By Ira Sharkansky
Letter from Israel 

The unwanted who keep coming


It’s time for another round of that hoary folk song about disaster just about everywhere, i.e., “They’re rioting in Africa, they’re starving in Spain...”

The ugliest story concerns more than 70 bodies, decomposed to a smelly lump making counts difficult and identification impossible, found in a closed truck along a highway in Hungary. No less disturbing are reports by an Israeli journalist who interviewed women in a refugee camp on the Jordan side of the Jordan-Syria border. There were few men to be interviewed. The women told stories of being trapped between inhumane fighters of pro- and anti-Assad gangs, repeated rape, and the destruction of what had been their homes and neighborhoods.

Refugees in Jordan, and others in Lebanon, are part of those feeding current streams of migrants.

Libya has become as bad as any country, and is a jumping off place for its own people and other Africans, with many ending up as fish food while on the way to Italy.

Individuals, families, clans, and tribes have moved since the beginning of recorded history. Usually they went in search of better opportunities, and had to battle their way among those who did not want them.

There are lots of estimates, and no numbers that appear to be authoritative.

Numbers for Britain range between 550,000 and 950,000 illegal immigrants. US estimates are much larger but no more exact, from 10 to 20 million. German sources report close to 60,000 coming in 2014, which was a 75 percent increase from a year previously. The Economist reports that more than 300,000 migrants have reached Greece and Italy this year, and are coming at more than 3,000 per day. Overall estimates range up to 800,000 for those reaching Europe in the most recent 12 months, significantly higher than estimates for the previous year.

One of the United Nations’ recent contributions to world peace has come from its Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It has urged the Netherlands to rid itself of Black Pete, a character portrayed in cartoons and Christmas festivals. Dutch residents seem to be divided among those who call the tradition a disgrace, and those who see the UN effort as “racism against the Dutch.”

Let’s hear it from Israelis, also likely to be divided on the matter, but welcoming a UN resolution against someone else.

Also riling the Dutch is commotion about a review written about several books on race and racism in the United States. The editor chose to headline the review with a fictional quote appearing in one of the books, said to come from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, “N--ger, are you crazy?”

The brouhaha resulting gets to an underside of what was once the largely all white Netherlands society, with a history of both openness and meanness toward minorities. Among other things, it’s been good for the Jews and bad for the Jews. Varda’s family includes a Dutch cousin who was given refuge in a Christian household as a young girl when her parents went off to be killed, and an uncle who sought refuge in the Netherlands from his native Germany, was turned over to the Germans, and was sent east to be killed.

The United States no longer owns the title of the place that attracts droves of migrants looking for something better. The 13 percent of the US population that is foreign born is about the same as comparable figures in every country of western Europe, and in some cases (Austria, Ireland) significantly smaller than that of a European country. Some 25 percent of Israel’s Jewish population is foreign born, with the overall percentage of foreign born closer to 20 percent, the same as the percentage of foreign born in Ireland.

Israel’s traditional posture is to welcome and indeed to encourage the immigration of Jews. Non-Jews, including those married to Israeli Jews, take their chances with immigration officials who can be testy. Yet even here one can hear that Jewish immigrants are given too good of a deal, and contribute as much to crime as to the nation’s well-being. Cynics say that Israelis admire immigration, but do not Like immigrants.

Attitudes are almost entirely negative toward the illegals who came from Africa in large numbers before the completion of a barrier along the border with Egypt. Pro- and anti-migrants compete with slogans and pressure on politicians. Officials are doing what they can to entice African countries to accept migrants and to persuade migrants to leave voluntarily, and legislating periods of confinement for the illegals who do not leave, as well as their exclusion from Tel Aviv and Eilat where they have been problematic. Against them are decisions of the Supreme Court that adhere to higher standards of civil rights. There are stories of individuals among the illegals who have obtained university degrees in Israel, while they work in menial jobs that Israelis do not want. A group of illegal teenage African girls represented Israel in an international track and field competition.

I grew up with stories of immigrant grandparents who worked as peddlers and small shopkeepers, with only members of my third generation climbing to the upper reaches of the professions. Then I took my own way to a place I found attractive, and a tenured position at a world class university. Nonetheless, I suffered problems of language, culture, and some antagonism. 

International migration is not easy, even in the best of conditions. It is a catastrophe for the migrants pushed out of their homes by violence or other conditions that seem impossible, risking death on the way to a better place, then incarceration or other limitations when arriving. 

The first world no longer has open doors and a need of people, and it does not want people likely to bring problems with them. The empty spaces of Canada and Australia are only marginally inhabitable. Both screen applicants carefully for what they can contribute, with Australia paying distant islands to take those who have come illegally.

We see common responses in all the places that attract those who have been on the move since Emma Lazarus described them more than a century ago from the American perspective as the the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, wretched refuse homeless, tempest-tost of other teeming shores. 

On the one hand are current laws and considerable sentiments associated with post-Holocaust humanitarianism. On the other hand, is a concern to limit the numbers, in some views keeping them as close to zero as possible. Yet there is also in all the target countries a shortage of people willing to do menial work for low wages. All told, there is a good deal of political conflict, and no shortage of hypocrisy. 

Mass migration appears to be inevitable, and one of the insolubles that will keep policymakers and commentators gnawing at themselves in search of solutions not likely to be discovered.

Ira Sharkansky is a professor (Emeritus) of the Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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