In recent years, tens of thousands of Africans like Abdul-Rasul have entered the country through its long desert border with Egypt, turning Israel, like parts of Europe, into a magnet for asylum seekers, and even more, for migrants desperate for jobs in the industrialized world.
Their arrivals are hardly being welcomed. Facing a public furor, the government is scrambling to erect a fence along the 220-kilometre Egyptian border and a massive detention centre in the remote southern desert.
With Israel, however, come special complications: Founded six decades ago in the wake of the Nazi Holocaust, its society is torn between a sense of duty toward the persecuted and fears that the influx might make the country less Jewish.
In a speech to parliament this month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned of a “flood” of illegal migrants. “It is threatening the jobs of Israelis, and it is threatening the Jewish and democratic character of the state of Israel,” he said.
The government says that all but a select few are economic migrants and not eligible for refugee status. But critics charge the government is turning away bona fide refugees fleeing persecution.
“The state is lying, it knows it is lying and it purposely refuses to check the refugees’ status because that will prove that it is lying,” said Sigal Rozen of the Hotline for Migrant Workers advocacy group.
The article reminds me of the S.S. St. Louis only in reverse. When the Jewish state of Israel is confronted with an S.S. St. Louis of her own she acts in kind by erecting a wall to hinder safe passage of would be asylum seekers as well as constructing a detention centre in the Negev desert to house those who make it to Israeli soil. That, plus a legal framework to keep asylum seekers in "legal limbo" as measures to dissuade others from following.
In 2008, for example, France recognised 9,648 refugees. In the same year, Israel recognised only four, despite the fact that several hundred asylum seekers enter the country every month.
According to Tally Kritzman, an assistant professor at the College of Law and Business in Ramat Gan and an expert on immigrant and refugee law, not one application has been approved since July 2009 when the interior ministry set up a new office to deal specifically with asylum requests.
"Basically what the government is afraid of is the pull factor," Kritzman explains.
"If the asylum seekers get status here, that has rights attached. They are supposed to get temporary residency, national health care, and social security."
The state fears that this will encourage more to come.
"The Israeli government is experiencing this as a mass influx and is trying to control it," Kritzman adds. "The main tool of control is to keep people in a legal limbo."
The words of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are clear on the matter: Israel does not want an influx of non-white, non-Jewish immigrants into the country. Allowing one would threaten "the Jewish and democratic character of the state of Israel". This is tantamount to saying a Jewish influx into Canada would threaten the Christian and democratic character of the dominion.
Considering how Jews in the diaspora, many of them refugees themselves from Nazi Germany, were influential in the shaping of western asylum systems in the post WWII era, including Canada's, Israel's resistance to African asylum seekers is hypocritical. The fact that many are fleeing genocide in Darfur makes the hypocrisy of the Jewish state grosser.
I don't wish this post to come off as "Israel bashing". Despite the criticisms of the state it is still the freest nation in the Middle East. What I wish to emphasize are the parallel concerns both Canada and Israel share in the face of an influx of a largely alien people.
One concern is the pull factor. The large scale granting of asylum and eventual citizenship to refugees will in fact attract more, many of whom we can reasonable assume will be bogus; being economic migrants abusing a humanitarian system for immigration purposes. We've seen that here in Canada with Sri Lankan Tamils, Mexicans, Roma from Hungary and Czech Republic, and others. The large and ever increasing influx becomes hard to manage making it nearly impossible to screen and monitor those who enter the country as well as deport those who are deemed inadmissible. National sovereignty is effectively undermined at considerable financial and social cost.
Another concern is the negative effects it will have on incomes and wages as well as poverty rates.
The ultimate concern is demographics. Should immigration and asylum systems be so unrestrained that they effectively alter the demographic character of a country? Is it wrong for Israel to want to maintain a Jewish majority and its Jewish character? There are advocates within Israel as well as in the diaspora who support African refugees in Israel but I wonder if that support has limits. It is one thing to advocate for residency rights for 20,000 non-Jewish Africans in a country of 7.6 million people that is 75% Jewish. But will that advocacy still burn bright if that 20,000 balloons to 100,000; to 200,000; to 1 million? Will their voices still be there when the steady inflow reduces the Jewish population of Israel to 60%? How about 50%? Is it still a Jewish state if the percentage of the Jewish population is reduced to 49.9%?
Will Canada still be Canada if the host majority is reduced to a racial and cultural minority? Is it still Canada when soccer and cricket become the top two sports replacing ice hockey and curling and the CFL? What will Canada become if nothing more than a postal code where saying you're Canadian describes where you're from but not who you are?
Many of the champions of Canada's immigration system are immigrants themselves but I doubt their zeal will still be there if immigration patterns were reversed. Israel seems to be a case in point. Italy is another. Mexico is building a wall on its southern border with Guatemala to stem the inflow of illegal migrants into Mexico while doing nothing to prevent many of its citizens from illegally entering the United States or even Canada. India is building a wall around Bangladesh for similar reasons while right-wing voices in the Indian Punjab decry migrants as a threat to Sikh cultural and political supremacy in the state.
I feel many immigrants prescribe for Canada what they would not consider for their native countries. But they feel confident enough to do so anyways because they are comforted by the knowledge that their identity is not threatened in their native lands by the mass introduction of disparate peoples. It seems what is good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander.