African migrants head to Ben Gurion International Airport to be deported
African migrants heading to Ben Gurion International Airport to be deported to their countries of origin, June 17, 2012. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkovitz
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In the parks of south Tel Aviv, African migrants told me in their broken English that they were surprised and grateful that police here actually protect them. That was a novel experience for them. Some were newly arrived from Sudan, south Sudan, Eritrea, Darfur. Police and other agents of the state in their earlier life experience had been almost uniformly a danger, something to be feared. Some related fleeing from Egyptians, predatory Bedouins or the Egyptian army, and being saved by the Israeli army — a story I had also heard from friends doing reserve duty in the Israel Defense Forces.

Their gratitude and joy to be here were palpable, even in the bizarre limbo of their camping out near the central bus station. A rally (or “party”), with African pop music blaring, publicly welcomed them, even though the speakers spoke the Hebrew of the socially liberal young Israeli advocates, rather than the Arabic or English that the Africans were likely to understand. But the undercurrents were not positive — in ways that had nothing at all to do with the alleged hostility of the riots and racism that have drawn so much media attention. In short, they knew that Israel could not become home.

Jews of almost all stripes, Palestinians of various degrees of remove, Christian and Bahai and other religious pilgrims, and even international NGO workers, all make various claims of priority or right to enter the borders of the state of Israel legally, and stay. But African migrants, regardless of their temporary plights or need of asylum, cannot crack the top of the list.

And Israel is now, like every other major modern western country, facing the terrible conundrum that the better conditions and treatment we provide here for the refugees, the more word percolates back and the exponentially-more refugees are likely to come and inundate us. In face of these immense practical challenges, we probably cannot provide more than a tiny number places. No matter our sympathies, we simply may not be able to let them stay, to carve a place for them in our overcrowded and coveted land.

Many Africans made it safely here, braving the natural and man-made dangers of long journeys from famine and danger to our tiny country. What can we offer them, if we cannot offer them a permanent or even temporary place to stay, to work, to live, to rebuild their shattered lives? What is there to tell them? How can we help?

The stories we usually tell about ourselves may be of some small consolation. Yes, we've been exiled, even from Africa, a whole history of dispossession and persecution and Diaspora, and yes, our little state is a phoenix risen from the ashes of destruction. Yes, most of the African migrants are Christians or Muslims, thus they probably know our mythic story in at least the broadest outlines. We could tell them of our many, many recoveries and reinventions and rebirths from expulsion, flight and catastrophe. But the most salient, I think, is one of the most recent - one that receives relatively little attention, but which is perhaps the most relevant to the whole world at this time.

Stewart Brand, a gadol (giant) of 1960s environmentalism, in his recent book, “Whole Earth Discipline”, dared to challenge the orthodoxies of the movement he helped launch. He posits that the rapid growth of slum cities - the manifestation of the massive migrations of poor rural people to overflowing urban centers - is actually good for the earth and even for the people involved.

If viewed in a snapshot of one moment in time, the favelas may indeed appear to be the worst of human exploitation and suffering. But viewed over time, Brand sees a spirit of spectacularly innovative entrepreneurship, rapidly declining birthrates as values like privacy, economic priorities and education take hold, and within a few short generations, mass movement into the middle classes is seen.

And who is the paradigm for this - tribal migrants with big families fleeing persecution and poverty in backwaters for the opportunities and hopes of the megacity, bootstrapping themselves in two generations from the worst slum to prosperity? The Jews of the Lower East Side.

In the life experiences of millions of Jews, the family histories of flight from shtetl to entrepreneurship in the megacities of America and Europe, to a place in the educated meritocracies of the world, is remarkably common. Embedded in these stories, that many of us could tell of our own families, are nuggets and insights about the peculiar constellation of values and choices that enabled us as a migrant tribal minority to vault into modernity with spectacular success, in spite of equally unprecedented persecution.

We are, or can be, the model for every small tribal village people now living in or fleeing to the slums of Accra or Cairo or Calcutta or Chongqing or Quito. They need our help. Israel itself may not be the place for them to perform that pole vault - our unique milieu may not permit a megacity to morph into being. But we can offer them help and advice from the very personal places of family and storytelling that sustained us and provided us the key tools to survive and thrive in our unique journeys to the ends of the earth and back home again.