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Why isn’t Israel accepting more refugees?

Netanyahu’s hypocritical stance on asylum seekers reflects country’s long struggle over ethnic and national identity

September 22, 2015 2:00AM ET

The European refugee crisis has not gone unnoticed in Israel. The media have been dominated by images of Syrian refugees enveloping Europe, and Israeli opposition Zionist Union chairman Isaac Herzog recently called on the government to allow Syrian refugees into Israel, saying, “Jews cannot be indifferent while hundreds of thousands of refugees are looking for safe haven.”

His remarks, however generous they may seem, expose the hypocrisy of Israel’s center left. He evokes Jewish heritage when convenient and abandons it when necessary. While Syrians qualify as refugees for Herzog, the 45,000 Sudanese and Eritreans in desperate need of asylum in Israel are labeled as infiltrators under Israeli law, detained, and in some cases even deported to third countries.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly responded to Herzog’s PR stunt and rejected calls to accept Syrian refugees. In his statement, Netanyahu said that Israel is “a very small country that lacks demographic and geographic depth” and discussed his plans to construct a fence along the eastern border with Jordan.

His response is hardly surprising; when Israel faced an influx of African asylum seekers, the government erected a surveillance fence along the border with Egypt as, he said, “a strategic decision to secure Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.”

The recent refugee crisis in Europe brings to light once again Israel’s struggle to consolidate its values as a Jewish and democratic state. While Israel is party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it never worked to establish a functional refugee system. As of March 2015, Israel recognized only four Eritreans and not a single Sudanese person as refugees.

While Israel is falling short in its obligations toward asylum seekers, the persecution of European Jews during the World War II remains an important part of Israel’s national narrative. The refugee issue has always been a politically loaded question in the Israeli context. At the same time that Israel acceded to the Refugee Convention in 1954, it adopted the Prevention of Infiltration Law. Under this law, all irregular border crossers are seen as infiltrators, and the Ministry of Defense is authorized to deport infiltrators, even before conviction. While the provisions of the law were directed primarily against the infiltration of armed fighters, the law is also invoked to prevent the entry of Palestinians into Israel or their return. Article 1(3) of the law defines an infiltrator as “a Palestinian citizen or a Palestinian resident without nationality or citizenship or whose nationality or citizenship was doubtful.”

Israel’s apparent inability to come to grips with its duality as a Jewish and democratic state is at the core of its response to the recent refugee crisis.

Israel’s reluctance to incorporate the Refugee Convention into its laws may be explained by the context of the time. The vast majority of individuals arriving in the country in the 1950s were displaced European Jews, many of whom were Holocaust survivors, as well as Jewish refugees who fled to Israel from Arab states in the Middle East and North Africa. Since a central aspect of Israel’s identity is the notion that it belongs to Jews, Israel’s immigration laws automatically grant citizenship to the Jewish diaspora. Israel therefore has never dealt with the Jewish refugee population as refugees, because they are already perceived as integral parts of the Jewish nation.

But at the same time, Israel has been dealing with another refugee problem: the Palestinians it expelled in 1948. The Prevention of Infiltration Law provides a legal mechanism for preventing the return of Palestinian refugees. When African asylum seekers began arriving in the country, Israel quickly moved to amend the law to consider all irregular border crossers infiltrators, including asylum seekers.

Israel is constantly seeking to delineate its national narrative through amending its immigration policy; it has worked hard over the years to preserve the status of refugees solely for Holocaust survivors, and it has succeeded in doing so legally. Netanyahu’s recent refusal to accept Syrian refugees was a similarly motivated attempt graft security concerns onto humanitarian ones by labeling Syrian refugees as infiltrators before they even entered the country.

On Sept. 6, Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page that Israel must control its borders “and prevent migrant workers, infiltrators or generators of terrorism” from entering the country. After stating that “Israel is not indifferent to the human tragedy of the refugees from Syria and Africa,” he quickly moved to call Syrians and Africans “infiltrators” and “terrorists.”

In a Cabinet meeting that took place that day, he further linked the recent refugee crisis to security concerns by discussing the Sept. 3 attacks against five young ultra-Orthodox American yeshiva students in Jabel Johar.

In his short statement on the refugee crisis, Netanyahu managed to link Israel’s security concerns with asylum issues while resealing the Pandora’s box of Palestinian refugees. Applying this line was particularly important for him, especially after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called on Saturday for the absorption of Palestinian refugees now fleeing the war in Syria to the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Even opposition leader Herzog did not dare refer specifically to Palestinian refugees in his calls for Israel to accept Syrians.

Israel’s apparent inability to come to grips with its duality as a Jewish and democratic state is at the core of its response to the refugee crisis. Israel’s refusal to absorb Syrian refugees, allow Palestinians from Syria’s Yarmouk camp into the West Bank or accommodate the 45,000 African asylum seekers in the country should all be viewed as a symptom of the same phenomenon: Israel’s assertion of its ethnic and national identity. In calling asylum seekers and refugees infiltrators, Israel chose to favor, once again, its demographic objectives over its commitment to international law. 

Talya Sultana Swissa is a graduate of Columbia University pursuing her master’s degree at Sciences Po at the Paris School of International Affairs. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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