel, demographics are important and an influx of non-Jews from outside the region challenges the Jewish character of the state. Additionally, Israel - like any country - is entitled to enforce legal immigration measures. "Deportation Now" is a ridiculous response, but given the Israeli government's ad hoc approach to refugees, asking for a more comprehensive response is not unreasonable.
Many Israelis are also sensitive to the real dangers immigrants face back home. For example, thanks to the advocacy of grassroots organizations like the Migrant Workers Hotline, many refugees from Darfur were able to serve their jail time doing farm work on kibbutzim with the assent of the Israeli government. Some of these refugees were later granted residence.* Additionally, this blogger has witnessed personally an auditorium of Israeli university students stunned into dead silence by a Darfuri doctor (and illegal immigrant) describe how he was forced to kill his patients. When he nearly collapsed from recounting the ordeal, a pin drop would have been audible in the room full of previously boisterous students.
Yet MK Danon caricatures these heartfelt responses as the tactics of "political opponents looking to score cheap political points against the Likud government." He overlooks the complexity of the Israeli public's response to illegal immigration just as much as the complexity of the issue itself.
Most egregiously, MK Danon neglects his own country's history. Jewish immigration to Israel was limited by the British Mandate in the 1930's. Yet Jews at the time faced increasing economic and (predominantly) political persecution in Europe and had few outlets of escape. In response, the Hagana subverted British attempts to put quotas on Jewish immigration by smuggling Jews into Mandate Palestine. Illegally.
In fact, historians claim about 18,100 Jews entered illegally between 1934 and 1939. Illegal Jewish immigration accounted for about half of Jewish immigration between 1938 and 1939. Such a history should not prohibit Israel from exercising its powers as a sovereign nation to control immigration. However, a past built heavily on illegal immigration by refugees under duress mandates far more sensitivity than the callousness with which MK Danon addresses African illegal immigration to Israel.
At a time when the eyes of the world are on Israel for its policies in the West Bank, it's stance towards Iran, and its treatment of minorities, MK Danon's editorial harms Israel's reputation and its well-being. All the hasbara in the world cannot overcome the dogmatism and incitement which last night led protesters to vandalize shops and smash the car of an African resident of Tel Aviv.
A sensible immigration policy for Israel is just. But persecuting refugees in the country built as a refuge to ingather the exiles is unacceptable.
*An earlier version of this post claimed the refugees were granted citizenship. The Hotline for Migrant Workers clarifies that the Sudanese refugees were granted temporary residence on an A5 visa, but not citizenship. ACRI corroborates the clarification.