In Holocaust’s Shadow, Israelis Argue Over Whether to Offer Syrian Refugees a Safe Haven

Jewish and humanitarian values battle security concerns in Israeli hearts and minds as migrant crisis plays out on their border and on their television screens.

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Migrants board a train after crossing the Macedonian-Greek border near Gevgelija, Macedonia, September 6, 2015.
Migrants board a train after crossing the Macedonian-Greek border near Gevgelija, Macedonia, September 6, 2015.Credit: Reuters

The world has been affected by the images of desperate refugees fleeing Syria, but for Israelis, the crisis cuts close to home, not only because the conflict they are fleeing is right across the border, but because pictures of the crowds at the Keleti train station and the marches across Europe are playing on the memories of Jews, reminding them of their parents and grandparents. These images have had more of an impact than the newly iconic photo of the young boy washed up on the beach, especially when paired with Hungary’s Prime Minister saying refugees are unwelcome because they threaten “the Christian roots of Europe.”

The Israeli national identity is, after all, predicated on Jews never being in the position of wandering unwanted across the world again, unwelcome in neighboring countries, undertaking dangerous journeys to find a place willing to accept them, where they can rebuild their lives in dignity.

And so, it is reasonable that they should want the Jewish State to be among those offering a hand to those who are now in a similar position.

Still, it was unexpected when the leader of the Israeli opposition, Isaac Herzog, declared over the weekend that: "I call on the government of Israel to act toward receiving refugees from the war in Syria” because "Jews cannot be indifferent while hundreds of thousands of refugees are looking for safe haven.”

Herzog may have been expressing the instinct many Israeli Jews felt deeply - they wanted and needed to do something to help - they couldn’t just stand by and watch. But it was also inevitable that to many of his countrymen, his words sounded shortsighted and naive. His political rivals on the right were quick to attack his statements and Herzog was immediately painted as a pie-in-the-sky naive leftist who in his desire to placate the West, was willing to risk Israel’s security in order to look good in the eyes of the rest of the world, and allow people who may still view Israel with deep enmity across the border. One particularly nasty comeback came courtesy of Likud MK Nava Boker, who posted on Facebook snidely directing migrants to the Zionist Union leader’s residence.

“Dear Syrian Refugee,

Upon your arrival to Israel, please contact MK Isaac Herzog at 02-6408533 for accommodations. You will be transferred to a comfortable home in Tzahala neighborhood, Tel Aviv.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official response to Herzog’s call may have spared the snark of Boker’s post, but his bottom line was the same. It was the answer one might expect from a leader whose government has built tall wire fences to keep asylum-seekers out, rejected nearly every petition to aid refugees, and deported migrants whenever possible, either to their native lands, or a third country. Netanyahu said “Israel is a small country without geographic or demographic depth which “must control our borders and prevent illegal migrant worker infiltrators or generators of terror" from overwhelming the country. He added visuals to his point by choosing to spend Sunday on the Israel-Jordan border inspecting the construction of a massive fence closing the eastern border, just as the fence on the Egyptian side has closed in the west.

Herzog quickly shot back that Netanyahu has “forgotten what it is to be Jewish - what it is to be refugees on the run. The Prime Minister of the Jewish people must not close the gates when human beings are running from their lives carrying their babies.”

The Herzog-Netanyahu clash of humanitarian impulse vs. fearful security concerns fairly accurately reflected what was going through the minds and hearts of Israelis as the migrant crisis plays out on their television screens. The drive to help spurred by the re-awakening of Holocaust memories is countered by fears for Israel’s own safety. This is paired with a feeling - with justification - that Israel has enough problems and challenges - including the problem of asylum-seekers already present within their borders, which it has yet to resolve in any meaningful way. Israel has firmly - and most agree, wisely - stayed as far out of the Syrian conflict as it could, judging it a no-win situation to line up either on the side of Bashar Assad or the rebel groups, neither of them being friendly to Israel. Now, Netanyahu supporters argue, is not the time to start getting involved beyond the emergency medical care it has periodically offered.

Those arguing with Netanyahu that it simply isn’t safe to take in Syrian refugees received a boost from headlines on Sunday that ISIS is plotting a “Trojan Horse” campaign of smuggling militants into Western Europe disguised as refugees. It also didn’t help when Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas suggested that more than half a million Palestinians living in Syria should be the ones who are invited across the border, conjuring up Israel’s fear of being flooded by Palestinians exercising their “right of return.”

There is also a public relations subtext to the Herzog-Netanyahu back-and-forth. Herzog - and those who echo his views see Israel being part of the solution to this international crisis as a helpful ticket into the club of western nations, at a time when it is stands so alone on the issue of the Iran deal.

Every time Herzog proposes Israel take in Syrians he says it should “be part of the international effort” - with an eye to being on the side of the “good countries” pitching in to help, joining hands with the Pope - in contrast to the majority of Arab countries turning their backs on their “Arab brothers.” And certainly Iran isn’t going to be rolling out the welcome mat.

Proponents of such schemes argue that Israel has everything to gain by pitching in - both as a moral obligation and a helpful public relations boost, and - despite Netanyahu’s fearmongering - little to lose.

As Zionist Union MK Nachman Shai said in a Sunday television interview, “Let’s say we offered to take in 1,000 or 2,000 Syrians. Or just open up the border on the Golan Heights and give them temporary shelter. What are they going to do to us? Smuggle in bombs? Sneak in chemical weapons?”

Perhaps Israel simply isn’t thinking creatively enough, some believe. Ideas are being floated such as taking in specific populations such as Syrian Druze in distress who have Israeli relatives on the Israeli side of the border. Proposals are being floated that Israel create a safe zone for Syrian refugees on the border in the Golan Heights, where safe transportation to the countries they seek to emigrate to could be organized, bypassing the expensive, treacherous and deadly journey across the sea that so many have paid smugglers their life savings to undertake. Imagine, they say, the symbolism of Israel and Germany working together in cooperation to rescue refugees.

“Just think,” said Shai, “the refugees are calling Angela Merkel “Mama Merkel.” They could be calling Netanyahu “Papa Bibi.”

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