This week's exposure of Israel's agreement with Rwanda’s government means that for $5000 a head, the Rwandans will accept African migrants deported from Israel. Reported rather laconically this week by Haaretz and Israeli television's Channel 10 news, it came on the heels of the news that the Interior and Internal Security ministers had agreed on the closure of the Holot detention center in the Negev, and that the government is stepping up deportations.
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But if you do the math, it’s pretty astonishing.
We are talking about roughly 40,000 migrants, many of them claiming political asylum, from Sudan and Eritrea. In addition to the $5000 going to the coffers of Kigali, each refugee will receive $3,500 in cash, and Israel will pay the airfare. We’re talking about nearly $400 million, or 1.4 billion shekels. That sum will be offset a bit by the closure of Holot but we’re still speaking about at least a billion shekels to remove 40,000 Africans.
But there’s no hue and cry, except from a tiny handful of left-wing MKs and human-rights NGOs. Even most of the Labor and Yesh Atid representatives are in favor.
I could make this column about the humanitarian case for allowing these refugees of genocide and repression to remain in Israel, and the special duty of a state that was founded for and by such refugees nearly 70 years, to do just that. In fact I have written that column more than once in the past. But since we began with the financial aspect, let’s continue with that.
According to government statistics, there were, in the second quarter of 2017 (the latest available data), 86,000 foreign workers in Israel on work visas. Add to that 57,000 Palestinians from the West Bank with daily work-permits and you have 143,000 non-Israelis working here legally, over a prolonged period when Israel is enjoying its lowest unemployment rates in its history.
The numbers of foreign workers are going up continuously, demand for cheap labor is booming and the Israeli economy could easily absorb these 40,000 Africans, most of whom who have been here for over five years and already speak Hebrew. Actually, the Israeli economy has already absorbed them – all the adults (and many of the children) among them are working, only without legal permits and protections.
So why spend a billion shekels on deporting them when a similar number of foreign workers will ultimately arrive to fill their place in restaurants, hotels and building sites?
One urgent political reason is that their concentration in the working-class neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv has become a rallying cry for far-right racist groups, whipping up the passions of local residents and shaming those who live elsewhere.
But Israel has contended multiple times in its history with large groups of disadvantaged immigrants concentrated in poor areas, and has dispersed them, with varying degrees of success across the country. Dispersing 40,000 peaceful people, prepared and willing to work hard, to smaller communities, should be relatively easy.
It’s easy to say that the real reasons behind the refusal of successive governments to find a better solution for the African migrants are racist. Yes, they are black and not Jewish. And yes, there is a degree of racism in the attitude towards them.
But it’s not that simple. Israel has absorbed a much larger number of black immigrants from Ethiopia over the last three decades, as well as 300,000 non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who are eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return due to some Jewish ancestry or relatives.
Racism is an exacerbating factor in the attitude towards the Eritreans and Sudanese, but not the root cause to the blank refusal of the majority of Israelis to contemplate their remaining in the country. On a purely economic level, Israel is now in the same category as other developed countries, with a comparable level of quality of life, and the need for hundreds of thousands workers from other parts of the world who are willing to take the low-paid menial jobs that Israelis won’t do.
Israel currently has 8.7 million citizens and - not including Palestinians - around 200,000 foreign migrants, legal and illegal. The Africans constitute only 20 percent of them.
So why can’t they stay?
For a start, unlike other migrants, the Africans were illegal from the moment they arrived. Other illegal migrants first landed at Ben Gurion Airport with valid visas, and then outstayed them. The Africans crossed Egypt and were smuggled by Bedouin caravans through the Sinai desert, waiting for nightfall to steal across the border. Since 2013, when the new border fence with Egypt was completed, that route was rendered inoperative and they're not arriving any more.
Thus the migrants here in Israel are an anomalous group that arrived between 2007 and 2012. Not part of an ongoing wave of immigration. In similar cases in other countries, the classic solution would be a one-time amnesty, allowing them to remain on long-term visas with a path to eventual citizenship.
That isn’t going to happen. Israel has one immigration policy, and it’s called the Law of Return.
Calling the law designed in the aftermath of the Holocaust "racist", is ridiculous and a perversion of history. In a period when Israel had a poor, struggling economy, and a majority of the Jews of the world still lived in precarious situations, in Displaced Persons camps among the ruins of the Third Reich and as citizens of Arab and Communist regimes busy intensifying their anti-Jewish persecution, there was no question the Law of Return was Israel’s raison d’etre.
Whether or not the law as it stands is still fit for purpose, when Israel has one of the strongest economies in the world and nearly all the Jews of the world live in societies where they enjoy equal rights and are protected by their governments, is not a question anyone with any significant political standing or ambition is going to start asking in 2017.
There are much more difficult questions of citizenship, demographics and identity, arising from Israel’s military control of the Palestinians, that have to be solved first, and the much awaited Trump Peace Plan is unlikely to bring us any closer to doing so.
The African migrants should be allowed to stay. It would be the moral and cost-effective course to take. But as Israel nears its 70th anniversary, it is still in no place to revisit its immigration policies.
The Law of Return remains the supreme and monolithic justification of Israel’s existence and if that means we need to spend a billion shekels sending 40,000 human beings to Rwanda, then that's a cost Israelis, it seems, are prepared to absorb.