Israel's Passion for Persecuting Refugees Is Rooted in This Government's Xenophobia

The Netanyahu regime's nationalist attempt to isolate Israel from contact with non-Jews poses a far more dangerous risk to the country's future than the African refugees do.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Due to the election frenzy, the Jewish nation-state bill will likely be shelved, and the bill to outlaw Bibi’s propaganda daily Israel Hayom will probably remain buried in debates, but efforts to persecute African refugees are being fast-tracked through the Knesset, under the stewardship of MK Miri Regev (Likud).

The High Court struck down the government’s policy on detaining asylum seekers as unconstitutional for the second time back in September. It was unjustifiable, the court reasoned, to detain for three years refugees and labor seekers who had not been convicted of any crime other than sneaking into Israel. Keeping them for such an offense at the Holot detention center defied Israel’s Basic Law on Freedom and Human Dignity. The government was given 90 days to provide an alternative. This deadline is fast approaching.

The government’s new plan ignores the High Court’s intentions once again, shortening the incarceration times and juggling the reasons for being detained, but not altering the underlying approach of confinement and intimidation. Detention will be supplemented by 30 percent levies imposed on employers who hire refugees, and a lien on salaries of refugees (and migrant workers), with an exit refund, intended to be an inducement to leave the country.

The passion for persecuting refugees is rooted in the same xenophobic worldview that drives so much of our soon-to-be-defunct government’s agenda. It expresses a nationalist attempt to isolate Israel from contact with non-Jews, as if Israel needs to be immunized against non-Jewish contamination. This same warped orientation contributes to the ongoing attacks on Arab citizens and the torching of a Jewish-Arab elementary school in Jerusalem this week, and to operating Jewish-only buses in the West Bank without considering the racist implications of doing so. It underlies the disastrously timed campaign to advance the Jewish nation-state bill, despite alienating American and European allies still wobbly from the televised images of this summer’s destruction in the Gaza Strip, and partly explains the obtuseness to the rage aroused among Muslims abroad by efforts on the part of some MKs and right-wing activists to change the status quo on the Temple Mount.

According to the leading lights of the extreme right-wing parties that currently rule the country – Likud and Habayit Hayehudi – only Jews matter. All non-Jews are to be considered our enemies, since the whole world hates us. And 43,000 penniless Eritreans and Sudanese nationals threaten the Jewish character of a nation with six million Jewish citizens.

It should be clear to people who care about Israel that this mindset poses a far more dangerous risk to Israel’s future than the refugees do.

Our prime minister has mostly stayed on the sidelines while his team of pyromaniacs ratchets up anti-Arab hatemongering, but he has taken the lead in the campaign against the refugees. He claims that protecting their rights harms the Jewish People, and in his New Year’s address to the nation, he boasted of how his policy of bribing, threatening, humiliating and imprisoning helpless people had led thousands of them to “voluntarily” leave the country. The moral costs of these practices do not even register, apparently because the victims are not Jewish. And Israel’s image globally is so dismal already that there is little concern about sullying it further by abusing displaced Africans.

Demonizing refugees has proven to be a cheap way to bolster politicians’ patriotic bona fides, and at little cost; refugees are nobody's constituency and have zero electoral clout. But it is crucial that centrist and leftist parties do not get suckered by this temptation.

It is possible that some sponsors of the "anti-infiltration" legislation fear a resumption of the influx of asylum seekers and labor migrants, despite the fact that the Sinai fence, according to Reut Michaeli, director of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, reduced their number from 2,000 per month to a few dozen per year. But politicians like Regev, former Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar (Likud) and, sadly, his temporary replacement, Gilad Erdan (Likud), can’t resist scoring points with anxious Likud voters, whose paranoia is apparently easy to stoke.

There is another agenda behind the government’s fervor to pass a third version of a bill likely to be ruled unconstitutional. Right-wing party leaders are determined to weaken the High Court’s ability to reign in their excesses. But even critics who believe the High Court has overreached at times in striking down legislation should have been startled into concern for our democracy by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration that he would treat the High Court ruling as a recommendation, not a binding decision. The refugees should not suffer because of a crusade against the courts.

Doing the right thing costs money and delivers no votes, but is not that complicated. We need a functioning framework to process requests for asylum or refugee status, and a humane system for dispersing the refugee population among multiple municipalities rather than concentrating them in south Tel Aviv. We could provide limited health and social services, and legal employment opportunities, at least until refugees are able to go home, as most of them do throughout the world, once conditions allow. In other words, we would have to behave like Western Europe and North America.

South Tel Aviv was a complicated place – with insufficient infrastructure and services – even before asylum seekers appeared. The difficulties faced by locals – overcrowding, concerns for personal safety, loss of neighborhood identity – are real and profound. If Miri Regev and her ilk, who have done nothing for the residents of south Tel Aviv, wanted to help them instead of exploiting their distress, they would invest in the neighborhood and in a sane refugee policy.

Don Futterman is program director for Israel of the Moriah Fund, a private American foundation which supports the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, and numerous other civil society organizations in Israel. He can be heard weekly on TLV1’s The Promised Podcast.