Migrant Mitzvahs

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion The Daily Beast, 6-12-12

“52% of Israeli Jews agree,” the Times of Israel headline cried: “African migrants are ‘a cancer.’” The subhead continued that the poll also “establishes a direct correlation between racist attitudes and religiosity.”  While sobering themselves, these findings about bigotry will of course feed other bigotry, with the ever-more-popular “Israel is racist” and “religious people are yahoos” memes leading the way.

The polls indicate a problem that Israel has—which Israel shares with many Western democracies, including the U.S. The same day the Times of Israel publicized its immigration survey finding, the CBS News Political Hotsheet pronounced: “Most Americans think Arizona immigration law is ‘about right,’” with 52 percent of Americans approving the controversial law requiring Arizona law enforcement officials to check citizenship status aggressively.

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An African migrant stands as a right-wing protestors walk past holding Israeli flags and banners during a demonstration against African migrants in Tel Aviv. (David Buimovitch / AFP / Getty Images)

Immigration is a blessing and a curse, a welcome engine for creativity, entrepreneurship and growth as well as a dramatic social disruptor.  Even immigrant-friendly societies such as the US and Israel have long histories of resisting newcomers. The United States has NINA—No Irish Need Apply signs in windows—in its past; Israel has “sabonim”—calling Holocaust refugees “soap”—in its. The anxiety over immigrants is partly rational, partly atavistic. Immigrants sometimes compete for jobs, commit crimes, upset social order.

Furthermore, they always represent change. The great liberal icon Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, worried about the different mores, customs, sensibilities, and attitudes toward democracy immigrants would bring.  His fears do not invalidate the power of the Declaration of Independence, just as some polls, and a series of ugly incidents do not justify branding Israel as a racist society—especially when most Israelis and most of Israel’s political leadership denounced the recent hooliganism.

This problem is educational—citizens have to learn that immigration benefits society, that immigrant pathologies are not more prevalent only more visible because immigrants stand out, and that, regardless of the pragmatic payoffs, welcoming the less fortunate into free, more prosperous societies is a democratic “mitzvah” in the fullest sense of the word, a commandment, an obligation, a good deed.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

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