Once a refuge, Israel ignores its real origins
June 22, 2012In a museum that exhibits dead children’s shoes and photographs of skeletons piled in holes, it was an Australian that angered me most.
Painted on a wall inside Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust museum, is a quote by the Australian diplomat Thomas W. White, dated 1938.
”As we have no real racial problem,” White told a conference of world leaders, ”we are not desirous of importing one.”
And with that, Australia joined the United States and almost every wealthy nation in rejecting Jewish refugees who were fleeing the Nazis.
White’s quote is a reminder of Israel’s founding purpose: to be a haven for refugees. Israeli leaders have long said with pride that they have reached out, not only to Holocaust survivors, but to desperate people from places such as Vietnam, Kosovo and Darfur.
What to make, then, of the recent vow by Israel’s Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, to rid the country of all illegal immigrants within three years? Or of the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has branded illegal immigrants ”infiltrators” and said he plans to build ”holding facilities” to store tens of thousands of aliens ”until they they can be sent out of the country”?
The most toxic migrants, we are told, come from sub-Saharan Africa. Since 2005, about 60,000 have crossed the Sinai Desert and through the Egyptian border into Israel. Yishai says these Sudanese and Eritrean immigrants are raising Israel’s crime levels, and that their numbers need to be quelled. Netanyahu argues that illegal immigrants burden Israel’s economy and threaten its Jewish character.
Then there are last month’s south Tel Aviv protests. Haaretz reported a crowd of residents waving placards and chanting ”the people want the Sudanese deported” and ”infiltrators, get out of our home”. The Likud politician Miri Regev participated in the protest and said that ”the Sudanese were a cancer in our body”. Africans’ shops and apartments were attacked.
It’s this last image, of broken store-fronts and glass, that will knock the wind out of many Holocaust survivors, some of whom fled Europe after Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass – where Nazis ran a series of co-ordinated attacks on Jewish homes, shops and synagogues throughout Germany and parts of Austria.
At a park in Neve Shaanan, an area of Tel Aviv inflamed by ”infiltrators”, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, Orly Feldheim, told a New York Times reporter: ”I feel I am in a movie in Germany, circa 1933 or 1936.”
Netanyahu should be chilled by what Feldheim said. Now that the Prime Minister’s word – ”infiltrators” – has reached the mouths of violent xenophobes, he has attached himself to scenes that could alienate even his most rusted-on supporters.
Netanyahu knows better than most that the Holocaust is never far from an Israeli’s mind. He should also know that many Israelis believe their country has a special responsibility to help those in need, given it was founded as a refuge for survivors.
Such faith has been drained by the Palestinian occupation, and Netanyahu’s latest announcements may have turned off life support. He has also crushed a key source of pride for liberal Zionists.
Like many moderates, Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University, in Montreal, Canada, and author of Why I am a Zionist, counts Israel’s compassion towards refugees as one of the country’s greatest achievements. ”To Israel, today’s refugee is tomorrow’s citizen,” Troy wrote in a Jerusalem Postblog. ”In a clear repudiation of the accusation that Zionism is in any way racist, Israel has accepted black, brown, and white refugees … with nearly 80,000 Ethiopian Jews constituting the only welcome migration I know of involving black Africans to a mostly white country.”
But can Israel still claim this self-image? Vic Alhadeff, the chief executive of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, believes it can. Alhadeff defends Israel’s immigration policies, arguing that the country has ”absorbed thousands of refugees from Vietnam, Albania, Kosovo and Darfur, and hosts 120,000 illegal foreign workers”.
”Like Australia,” Alhadeff says, ”Israel is attempting to balance humanitarian needs with the need to protect its borders from waves of illegal immigration.”
But if Israel genuinely wishes to strike such a balance, it has done a good job hiding it. It is one thing to have a prime minister who calls illegal migrants ”infiltrators”; it is quite another to have a ”Prevention of Infiltration Law”, recently amended to allow Israeli authorities to detain ”infiltrators” for up to three years.
While Netanyahu ponders his next assault on illegal immigrants, I hope he pays a visit to Yad Vashem. After he reads the quote by Thomas W. White, Netanyahu will find outside rows of trees honouring the ”righteous among the nations” – those brave souls, Oskar Schindler included, who risked their lives to rescue Jewish refugees.
Jonathan Swan is a Herald journalist.