Editorial

If You Can’t Jail 'Em, Starve 'Em

If Israel genuinely wants to join the family of nations, it must do its part to take in refugees and asylum seekers

An African migrant receives food from a volunteer at Levinsky park in South Tel Aviv June 6, 2012. About 60,000 Africans have crossed into Israel across its porous border with Egypt in recent years. Israel says the vast majority are job seekers, disputing arguments by humanitarian agencies that they should be considered for asylum. Picture taken June 6, 2012. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
An African migrant receives food from a volunteer at Levinsky park in South Tel Aviv June 6, 2012. About 60,000 Africans have crossed into Israel across its porous border with Egypt in recent years. I REUTERS

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely deftly explained the “problem” with the High Court of Justice ruling prohibiting the indefinite detention of African asylum seekers to persuade them to agree to be deported to Rwanda or Uganda.

“The High Court approved the agreements the Foreign Ministry made with those states,” she wrote on Facebook. “It totally approved the idea that a sovereign state may decide who will stay in its territory and who will not, and that a state may deport people to third states. Where’s the problem? The High Court deprived us of the only tool that helped us deport them: detention.” In other words, the only tool that allows the state to lock up those who don’t want to leave indefinitely, until they change their minds.

As usual, the government is trying to find legal means to circumvent the High Court restriction, as if everything is technical. Until the state can “correct” the agreements with Rwanda and Uganda, or passes an amendment to the Law of Entry into Israel allowing the indefinite incarceration of asylum seekers who refuse to leave, it will have to find alternatives to detention that will encourage them to leave.

Interior Minister Arye Dery joined the brainstorm session, proposing that anyone who hires an “infiltrator” who fails to leave Israel voluntarily be subject to criminal prosecution for illegal employment and a fine. Oded Feller, a lawyer who heads the human rights in Israel department of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel described it best: “The High Court ruled that it’s forbidden to jail people to force them to go to Rwanda, so Dery suggests starving them into it.”

Israel sees itself as a European nation-state; the government even wants to pass a law defining it as the nation-state of the Jewish people. But too many people in the government and outside it refuse to accept the fact that nation-state is an abstract and dynamic political category.

Every country has the right to defend its borders, but it’s impossible to hermetically seal them. A nation that wants to be like all the nations, a state that sees itself as part of the Western world, cannot disavow — in the name of what can only be called genetic purity — its part in the global obligation to absorb refugees and even labor migrants. Israel has no moral exemption from helping refugees. It is using the demagogic argument that since it cannot help everyone, it should not help anyone.

Since there are only a few tens of thousands of foreigners in Israel, and the flow of illegal migration has been stopped, the government should find a way to integrate into society the ones who are here, to permit them to work and to support themselves in dignity anywhere in the country, until they can safely return to their countries of origin. This would also help to ease the distress of residents of south Tel Aviv.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.