Often these days, Israelis get the feeling that diaspora Jews feel entitled to sit back and call out instructions and demands from the sidelines, like fans at a football game, without having to bear the consequences of their advice. A case in point is the hot debate over the so-called anti-infiltration law, intended to allow Israel to deport African migrants who have been in the country illegally for a decade or more. Groups outside Israel are seeking to defeat the law and, it seems, to embarrass and defame the State of Israel for passing it.
The law—which applies to Africans, mostly Sudanese and Eritreans, who crossed illegally into Israel through Egypt between 2006 and 2012—gives a March deadline for them to leave the country or face incarceration. Those who leave sooner receive a $3,500 grant as well as a plane ticket. Those who would risk harm by returning to their home countries will be sent to third countries, reportedly Rwanda or Uganda. To encourage compliance, the law also withholds 20 percent of wages earned by infiltrators, to be disbursed upon their leaving the country.
Although there are almost 40,000 such illegal migrants in Israel, the law targets only males over 18. It does not apply to women, children, parents of small children, the elderly or even men who applied for asylum by January 1.
The interference of outsiders into this internal Israeli problem is even more egregious given the sincere heartache of Israelis themselves over this far-from-simple issue. Israeli doctors, pilots and high-profile businessmen have joined a chorus of infuriated protestors against the law. Thirty-six Holocaust survivors signed a protest letter to the prime minister.
Given the collective memory of Israelis of forced wandering, fear of death from enemies and painful denial of shelter, this is perhaps no wonder. But the truth is that most Israelis, myself included, overwhelmingly support this law. A recent Israel Today survey found 58 percent of Israelis in favor and only 23 percent against.
To understand why, one must look at the sorry unfolding of this tragic story. Ten years ago, Israel opened its doors to Africans braving the long trek through the Sinai Desert who were shot in cold blood by Egyptian soldiers and more often than not raped or murdered by their Bedouin smugglers. For this act of compassion, Israel found itself flooded by more than 61,000 Africans, almost all of whom took up residence in poor areas of South Tel Aviv. A 2015 police survey of residents in this area showed that 62 percent were afraid to go out after dark and 40 percent didn’t feel safe in their homes. It’s not paranoia or racism. According to police statistics quoted in a 2014 report from Israel’s Center for Immigration Policy, sexual offenses and violent crimes in neighborhoods with a large percentage of migrants were more than double and triple the rates of such crimes in the general population. Robberies were six times more frequent.
After a decade of begging the government for help to no avail, thousands of longtime residents of these parts of Tel Aviv have simply fled. Journalist Gilad Zwick quotes one of them who refused to give her name: “Illegal immigrants have completely taken over public areas, shout obscenities at us on a daily basis, make sexual comments to my daughter, or…disrespect our Jewish traditions.” In March 2017, a 29-year-old Eritrean was charged with the attempted rape of an 80-year-old woman. Only a few days later, a 40-year-old woman was brutally raped in the same area. Less acknowledged, but equally worrisome, is the fact that these African migrants are overwhelmingly Muslim and Christian, creating a demographic time bomb as well as a security risk if they stay.
So far, the problem has cost Israelis hundreds of millions of dollars. A 153-mile border fence in the Sinai, constructed to combat smuggling and other problems, cost $370 million and has spectacularly brought infiltration down to zero. But the cost of caring for the 40,000 illegals remaining in Israel after a push to have them leave voluntarily is ongoing.
In South Tel Aviv, children of illegals now outnumber Israelis in local schools and accounted for 94 percent of children treated at one local clinic. Haim Goren, a member of Tel Aviv’s city council, has said that last year’s city budget included more than $30 million earmarked for illegals, much of it at the expense of local residents, whose request for a building for teens at risk was turned down: “There was simply not enough room.”
The claim that Israel’s policy is at odds with Jewish values is now being made by a long list of leftist-leaning Jewish organizations whose policies, morals and compassion seem, oddly yet characteristically, to exclude concern for Israelis themselves. Many of the same groups supported past policies that were disastrous for Israelis, whether advocating for the Oslo Accords that almost got my entire family blown up in the Park Hotel or championing the Israeli disengagement from Gaza that resulted in Hamas rocket launchers replacing Israeli lettuce hothouses.
As for morality, Israel’s Chief Rabbi David Lau, son of survivors, had this to say: “The State of Israel is obliged to help refugees,” he told Yediot Aharonot. “But let’s distinguish between refugees and work-seeking migrants. And let’s not distort or deny the Holocaust. We need to bear witness to the Talmudic dictum which teaches us that ‘The poor people living in your own city come first.’”
Naomi Ragen is a novelist, playwright and journalist living in Jerusalem. She is the author of ten novels. Her most recent is The Devil in Jerusalem.