The big lie – that refugees and asylum-seekers from Sudan and Eritrea have come to Israel to undermine the Jewish character of the state - is gaining traction. It's a calumny that must be refuted, and forcefully, at every opportunity.
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This claim, repeated at increasingly frequent intervals not only in the media but also in the Knesset, has many believers and many sympathizers, who have been drawn in through their fears for the future of the Jewish state and their support for the draconian government measures taken against the refugees. The residents of South Tel Aviv, according to a neighborhood leader I've spoken to, are not worried about competition for minimum-wage or below minimum wage jobs (a common assertion in the media), nor are most Jews who don't live there themselves deeply concerned about the neighborhood’s overnight transformation. Instead, they believe that 53,000 desperate Africans who have snuck into our country are part of a conspiracy of millions of Africans dreaming of Zion denuded of Jews.
This fear not only makes no sense - it is sad, even pathetic that anyone buys such a claim - but it dovetails nicely with our government’s strategy. Deterrence - discouraging more refugees from trying to reach Israel – is at the top of its agenda. This mediates against any effort to address the migrants’ needs, or to acknowledge their refugee or asylum seeker status, because to do so would make Israel a more inviting destination for potential future migrants. It also means the government has a stake in fear and hate-mongering, since they justify the arrests and detention which the government is offering in place of a reasonable refugee policy.
Miri Regev (Likud-Beitenu) convened the Knesset Interior Committee that she chairs on Monday to investigate the sources of funding for NGOs that work with the refugees, trying to pad the basic lie with the bogus charge that the recent refugee demonstrations are part of a left-wing plot to transform Israel into a state of all its citizens rather than a Jewish and democratic state.
Regev and her allies in Yisrael Beitenu are attempting to revive the dormant demonization campaign against the left and civil society organizations while also trashing the African migrants. The giveaway is the participation of Im Tirzu in the committee meeting. Four years ago, right-wing strategists identified funders as a weak link in Israeli civil society and they have been trying to delegitimize funding channels ever since. Im Tirzu should already have been discredited in the eyes of discerning citizens when a Jerusalem Court upheld contentions that the organization has fascist characteristics. Instead Im Tirzu beats a tiresome and relentless tattoo of fabrications against the New Israel Fund, a foundation representing thousands of Israel-loving Zionist donors.
The “evidence” that the refugees are incapable of organizing demonstrations and transportation by themselves, that they could not have happened without an external guiding hand, is extraordinarily patronizing, reminiscent of government propaganda accusing Israel of organizing demonstrations in Egypt and Syria. The refugee communities, particularly the Sudanese, have proven extremely adept at organizing for self-help, and if one is looking for parallels to the Jewish experience, this is a good place to start. The suggestion that the demonstrations were not "spontaneous”, since dozens of buses brought protestors to Jerusalem, is a straw man, because no one claimed they were spontaneous. As for the funding, the refugees took care of that too, by paying 40 shekels each to get on the bus.
Most Knesset members and all of the NGO reps stayed away from the Knesset meeting. They know that fewer than 100 Eritreans and Sudanese came in to Israel last year, hardly a threat to our national or religious character, and that the funding questions are illegitimate in an open democracy.
Far from the spotlight or headline-seeking politicians, there are private citizens and government officials, even whole ministries, working hard to help the refugees and asylum seekers sustain themselves with some minimum of dignity. The Social Welfare Ministry, for example, knows that persecuting 53,000 people including many women and children, whose needs have to be met, is not likely to improve anybody’s situation in South Tel Aviv or other places with sizable refugee populations like Eilat. Tel Aviv has pioneered frameworks to provide needed health care and education to refugee families, worthy of replication elsewhere. But municipal leaders who are sympathetic to the refugees’ situation are also fearful that efforts to provide needed services will make their towns magnets for other migrants and they will be overrun. The situation is not simple.
The refugees are going to be here for a while. We need to find a way to live with them rather than lock them away. We must continue to repudiate the lies of Miri Regev and her ilk, and fight policies that defy our Basic Laws in the courts. But we should also be building alliances between sympathetic government leaders and officials, the refugee leaders, and the NGOs, including several led by the refugees themselves.
The joke in this tragic-comedy is that the refugees could not care less about the Jewish character of the state; they don't intend to become citizens or to remain here permanently; above all, they came to Israel because they expected more humane treatment in our Jewish democracy than in the Muslim autocracies along the way.
Don Futterman is the Program Director for Israel for the Moriah Fund, a private American Foundation working to strengthen civil society in Israel, including support for the Hotline for Migrant Workers. He can be heard weekly on TLV-1’s The Promised Podcast.