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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African Refugees Are Israel’s All-American Dilemma

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion The Daily Beast, 5-31-12

Israel’s African refugee quagmire is providing the national equivalent of a cardiac stress test.  The challenge has highlighted Israel’s weakest, darkest side, epitomized by the recent anti-immigrant violence in Tel Aviv. But the challenge also spotlights Israel’s strongest, sweetest side, epitomized by mass revulsion against the hooliganism, along with generous efforts such as the internet entrepreneur Yossi Vardi’s success in making Tel Aviv’s Bialik-Rogozin school a model educational institution for children of refugees from 48 nations.

Given the constant attacks on Israel’s legitimacy, proclaiming what this problem “reveals” about Israel will reveal more about the judge than the judged. More productive is to appreciate the clashing values and seemingly-impossible policy choices involved.

Americanization is one thing, but this is ridiculous. Israel, America’s erstwhile ally, has created its own illegal immigration mess—calling them “undocumented aliens” instead of “illegals” won’t solve the problem. In Israel as in the US, the phenomenon represents a massive social breakdown, mocking the rule of law. Democracies, based on consent of the governed, should not have phantom populations flouting the law, with America’s estimated 11 million illegals constituting 3.5 percent of its 313 million people, and Israel’s estimated 300,000 foreign workers, refugees, and illegal asylum seekers, constituting 3.8 percent of its 7.7 million.  Functioning countries cannot have such porous borders, for security reasons let alone communitarian concerns. But as softhearted democracies—even with their respective blind spots—Israel and America are in a pickle because they will not compete with countries like Egypt in shooting refugees trying to enter illegally.

Both countries also share a dirty little secret—they are addicted to their foreign workers, whatever their legal status. The illegal immigrant mess irritates America’s greatest sore, its racial tensions, with many illegal non-Americans hired as supposedly more reliable and cheaper employees than young African Americans. In Israel, foreign workers replaced Palestinians after Yasir Arafat led his people away from negotiations back toward terror in 2000. More disturbing, relying on Palestinian and foreign labor represents the flip side of Israel as “Start-Up Nation.” It risks becoming another, spoiled “magiya li”—”I deserve it”—capitalist society outsourcing hard labor, and betraying the initial Zionist impulses championing autonomy, self-reliance and manual labor.

Beyond the story’s ugly side—the border breakdowns and advanced capitalist societies relying on non-citizens for “dirty work”—is the beautiful impulse propelling individuals to find liberty and prosperity in desirable democracies.  Immigration, overall, is good for the immigrants and good for the host society, ultimately fostering creativity, energy, and a healthy diversity, even though both the US and Israel have legitimate concerns about preserving social sameness and real worries about diversity’s steep social costs.

As immigrant societies, both Israel and America have long been Fields of Dreams, with most Israelis and Americans today appreciating their own immigrant roots. When the passage from immigrant to citizen is such a central motif in most individuals’ family stories, let alone our national narratives, it is not so easy to ban what Emma Lazarus in 1883 indelicately called “the wretched refuse” from the “teeming shores”—note how America’s ambivalence toward immigration goes way back.

Americans and Israelis should follow two paradoxical policies. Just as David Ben-Gurion famously taught Palestine’s Jews in the 1940s to fight the Nazis as if there were no problems with the British, but to fight the British as if there were no Nazis—both societies should work harder at keeping illegal immigrants out while doing everything possible to welcome those who are already in. Borders should be sealed, treating undocumented outsiders as interlopers. If Israel’s southern fence worked as it should to keep terrorists out, discouraged asylum seekers would look elsewhere. But now, too many get in, also feeding a corrupt no-man’s-land nightmare for them in the Sinai desert of bribery, robbery, and rape.

At the same time, the social cost of having partial ghosts in a democracy, invisible when it comes to getting rights but quite visible when it comes to hiring or scapegoating them, outweighs the practical problems of luring more by treating them humanely. Just as every outsider should be treated cautiously as potentially an illegal immigrant, every insider should be treated generously as a potential citizen. Israel should live by its bighearted vow in its 1948 Proclamation of Independence to “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants.” And there must be a national conversation spearheaded by the prime minister and president acknowledging these immigrants’ contributions, admitting—as the tabloid Yediot Achranot noted—that their crime rate is quite low—and affirming that “their” story is “our” story. Seeking salvation, building a better life for this generation and the next, is not just the American dream, it is not just the Zionist dream, it is a compelling worldwide fantasy that so many Israelis and Americans are lucky to fulfill.

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.

Racist Right and the silent Center: Stop delegitimizing Zionism

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-28-10

Unfortunately, those of us fighting the delegitimization of Zionism face a new challenge.  Anti-Semitic Arabs and European useful idiots, the loony left and their puppet professors, relentlessly attack Zionism, caricaturing the liberal, democratic movement of Jewish nationalism as racist.  Now, in a strange perversion whereby victims of a smear absorb some characteristics bigots attribute to them, an ugly strain of Israeli racism is festering, threatening to delegitimize Zionism from within. Silent centrists must not stand by, idly watching racist rabbis in Tsfat ban selling houses to Arabs, young Jewish hooligans in Jerusalem beat Arabs, and loud bigots rally against Arabs and immigrants in Bat Yam and Tel Aviv.  Zionists must reject these immoral and outrageous acts as unwelcome in our otherwise big broad Zionist tent devoted to building a thriving, democratic Jewish state in the Jewish people’s traditional homeland.

