Israel's new Law of Return

Until a few days ago, I had no idea that Israel is home to an estimated 60,000 African refugees, the vast majority of whom come from South Sudan or from Eritrea, and almost all of whom have arrived within the past five years or so. I was startled as it was, to hear that so many refugees have arrived in Israel in such a short period; but I was positively shocked, when I then discovered that Israel plans to deport them, commencing immediately. The first plane to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, left last night.

South Sudan is the world's newest nation – it declared its independence on 9 Jul 2011. Israel was one of the first foreign nations to establish formal diplomatic ties with the fledgling Republic. Subsequently, Israel wasted no time in announcing publicly that all South Sudanese refugees would soon be required to leave; they were given a deadline of 31 Mar 2012, and were informed that they would be forcibly deported if still in Israel after that date.

Israel claims that, since having gained independence, it is now safe for South Sudanese nationals to return home. However, independent critics rebuke this, saying that there is still significant armed conflict between Sudan, South Sudan, and numerous rebel groups in the region. Aside from the ongoing security concerns, South Sudan is also one of the world's poorest and least-developed countries; claiming that South Sudan is ready to repatriate its people, is a ridiculous notion at best.

Israel helped formulate the UN Refugee Convention of 1951. This was in the aftermath of the Holocaust, an event in which millions of Jewish lives could have been saved, had the rest of the world accepted more European Jews as refugees. Israel, of course, is itself one of the world's most famous "refugee nations", as the majority of the nation's founders were survivors of Nazi persecution in Europe, seeking to establish a permanent homeland where Jews could forevermore seek shelter from oppression elsewhere.

It's ironic, therefore, that Israel – of all nations – until recently had no formal policy regarding asylum seekers, nor any formal system for managing an influx of asylum seekers. (And I thought Australia's handling of asylum seekers was bad!) To this day, Israel's immigration policy consists almost entirely of the Law of Return, which allows any Jew to immigrate to the country hassle-free.

Well, it seems to me that this law has recently been amended. For Jewish refugees, the Law is that you can Return to Israel (no matter what). For non-Jews, the Law is that you're forced to Return from Israel, back to wherever you fled from. Couldn't get much more double standards than that!

Irony and hypocrisy

Many Israelis are currently up in arms over the African migrants that have "infiltrated" the country. Those Israelis obviously have very short memories (and a very poor grasp of irony). After all, it was only 21 years ago, in 1991, when Operation Solomon resulted in the airlifting of almost 15,000 black Africans from Ethiopia to Israel, as a result of heightened security risks for those people in Ethiopia. Today, over 120,000 Ethiopian Jews (African-born and Israeli-born) live in Israel.

Apparently, that's quite acceptable – after all, they were Jewish black Africans. As such, they were flown from Africa to Israel, courtesy of the State, and were subsequently welcomed with open arms. It seems that for non-Jewish black Africans (in this case, almost all of them are Christians), the tables get turned – they get flown from Israel back to Africa; and they're even given a gift of €1,000 per person, in the hope that they go away and stay away.

Oh, and in case the historical parallels aren't striking enough: the home countries of these refugees – South Sudan and Eritrea – happen to both be neighbouring Ethiopia (in fact, Operations Moses and Joshua, the precursors to Operation Solomon, involved airlifting Ethiopian Jewish refugees from airstrips within Sudan – whether modern-day South Sudan or not, is uncertain).

It's also a historical irony, that these African refugees are arriving in Israel on foot, after crossing the Sinai desert and entering via Egypt. You'd think that we Jews would have more compassion for those making an "exodus" from Egypt. However, if Israel does feel any compassion towards these people, it certainly has a strange way of demonstrating it: Israel is currently in the process of rapidly constructing a new fence along the entire length of its desert border with Egypt, the primary purpose of which is to stop the flow of illegal immigrants that cross over each year.

It's quite ironic, too, that many of the African refugees who arrive in Israel are fleeing religious persecution. After all, was the modern State of Israel not founded for exactly this purpose – to provide safe haven to those fleeing discrimination elsewhere in the world, based on their religious observance? And, after all, is it not logical that those fleeing such discrimination should choose to seek asylum in the Holy Land? Apart from South Sudan, a large number of the recent migrants are from Eritrea, a country that has banned all religious freedom, and that has the world's lowest Press Freedom Index rating in the world (179th, lower even than North Korea).

Much ado about nothing

Israel is a nation that lives in fear of many threats. The recent arrival of African refugees has been identified by many Israelis (and by the government) as yet another threat, and as such, the response has been one of fear. Israel fears that these "infiltrators" will increase crime on the nation's streets. It fears that they will prove an economic burden. And it fears that they will erode the Jewish character of the State.

These fears, in my opinion, are actually completely unfounded. On the contrary, Israel's fear of the new arrivals is nothing short of ridiculous. The refugees will not increase crime in Israel; they will not prove an economic burden; and (the issue that worries Israel most of all) they will not erode the Jewish character of the state.

As recent research has shown, humanitarian immigrants in general make a significant positive contribution to their new home country; this is a contribution that is traditionally under-estimated, or even refuted altogether. Refugees, if welcomed and provided with adequate initial support, are people who desire to, and who in most cases do, contribute back to their new host country. They're desperately trying to escape a life of violence and poverty, in order to start anew; if given the opportunity to fulfil their dream, they generally respond gratefully.

Israel is a new player in the field of humanitarian immigration (new to ethnically-agnostic humanitarian immigration, at least). I can only assume that it's on account of this lack of experience, that Israel is failing to realise just how much it has to gain, should it welcome these refugees. If welcomed warmly and given citizenship, the majority of these Africans will support Israel in whatever way Israel asks them to. Almost all of them will learn Hebrew. A great number will join the IDF. And quite a few will even convert to Judaism. In short, these immigrants could prove to be just the additional supporters of the Jewish status quo that Israel needs.

What is Israel's biggest fear in this day and age? That the nation's Arab / Palestinian population is growing faster than its Jewish population; and that in 20 years' time, the Jews will be voted out of their own State by an Arab majority. As such, what should Israel be actively trying to do? It's in Israel's interests to actively encourage any immigration that contributes people / votes to the Jewish side of the equation. And, in my opinion, if Israel were to accept these African refugees with open arms today, then in 20 years' time they would be exactly the additional people / votes that the status quo requires.

Finally, as many others have already stated: apart from being ironic, hypocritical, impractical, and (most likely) illegal, Israel's current policy towards its African refugees is inhumane. As a Jew myself, I feel ashamed and incredulous that Israel should behave in this manner, when a group of desperate and abandoned people comes knocking at its doorstep. It is an embarrassment to Jews worldwide. We of all people should know better and act better.

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