It is no small irony that a country like the United States that was built by and prospered because of immigration would come to regard the influx of foreigners to our shores as a problem. That is also true of the State of Israel which, much to its surprise, has found itself being swamped by unwelcome African migrants who have poured over the border with Egypt and presented the Israeli government with a ticklish dilemma. Anger about the influx bubbled over yesterday in a Tel Aviv protest that turned violent and where both demonstrators and some politicians in attendance uttered statements that could only be characterized as racist. Prime Minister Netanyahu was quick to condemn the tone of the protest as well as members of his own party for behavior that he rightly said “had no place” in the country.
That such sentiments were given a public airing will be fodder for Israel haters. But once we condemn the protest, it must be admitted that the idea that tiny Israel should be considered the solution for African poverty is absurd. There are currently approximately 70,000 illegal African immigrants in Israel, roughly one for every 100 Israelis—Jew and Arab alike. In such a small country, that’s a large burden for Israelis to carry. If Americans are upset about undocumented immigrants in this country, the uproar in Israel isn’t hard to understand. Moreover, unlike the bulk of illegal immigration into the United States, the Africans are not merely a function of an economic cycle in which Mexicans and other Central Americans cross the border to fill low-paying jobs such as farm work. The Africans are refugees from war and famine in East African nations like Sudan and Eritrea, who not unnaturally see democratic and prosperous Israel as a haven from suffering that they cannot find anywhere else in the region. It’s also true that unlike the nations they pass through on their way to Israel, the Jewish state has treated newcomers with compassion.