Israel's African Migrant Crisis Can Be Solved

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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African migrants walk on a road after abandoning a detention facility which began operating last week in the southern Israeli desert December 15, 2013.Credit: Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Many of us have a well-honed reflex, the moment we see a print or online headline containing the words “crisis” and “Middle East,” to immediately scan the text for “Israel.” If we don’t find it, we heave a sigh of relief and either move on or keep reading, but with a reduced sense of tension. It’s a natural reaction, conditioned by decades of this small country having so often been regarded as the center and source of all troubles in the region.

This week, as the international media finally sat up and began paying serious attention to the terrible tragedy of migrants from Africa – on tiny boats in the Mediterranean Sea, where they battle and drown, unreckoned, hid from our eyes – many Israelis and others whose main interest in the news is Israel no doubt had the same response. It’s not about us this time. No one can blame us for the plight of these survivors of the region’s civil wars and humanitarian disasters, for their abandonment at sea by gangs of smugglers, for the refusal of European nations to save them and offer them new homes.

Some of us may have even reflected that had Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not insisted on the construction, completed some 18 months ago, of a five-meter-high steel fence topped with razor wire along the entire border with Egypt, part of this wave of human misery would still be washing through Sinai to break in south Tel Aviv. Netanyahu’s fence severed the only land bridge between Africa and Asia, leaving the sea as the sole escape route from the continent of despair.

The fence has largely prevented Islamist terror from pouring over the border and it has dammed a lucrative revenue stream for the same criminal syndicates that funneled the migrants into Sinai. Drug trafficking is down (and prices in Tel Aviv are up), impoverished Eastern European women are no longer forced to walk through the desert, en route to Israel’s sex industry, and army reservists guarding the border no longer have to face a terrible dilemma when they are ordered to prevent starving families from crossing over. Tens of thousands of African asylum seekers live in Israel today because entire battalions of reserve soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces defied such orders.

That’s all over now. For a time, the smugglers tried forcing migrants to scale the fence – a few succeeded, the flesh on their arms and legs cut to ribbons in the process – but they soon stopped.

For once, one of Netanyahu’s grand designs made the transition from words in a speech to facts on the ground. But that did nothing for the estimated 55,000 migrants, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan, who arrived before the fence went up. While the world’s attention is now fixed on those who are trying to reach Europe by boat from North Africa, the African migrants living in Israel are part of the same crisis.

Another reminder of that came this week, in the news that three Eritrean asylum seekers who had been “voluntarily” repatriated to a third country (presumably Uganda or Rwanda, which reportedly have agreed to accept migrants living in Israel) were executed in Libya by Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL).

The “third country” solution, which Israel has so far coerced about 9,000 migrants to accept, is almost certainly worse than indefinite incarceration in the Holot detention center. Thankfully, Israel’s Supreme Court overturned as unconstitutional the recent law making the latter option possible.

Israel’s politicians are apparently incapable of devising a humane arrangement for the migrants. With the exception of a tiny group of activists, Israelis are not demanding that they do so. And while the racist claims against them are inexcusable – the asylum seekers are not agents of crime or disease – the residents of disadvantaged neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv demanding their removal have a point: Adding 50,000 unemployed migrants to one of the city’s poorest areas is begging for trouble.

All this raises the question, how is it that world Jewry has yet to wake up to this travesty? I don’t mean the handful of anti-Zionists who are eager for any evidence that Israel is a racist ethnocracy, but rather the ordinary, decent Jews who care about Israel and want it to do better, who are trying, without success, to revive the dormant peace process. They can actually do something about this issue.

American Jews, in particular, have a record here. There is no question that the lobbying and funding efforts of the Jewish community of North America forced successive Israeli governments to resume bringing the Falashmura from Ethiopia. Of course, many Israelis will say it’s not the same. The Falashmura are Jews, and Israel has a duty to rescue and gather in Jews from around the world.

Setting aside the question of whether the descendants of Ethiopians who converted to Christianity a century ago should suddenly be considered Jewish only because they can now leave Africa, there is another difference. To bring tens of thousands of Falashmura to Israel, the Jewish Agency operated compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar, where thousands of candidates were fed and interviewed, their children educated and prepared for life in Israel, while the Interior Ministry reviewed their applications. Those found eligible were flown to Israel, where they began the long and arduous process of integrating into Israeli society.

The African migrants, in contrast, are already here. Many have already learned Hebrew, and since they had no government support, no absorption centers, they learned how to get by in Israel the hard way.

The second major difference is that the Falashmura were fast-tracked to citizenship: As soon as they completed the conversion process, usually after a year, they were naturalized. No one is demanding that 55,000 African migrants be given full citizenship anytime soon, only that they receive legal status and be allowed to work, to pay taxes, to live in decent homes outside their cramped hovels near the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station and that they be protected from exploitation by rapacious employers.

Sadly, none of the parties likely to join Netanyahu’s new government is about to make solving the migrant tragedy a condition for supporting the coalition. Not even the Labor Party, whose participation now seems almost inevitable. Party leaders will walk out over who gets to be deputy religious services minister, but not to save the lives of 55,000 foreign nationals who can’t vote. On the other hand, right after the election is the best time to press the new government on the issue, because neither are there votes to be lost. Focused lobbying by influential Jewish-American groups for a reasonable solution that will allow the migrants to remain can succeed.

This could be a shining moment for Israel-Diaspora relations. Explain the obvious to Israelis, without rancor. God knows, you have enough media experts to craft the message. Explain that a country of 8.345 million, with a strong economy and low unemployment, can easily absorb a peaceful community of 55,000 grateful guest workers.

This isn’t about politics or PR, it’s just common sense. Call it tikkun olam if you like, call it humanism or Zionism or Jewish values, whatever works. This is a global humanitarian crisis, but it is our crisis as well. And at least the part of it that is in our little corner of the world can be solved, and now is the time to do it.