Israel's Right to Choose Its Migrants

Those crying out for Israel to let refugees and migrants flood freely into the country ignore the moral right of a nation state to discriminate in favor of its own people.

Avi Shilon
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To be honest, I live my life outside the areas where refugees and migrants reside, but whenever I encounter them, I try to put on a pleasant expression. Thinking about their evil fate is distressing. Every time Knesset member Miri Regev of the Likud party and her ilk raise their voices about the threat posed by the refugees, I'm horrified. And the reports on the detainment camps, strict legislation and deportation supervisors don't fill me with joy either. Nevertheless, when I hear the complaints of the other side of the barricade – those who shout only about the injustice of how the state treats people in distress – I'm impressed primarily by their almost insufferably enlightened tone.

Their discourse is afflicted first and foremost by its most popular grievance – the one that speaks of our being Jews, the children of a persecuted people who are obliged to take a moral approach to the migrants; all the more so, because the gates of other countries were closed to the refugees of the Holocaust. There is some irony in the use of Holocaust imagery by the "enlightened camp," when the same language is considered disrespectful when used by the right in reference to national security risks. When it comes to really improving the situation, the question isn’t if we have an obligation to the refugees, but what the extent of that obligation is. What number of refugees is Israel willing and able to accept? The paradox is that to care for the refugees as people, we first need to talk about them as numbers.

The question of numbers has, of course, economic, social and moral components. But the ethics aren’t just about our obligation to the refugees, but also about the noble principle embodied in the Law of Return.

It may sound strange, but because of the struggle with the Palestinians and now-popular intellectual views, it is difficult to discuss a law that gives preference to Jews as a moral law. Yet the obligation of the state – which has already proved itself over the years during waves of Jewish immigration – to absorb every immigrant of its own people, was the moral justification for the existence of the State of Israel, notwithstanding the state's national security difficulties and the fact that its establishment contributed to the injustice done to the Palestinians.

How is it exactly that a law that discriminates in favor of Jews can be considered a moral law? The reason is that as we have not reached the End of Days, the world is divided into nation states. If every state were obligated to show particular concern for every one of its own people, the world would be a better place from a Universalist perspective.

Those who stubbornly insist on accepting into Israel, without distinction, every non-Jewish migrant, aren't more moral (or realistic) than others. As a matter of fact, it is incumbent on them to honestly answer several questions: Why say yes to Africans but no to Palestinians who demand the right of return or family reunification? And if Palestinians are also entitled to these rights, does the respondent recognize the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state, or is his hidden goal the creation of a "state for all its citizens?"

The processes of globalization have changed the world and caused mass migrations. Strong states must absorb members of foreign nations from distressed areas and take care of them. Israel's attractiveness to migrants should be seen as a Zionist accomplishment, but without public discussion about imposing a limit on the number of refugees, no solution will be reached. What is a fair and reasonable number? 20,000? 50,000? 100,000? The government must provide reasonable answers. But only an agreed upon limit will achieve the two desired goals: The annulment of the legal and verbal cruelty against those included in the quota, and the undermining of the claims against Israel's right to toughen entry requirements and even deport, without their consent, those who have illegally crossed the borders beyond this number. 

Sudanese refugees in Tel Aviv celebrate South Sudan's independence, July 10, 2011.Credit: Sara Miller