Analysis

What Israel Should Do if It Really Wants to Help Refugees

Forget the laughable PR stunts about housing Syrian refugees and concentrate on providing real assistance – and remember the refugees already in our midst.

Reuters

I asked a few Syrian refugees making their way through Hungary what they thought about the minor fuss over whether they should be given refuge in Israel.

They looked at me with puzzled expressions. Israel? Why would we want to go to Israel? I immediately moved on to more relevant questions.

Any debate in Israel about the rights of refugees and migrants is a welcome development. But the shallowness of the current debate is rare, even by our standards.

Zionist Union chairman Isaac Herzogs offer – to the amazement of his fellow left-wing leaders in Europe – to host refugees in Israel was embarrassing. Its clear it was nothing more than a public relations stunt.

The refugees making their way through Central Europe are there because they have despaired of life in the Middle East. They waited in neighboring countries (Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt), until it became clear that the chances of their returning to their homes were nil – and that even in those places where they had found temporary refuge, political conditions would not allow them to lead normal lives. What hope could Israel offer them?

Germany and some of the Scandinavian countries desperately need workers, and are now opening their doors to the refugees. There they will have the opportunity to build a new life and possibly a base, from which they can one day return to a rehabilitated Syria. Living in Israel would block them from ever returning to Syria. Even if they could forget everything theyve been told about Israel, and even if Israeli society was really able to wholeheartedly absorb them, they wouldnt be prepared to relinquish the possibility of one day returning to their homeland.

The government ministers who described Herzogs proposal as populist were correct. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, went too far when, in rejecting the proposal, he added that Israel is a very small country. After all, he still encourages the mass immigration of Jews from the Diaspora, while some of his associates are even suggesting plans to convert millions of descendants of Spanish Jews in the hope that they will alter the demographic balance.

If Israel wants to get involved, then instead of its self-righteous behavior, let the government seek practical ways to help the refugees and European countries coping with the influx. One step that could be taken immediately is assisting the European navies who are searching for and aiding the rickety boats carrying refugees, who paid thousands of dollars to smugglers who often abandon them to their fate.

Its an operation thats saving dozens, if not hundreds, of people every day. The Israel Navy in recent years has conducted numerous joint exercises with European countries in the Mediterranean and cooperation of this kind would be welcomed.

Israel has to decide whose side its on in this crisis. Is it on the side of countries like Hungary, which are disavowing and even abusing the refugees? Or on the side of Germany and Austria, whose citizens are going out of their way to help? Rather than help Hungary build a new fence on its border with Macedonia – which will lengthen the journey of thousands of families with small children by many weeks during the upcoming winter months and expose them to new dangers – Israel can offer to help the Germans and Austrians run programs to give the refugees technological skills that will benefit them hugely in their new lives.

But perhaps it would be best if Israel focused on itself. The government insists on referring to the 45,000 African refugees living in Israel for several years without any status as migrant workers and continues to seek ways to get rid of them. Almost all these refugees came from two countries – Sudan, where there was a civil war no less vicious than the one in Syria, one that claimed more victims and is essentially still going on; and Eritrea, which may not be at war right now, but still has a regime that is no less cruel or suppressive of human rights than that of either Syrian President Bashar Assad or his father.

The European refugee crisis does not only involve war refugees from Syria, but also those who fled fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and other active but long-forgotten battle zones. The populist call by Herzog is particularly humiliating given his unwillingness to take the unpopular step of supporting those refugees already living among us.

AFP