The new border fence going up on Israel's border with Sinai.
The new border fence going up on Israel's border with Sinai. Photo by Eli Hershkowitz
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Israel is different.

Have you ever asked yourself how often you say or think that sentence? It is so self-evident. No country in the world has traveled a similar path, faces such a unique set of challenges and is judged by quite the same set of standards as Israel. It really is so different and it has become second-nature for us Israelis and those who feel a connection to the country to use that sentence until it loses all meaning and we realize we actually have stopped asking ourselves, What makes Israel different? - and so what if it is?

Too often we seem to be using Israel's unique nature as an excuse, a reason not to face reality and live up to our responsibility. How about asking for a change the opposite question: What countries are Israel similar to and in what ways?

In the United Nation's 2011 Human Development Index, a comparative measure that takes into account factors such as life expectancy, education, gross domestic product, quality of living and child welfare, Israel was ranked 17th in the world. That's higher than three-quarters of the European Union, including France, Italy and Britain, and way above any nation in the Middle East and Africa, none of which are in the top quarter of the ladder in human development.

In other words, for all our troubles, people living in just about every country south of Israel, and every land to the east until you reach Hong Kong, sees Israel as a veritable paradise. We pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves we're the start-up nation but we don't fully appreciate the implications.

We are no different from every other county with what the UN defines as "very high human development," in that hundreds of thousands of citizens from less fortunate nations are trying to get here. Unlike many of those other developed countries, in Europe for instance, we are literally next door to the developing world. Africa is on our doorstep. And so there is also another way in which Israel is different. It is the only highly-developed country which has yet to formulate a comprehensive policy regarding economic migrants.

Here is what Eli Yishai, Israel's minister of interior, said on Wednesday: "Most of the African infiltrators are criminals. I would put all of them, without exception, into a prison or other holding facility, and from there, give each of them a grant and send them back to their countries."

Now statements of similar vehemence can be heard in any of the wealthy destinations itinerant workers find themselves in during this era of globalization. Ironically, it is often the already established immigrant communities who have the greatest suspicion of new arrivals. And as austerity measures squeeze the West, competition for jobs - even the most menial, poorly-paid and backbreaking work which these migrants usually take up and citizens often turn their noses up at - doesn't make for a welcoming atmosphere for newcomers.

But while these kind of statements might be muttered in markets and bars by disgruntled citizens in all these Western countries, it's usually only the most radical politicians who would dare declare them on the public stage. Mainstream figures might hint or imply - but in Israel it's a senior government minister who comes straight out with this kind of extreme statement, the minister who happens to be responsible for these affairs.

He says it because he knows that many voters will find such utterances attractive and even those who won't for the most part are not concerned either way.

Why are we like that? For some, it might be too easy to say, well, Israel is a xenophobic state that mistreats its own minorities and thus has no sympathy for anyone different. One could argue that Israel is happy to look kindly on economic migrants, as it has already on hundreds of thousands, as long as they are at least nominally Jewish. So Yishai can get away with these kinds of extraordinary statements, especially as he is playing to his own constituency.

But this would be unfair to Israeli society, which is much too complex to have a black or white, racist/enlightened label fixed to it. It would be more accurate to say that precisely due to the country's unique nature, there has been no opportunity for the terms of reference for this debate to develop in Israeli public life.

As originally conceived, a central tenet of Zionism was Jews redeeming the land and themselves through hard labor. In its 19th-century roots or subsequent development, Zionism had no ideological basis for globalization or economic migration, and the concept that non-Jews would have wanted to come to Palestine, separate from ideological or religious motivations, would have seemed extraordinary. The Zionist ideal has a place in a global interconnected society, but the evolution has yet to take place.

As with other issues of modern citizenship, such as civil marriage, Israel is still struggling just to create a means of discussing and dealing with these issues. Despite our economy depending to a large extent on many thousands of Philippine and Thai workers, the debate over their rights and future is marginal and largely the concern of a handful of left-wing NGOs who aren't even talking to the majority of the country.

The newer and mostly illegal work migrants don't have even this level of acceptance or protection. Israel doesn't need to have an open-door policy when it comes to immigration. No other Western-oriented country has this, and Israel's security concerns mean extra scrutiny is needed. But this is an issue that any and every economically successful country in the world has to deal with - and the mainstream has to engage with this debate, compassionately and practically, without being led down dead-ends of incitement by politicians who should know better.

On the border with Egypt, where most of the immigrants come through, a NIS 1.5 billion, seven-meter-high fence is being built, using reinforced steel and razor-sharp blades. But Bedouin smugglers have already found ways to saw through the links; when each African immigrant they spirit through pays them $5,000, nothing will stop them.

And nothing will stop the immigrants themselves, at least some of them. Doctors in Eilat's Yoseftal Medical Center have already begun telling of patients being brought from the new fence area, their hands cut to ribbons.

They are going to continue coming, whatever we do about them. We cannot blame or imprison them while there is no way we can appreciate what it is they are escaping that makes them risk so much.

What can we do? Recognize the need for a comprehensive debate and national plan on immigration, one that recognizes their humanity. And be thankful for living in a country different to the ones they are fleeing and remember that we are not so different. When Moses commanded us "do not harm the alien, because you were strangers," we were making that very same journey. Out of Egypt, across the desert and into the Promised Land.