Three years ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to accept any Syrian refugees, citing Israel’s “lack of demographic and geographic depth.” Netanyahu characterized such a policy as a threat to the majority Jewish character of Israel, even though pro-refugee Israeli politicians were only calling for 10,000 refugees to be taken. The Prime Minister explicitly justified his administration’s decision to deny entry to refugees in terms of “demographic” preservation, as well as security concerns.
Of the U.N.-estimated total of 13.5 million Syrian refugees in need of humanitarian assistance, Israel, a bordering neighbor, has at present resettled none. According to the New York Times, a widely-lauded proposal to resettle 100 orphaned Syrian children was never implemented. Although Israel continues to send humanitarian aid to besieged areas in Syria and to treat wounded Syrians in Israeli hospitals, it has kept its door firmly shut. Since 2015, Israel has constructed a “smart fence” on its eastern border with Jordan. Its purpose, according to Prime Minister Netanyahu, is to ensure that Israel is not “flooded with illegal migrants and terrorists.”
Given that Israel borders Syria, Israel’s government is absolutely right to be concerned about the potential for terrorist infiltrations from Syria. Israel has allegedly funded Sunni rebel groups in Syria in order to counter the influence of ISIS and Iranian-backed Shia militias. Israel has been repeatedly subjected to terrorist attacks, has hostile relations with the majority of its majority-Muslim neighboring states and is an explicit target for destruction by ISIS. Although Israel has not been the focus of ISIS’s military and terrorist efforts, IDF forces have broken up ISIS-linked terror cells planning acts of violence, and Nashat Melhem, the perpetrator of the 2016 Tel Aviv shooting, was reportedly inspired by the Islamic State.
All this is to say that Israel’s suspicion of Syrian refugees and defensive measures like the Jordan border fence are entirely justified. Western countries like the United States do not border Syria, are geographically further from ISIS-controlled territory and are overall less directly threatened by ISIS. As a result, North American and European countries are arguably better-equipped to process the bulk of Syrian refugees and respond to any associated security risks.
That being said, there is evidence that Israel’s absolute refusal to accept non-Jewish refugees is not based entirely in reasoned security concerns but in the fear that an influx of non-Jews will challenge the Jewish majority in Israel and Israel’s identity as the Jewish state.
In a 2012 cabinet meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu characterized African refugees and undocumented migrant workers as “illegal infiltrators flooding the country” and “a threat to our existence as a Jewish and democratic state.” Netanyahu expressed his fear that the 60,000 African migrants in Israel “could grow to 600,000,” destroying the national identity and social fabric of Israel. Interior Minister Eli Yishai claimed that “migrants are giving birth to hundreds of thousands and the Zionist dream is dying.”
In response to the influx of African migrants, the Israel government built a 150-mile long border fence on the Egyptian border. Recently, Netanyahu’s cabinet approved a plan to offer African immigrants $3,500 if they consent to deportation. Those who refuse to leave would be imprisoned “indefinitely” in detention camps.
Foreign Policy reported in June of 2017 that 4,000 male migrants were being held against their will in “Holot,” a holding facility located in the Negev Desert and described by Human Rights Watch as a prison camp. Most of the detained African refugees either fled repressive authoritarianism in Eritrea or famine in Sudan. Although in the past, ISIS fighters in Libya have abducted Eritrean Christians, the Islamic State has no presence in these countries, and refugees from these countries cannot be said to pose reasonable security risks.
Netanyahu’s policy of closed-borders and deportation is, in his own words, designed to prevent demographic change. 60,000 African refugees face deportation not because they are legitimate threats to the security of Israel but because the Israeli government fears that they will breed too rapidly and eventually outnumber the native population.
Syrian refugees, on the other hand, present a much more legitimate security threat, and Israel is wise to consider the possibility of ISIS members posing as refugees in order to infiltrate Israel and commit acts of terror. However, the 100 Syrian orphans that Israel pledged to resettle were not a legitimate security threat, and it is unfortunate that after receiving international praise for its public willingness to shelter these children, the Israeli government quietly backed out.
Israel should be applauded for providing humanitarian and medical aid to those displaced and injured during the Syrian Civil War, but Israel can and should do more. There is a middle-ground between unsafe open borders and completely closed borders, and Israel has a moral responsibility to find that middle ground, especially given the history of the Jewish people and the plight of Jewish refugees denied entry to the United States during the Second World War.
Israel should absolutely take security concerns into consideration when determining whether or not to allow refugees within its borders, but those refugees who pose no threat, whether they be Africans, Syrian orphans or background-checked Syrian adults, ought to be considered for entry and not simply denied due to a misguided fear of demographic change.
“He secures justice for the orphan and the widow; he loves the foreigner, giving him food and clothing. Therefore you are to love the foreigner, since you were foreigners in the land of Egypt” (Complete Jewish Bible, Deuteronomy 10:18-19).