We Israelis Are Turning Our Backs on African Refugees

By Nir Hasson

Photo – South Sudanese disembark from a plane from Israel after getting deported back to Juba

The question is not, ‘Why not deport them?’ but rather ‘Why not absorb them?’ When framed this way, the comparison with 1930s Europe becomes very relevant

In an Op-Ed (Haaretz Hebrew, March 16), Gadi Taub and Nissim Sofer reprimand people who compare Israel’s policy of deporting African asylum seekers to the treatment of Jewish refugees prior to World War II.

Taub and Sofer urge us to “return the debate to reality.” In their view, “No one involved in the matter claims the deportees will face death, torture or rape in the destination countries. On this issue, there’s no grip on reality.”

From this, we can assume that if the deportees will not be subject to death or rape, then deporting 40,000 asylum seekers back to Africa is at least reasonable. But Taub and Sofer, like much of the debate over the policy, miss the main question: It’s not “why not deport them,” but rather “why not absorb them.” When framed this way, the comparison with 1930s Europe becomes very relevant.

The African refugee crisis is a global one that affects most of the world’s rich, enlightened countries. Arguments over immigration policy rage in European states, but there’s little doubt that Europe will take in some percentage of the refugees.

In most European countries, refugees make up 1 to 2 percent of the population. By some formulas, such as including former refugees who obtained legal status years ago, it could be as much as 5 percent.

Countries of a similar size to Israel, including Sweden, Finland and Norway, have absorbed much greater numbers of refugees than Israel has. Sweden, with 10 million citizens, has absorbed 481,000 refugees, Belgium 229,000 and Norway 118,000.

The Africans refugees in Israel constitute about half of 1 percent of the population, apparently a lower percentage than any Western European state. Thus the question that must be asked is whether Israel — a strong, wealthy country by any standard — can contribute to this global effort, even minimally.

Enlightened citizens of an advanced country are entitled to demand that their country contribute to global efforts such as reducing carbon emissions or preserving biological diversity. They’re also entitled to demand that their country contribute to the global effort to absorb victims of fate from Africa.

An Israeli citizen is especially entitled to demand this, given that his country expects two weak, impoverished countries — Uganda and Rwanda, whose gross domestic product is about a tenth of Israel’s — to bear this burden in its place. Why? Because their citizens’ skin color is similar to that of the people we want to deport?

The influx of refugees to Israel was a one-time event which stopped after a fence was built along the Egyptian border. Therefore, it’s also not clear what damage Israeli society would suffer by temporarily or permanently absorbing these tens of thousands of people, as long as their absorption was done in a planned, appropriate fashion, and not at the expense of residents of south Tel Aviv.

The progressive debate in Europe also includes people who see economic and social advantages to immigration. The time has come to examine this question in Israel as well. A report by the Ruppin Academic Center and the ERI Institute, which did examine this issue, found that absorbing the refugees holds great economic potential.

This context makes it possible to compare once again. Israel isn’t Nazi Germany, and it’s also not like the countries that closed their gates to Jewish refugees from Europe. But Israel was founded in part on the strength of a humanitarian demand that arose out of the distress of Jewish refugees after World War II. Moreover, the UN Refugee Convention was drafted as a direct lesson from the fate of those Jewish refugees.

So even if there’s no place for a direct comparison, doesn’t Israel have to contribute its part to the international humanitarian effort on behalf of these refugees, as a conclusion derived from this history? Is it more appropriate and just for Uganda and Rwanda to bear this burden in our place?

At the end of a hearing in the High Court of Justice this month, author David Grossman compared his grandmother’s fate to that of the African refugees. In the spirit of Taub and Sofer’s op-ed, one could dispute the first half of his statement: “40 years ago, an Israeli captain threw a black stowaway off his ship off the coast of Mozambique and the entire country was in an uproar. Now we’re going to throw 40,000 people into the water, to the sharks.”

But it’s genuinely impossible to argue with the second part: “My grandmother knocked on the doors of this country, and everybody has a grandfather or great-grandfather who knocked on doors and nobody would open them. And now we’re turning our backs, behaving brutally, even cruelly. Turning our backs actually says there was logic to the way our forefathers were treated.”

Nir Hasson

First Published by HAARETZ

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