At the turn of the twentieth century, Europeans started to immigrate in greater number to the United States, facing mortal dangers on their transatlantic journeys. The American government eventually reacted with the Immigration Act of 1924 in order to restrict southern and eastern Europeans from entering the country. Israel today is facing similar problems with migrants, most notably from South Sudan and Eritrea, embarking on their own treacherous journeys through Egypt to reach the port city of Eilat. These migrants face rape, torture, and organ theft by Bedouin smugglers on their grim walk through the Sinai Desert.
These African migrants hopes at obtaining security and economic prosperity have taken a sharp turn for the worse as race riots have erupted in reaction to the influx of migrants. On June 4th, an apartment of two Eritreans was set on fire with a nearby spray painted warning: “Get out of the neighborhood.” Fortunately no one was injured in the fire. Many Israelis have protested in recent weeks at the estimated 60,000 African migrants that are now present in the country, labeling them as “infiltrators” and a “cancer” to the Jewish homeland. Many Israelis believe these asylum-seekers have raised the level of crime in cities such as Tel Aviv and fear that they will take precious jobs from a country that already faces serious issues in the housing and job sectors.
On June 11th, a group of refugees, mostly composed of Eritreans and South Sudanese, protested in front of the United Nations mission in Tel Aviv. They chanted against the official announcement released last week that all illegal immigrants would have to turn themselves within the next week or face immediate deportation. The migrants proclaimed that this was an infringement on international refugee law. For example, Eritreans who have fled their countries current dictatorship will certainly face danger if they are forced to return home. Sudanese, on the other hand, will be viewed as traitors in their native country because of the hostile Israeli-Sudanese relations. However, Israeli officials site that citizens of countries that it has diplomatic relations with, such as South Sudan and Ethiopia, would not face mortal danger if forced to return back.
Many have been quick to judge these announcements as a result of racism. However, these charges may oversimplify the issues at hand. Israel’s history is one of refugees with people from the Middle East and North Africa migrating to the country in the mid-twentieth century. Recently in the early 1990s, Israel welcomed in Ethiopian Jews, also known as Beta Israel, with the current community estimated at 120,000. The community still experiences difficulties including allegations that several Israeli blood banks were caught disposing of Ethiopian donations out of fear that their blood was tainted with HIV/AIDS. Although these two separate periods of immigration faced severe challenges, both groups have been able to make substantial progress in Israeli society. Thus, although there might a degree of racism in recent protests, Israeli society has been proven to overcome the xenophobic elements that plague most countries.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu states that Israel is a “Western liberal democracy” that is “safe for all.” However in light of recent events, many criticize the upcoming deportation as the Israeli version of Kristallnacht, a 1938 series of attacks against Jews in Nazi Germany. Whether or not this is mere sensationalism, Israel’s claim to be the only democracy in the Middle East will continue to face sharp criticism until they find a sustainable solution to their refugee problem.