Israel defines itself as a Jewish and democratic state. Few Israelis will resent this characterization and most see it as the essence of the Zionist enterprise. This definition is taught in schools, IDF courses, and is legally anchored in the Basic Laws. However, not only does the true meaning of these two terms – Jewish and democratic – cause ample controversy (What does it mean to be a Jewish state? What does it mean to be a democratic state?), but the terms themselves also oftentimes contradict each other. In recent years, Israel’s government has boosted the Jewish element over the democratic one. By doing so, it commits acts that contradict the essence of Jewish values – the mutual respect between people who are all created in God’s image.
The current coalition is considered not only as the most right-wing in Israel’s history, but also the one least committed to traditional democratic norms.The Jewish Home party openly tries to undermine the prominence of the judicial system through its control of the Justice portfolio. The ultra-Orthodox parties are undemocratic by nature as they are controlled by prominent rabbis rather than elected officials who dictate to the MKs which policies the parties will support based on Jewish tradition and law. Likud, which used to carry the liberal and democratic flag, is now behind some of the most outrageously populist bills, such as limiting foreign funding to NGOs, curtailing the Supreme Court’s potency, and barring entry to Israel for political organizations who promote boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).
Earlier this month, the government performed another step which supposedly promotes the Jewish character of the state over the democratic when it passed the plan to “bolster the exit of illegal immigrants”. These illegal immigrants from African countries are predominantly Muslim, a fact that repeatedly echoes in the rhetoric against them.
The case of illegal immigrants forces us to think about the dynamic of Jewish versus democratic, but also ponder on the common use of the term Jewish. The case of the African illegal immigrants portrays a clash between the prevalent concept of Jewish nationalism versus Jewish values. As Jewish nationalism is emphasized and highlighted in the public discourse and excludes members who do not belong to the Jewish majority group, Jewish values, such as caring for the foreigner who dwells on the land, are pushed aside and disregarded. While the term “Jewish values” is also illusive – it can mean different things to different people – we can’t shy away from discussing broadly accepted standards, such as assisting others in plight.
This recent government plan targets a group of illegal immigrants from African countries, mostly Eritrea and Sudan (83 percent of immigrants who arrived through Egypt), who came to Israel between 2007 and 2012 (when Israel finished building a barrier on the border) by foot after treacherous journeys, claiming to flee from persecution and war. The aggregate number of immigrants was approximately 65,000, but after years of mistreatment by the authorities, forced deportation, or imprisonment without trials, the current number is around 37,000. Thousands of immigrants filed for refugee status and asylum, arguing they are facing a lethal threat if they return to their home countries. Israel never examined most of the requests and considers this entire group as “illegal immigrants,” even though it is comprised of people from different countries and different background stories. However, Israel also did not expel them back to their countries of origin since that would conflict with the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Israel signed on in order to ensure that the ill treatment of Jewish refugees during World War II would never recur.
For a decade, these immigrants have been in legal limbo – not refugees, not legal immigrants. Unable to attain stable employment, they inhabit the poorest regions and search for manual jobs, the types of employment that most Israelis dislike doing themselves, such as washing dishes, cleaning bathrooms, and maintenance in hotels. South Tel Aviv became an area where Hebrew is rarely spoken and hundreds of people roam the streets and the parks, looking for something to do. The local residents slowly left, except those who couldn’t afford to do so, causing clashes between the original population and the newcomers and pressuring the government to take a harder stance against illegal immigration.
Due to the volatile situation in Eritrea and Sudan, Israeli authorities granted immigrants from those countries temporary protection status, meaning they were not immediately deported and have to renew their status every three months, yet they are not recognized as refugees and can lose their status every renewal appointment. Many Western countries who received immigrants from these two countries acknowledged their refugee status and absorbed them. The status of immigrants from other countries, who do not receive this group protection, is examined on an individual basis. From the few that were examined, most were denied refugee status and sent back, although the court recently ruled that the Ministry of Interior Affairs did not properly consider the requests. The ambiguous immunity given to the majority of the illegal immigrants, plus the surging pressures from Israeli citizens to take a stance against the deteriorating situation in their neighborhoods, led to the creation of Holot Detention Facility. In this prison-like facility in the middle of the Negev desert, male immigrants from Eritrea and Sudan were forced to live in egregious conditions. The Supreme Court ordered the government to shut down the facility three times due to its violation of human rights, yet the government legislated new rules to maintain it, thus bypassing the court’s judgements.
In November 2017, the government decided to close the facility by March 2018 based on the latest court ruling and find an alternative solution. However, the solution that was put to a vote and passed earlier this month only exacerbates the situation – the illegal immigrants will be given an option of leaving for a third country, Uganda or Rwanda, with 3500 USD in their pockets, or face imprisonment in Israel. Uganda and Rwanda claim that they never agreed to such a proposal by Israel.
There are a few salient issues underpinning this so-called solution. First, the color of the immigrants’ skin cannot be overlooked with Israel’s contentious history of race-relations. The Ethiopian Jews who made aliyah underwent painful processes to justify their Judaism, and some were forced to undergo Orthodox conversion and change their names, yet they are continuously discriminated against by religious institutions. Their assimilation in Israel has been slow, incomplete, and they still feel as second class citizens. The color of their skin was a major issue in the protests organized by the Ethiopian community in 2015, highlighting the systematic lack of investment in a community that is considered “backward.” Second, the illegal immigrants are predominantly Muslim. When MK Miri Regev said in 2012 that “the Sudanese are a cancer in our body,” she referred to the increasing amount of Muslims who found refuge in the Jewish state. They are considered a Muslim fifth column that managed to infiltrate vis-a-vis international obligations and seeks to dismantle the Jewish enterprise. Third, Israel has around 90,000 illegal work immigrants, mostly from Eastern European countries, who either overstay their visa or work on a tourist visa, and are not targeted by the same intimidation tactics and poisonous rhetoric.
Israel is a Jewish state, a fact that is undisputed by the majority of citizens, yet Jewish nationalism tries to portray it as under threat. In their efforts to further anchor the Jewish character of the state, contemporary right-wing politicians often forget that Jewish values extend from mere self-care to a global approach of tikkun olam (repair the world). Deporting nearly 40,000 Muslim illegal immigrants won’t make Israel more Jewish – demographically it’s a drop in the ocean – but it will make it more exclusive, less merciful, and infringe on the lessons the Bible teaches us about accepting the foreigner. Even though every Passover we retell the story of our refugee status and enslavement in Egypt, we forget to “love your neighbor as yourself.“ (Leviticus 19:18)
Fortunately, this last plan appalled enough Israelis to make it to the headlines for several days. El-Al pilots declared that they will not operate flights with deported illegal immigrants, Holocaust survivors called for the immigrants to take refuge in their homes, Israelis joined protests organized by the immigrant community, and a few women offered to marry asylum seekers. Benjamin Netanyahu said in 1997 that the left forgot what it means to be Jewish, but it seems that he and his coalition forgot that “what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah” (Hillel the Elder in the Babylonian Talmud).
There are other options to solve the predicament of the illegal immigrants: instead of contracting more legal workers, Israel can give the African immigrants an extended temporary work status and place them based on the market’s need; Israel can thoroughly examine the asylum requests by international standards and make a case-by-case decision, eventually deporting only those whose status is officially refuted; other cities, not only Tel Aviv, can offer to absorb some of the immigrants and relieve the stress inflicted to the residents of South Tel Aviv. The solutions exist, but as long as Jewish nationalism continues to control the scene, it becomes more difficult to discern what kind of Judaism Israel wishes to protect.