Jewish racists betray Judaism and Jewish history. Having taught the world how humane and open religion can be, we must never forget Judaism’s sensitivity to others. Having suffered from discrimination, we must never practice it.

Similarly, Zionist racists betray Zionism and the Zionist mission.  Zionism’s rise is intertwined with liberal democratic nationalism, mixing ethnic and civic nationalism. And Zionism’s mandate to end anti-Semitism must never degenerate into discrimination against others.

The bullying bigots constitute a shrill minority – and have been widely denounced. Police arrested the hooligans. The Likudnik Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin – among many others – said the racist Rabbis’ letter “shames the Jewish people.” Given the relentless attacks on Israel and Zionism, given how mainstream anti-Semitic discourse is among Arabs, given how Palestinians routinely outlaw land sales to Jews, given how intellectuals have camouflaged modern anti-Semitism as anti-Zionism, it is a tribute to Zionism’s moral fibre that these voices remain so marginal.

Still, the demagogues test us all, morally, ideologically, educationally. The bigotry – which is nation-based not race-based – festers due to many problems today. It highlights the Israeli rabbinate’s corruption, hijacking state funds to advance a soulless, picayune, anti-Zionist, non-humanistic perversion of Judaism that has alienated generations of Israelis. It showcases epidemics of educational failure, growing violence, untrammeled aggressiveness, pagan youth, religious Jews loving land more than people or peace, in an increasingly rudderless society needing strong leaders and a reaffirmation of its founding ideals. It reflects the growing scar tissue of a society inured to any mistakes made regarding Palestinians because of Palestinian violence and rejectionism – which the world enables.

Silence is consent. Every rabbi, every educator, every settler, every Israeli citizen, every Zionist must boldly, loudly, and constructively denounce this ugliness. Rabbis must reaffirm the Torah’s teachings seeking justice based on mutual respect, because we were strangers in a foreign land.  Educators must launch a civics curriculum teaching democratic values based on inherent rights. Settlers, so often caricatured as anti-Arab aggressors, can distance themselves from this scourge by rejecting racist rabbis in their communities and implementing programs affirming democratic values.

Israeli leaders must spearhead this fight while all Israeli citizens should recommit to the defining civic, democratic values expressed in Israel’s Proclamation of Independence and embodied by David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin. Meanwhile, Zionists everywhere should reaffirm the teachings of Theodor Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Ahad Ha’am and Rav Kook, that healthy nationalism rejects racism, that a Jewish state can be a democracy not a theocracy, that Zionism involves cultivating the best in us not bringing out the worst.

Contempt for “the goyim” is an ugly Jewish characteristic Zionism tried burying in Europe. Oppressed peoples use insularity and superiority as defense mechanisms. African-American humor mocks white Americans; Jewish humor mocks non-Jews. But when you return to history, wield power, become a majority, those jokes stop being funny – or necessary.

Zionism was about becoming whole again, about taking responsibility. This Altneuland was to be another normal expression of nationalism, as so many other peoples fulfilled their rights of self-determination through nation-states. This old-new state was also to be a special framework for fulfilling Jewish values in a state, not theorizing about them in seminaries.

In the happy meeting between Judaism and modern Western thought, after nearly two millennia of misery, most Jews internalized fundamental democratic ideals. Jews saw how the most welcoming polities respecting individual rights and fostering mutual respect, the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, were also the most successful societies. Jews also functioned as society’s watchdog, denouncing anti-Semitism and other prejudices.  Every one of us who demanded in the 1980s that Jesse Jackson disavow Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism, every one of us who demanded in 2008 that Barack Obama disavow the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s anti-Jewish and anti-American demagoguery, must combat our own anti-Arab, anti-immigrant bigots.

The Obama case is instructive. Many of us resented that Obama and his family regularly attended a church led by a man whose offensive rantings targeted us. We abhorred Obama’s passivity, dismissing his denunciations in 2008 as calculated and long overdue. Here now is our opportunity to lead, demonstrating that every movement produces extremists, every form of nationalism has its xenophobes but constructive, democratic movements understand the value of self-policing and living up to our highest standards, not treating others as our enemies treat us.

Political morality transcends policy differences.  We need a passionate debate about the complicated questions regarding growing anti-Zionism among Israeli Arabs, regarding the messy immigration dilemmas bedeviling America and Europe not just Israel, regarding the complicated quest to empower a Jewish majority and an Arab minority in a democracy besieged by its neighbors. But we also need red lines against stereotyping, demonization, and bigotry.  Tzfat’s racist rabbis, Jerusalem’s Jewish hooligans constitute an ugly minority. They pervert Zionism, threatening to corrupt the collective Jewish soul, while unintentionally inviting us to clarify our values and affirm defining principles.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He is the author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” and, most recently, “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” giltroy@gmail.com