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More than just bad optics on immigration?

Netanyahu’s African migrant flip-flop was an embarrassment. But Jewish groups’ criticisms say more about American sensibilities than the merits of the case.

African migrants gather during a protest outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on Jan. 26, 2017. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
African migrants gather during a protest outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on Jan. 26, 2017. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had a lot of bad days recently. But the humiliating spectacle of his April 2 flip-flop on a deal cut by the Israeli government with the United Nations for dealing with African migrants was a recent low point. Still, the question facing friends of Israel about this incident is not how it will affect the prime minister’s future, but whether the bad optics of the move threatens the country’s ability to rally Diaspora support.

African migrants gather during a protest outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on Jan. 26, 2017. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

After months of absorbing criticism over plans to deport the 39,000 Africans who had entered the country illegally, Netanyahu seemed to have found a way out of a dilemma that had created awful public relations for the Jewish state. The deal with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (the agency of the United Nations that deals with all non-Palestinian refugees) would have involved Western nations granting asylum to approximately 16,000 of the migrants, while the rest would remain in Israel.

Within hours of announcing the deal, Netanyahu reneged on it. Furious pushback from grassroots members of his Likud Party and his right-wing coalition partners over what they saw as Netanyahu’s betrayal of the country’s interests soon followed. Weakened as he is by the corruption charges hanging over his head, the prime minister felt that he had no choice but to reverse course. That left Netanyahu looking like a man interested in nothing but holding on to his office.

In response, Netanyahu lashed out at left-wing supporters of the migrants, particularly the New Israel Fund. While the NIF—an organization that funds some pro-BDS and other groups that are viciously anti-Zionist, as well as many other Israeli entities that deal with domestic political debates—is unpopular, the issue here isn’t as much about them as it is about the potential cost of a controversy that, notwithstanding the merits of the case, makes Israel rather than just the prime minister look bad.

While Netanyahu ought to be embarrassed by acting like a weathervane, it’s also true that most Israelis are not far from unsympathetic to efforts to enforce the law and deport those who entered the Jewish state illegally. That’s in stark contrast to the strong criticism that Netanyahu has gotten on the issue from a wide array of Diaspora groups.

Criticism isn’t limited to groups directly aligned with the Israeli left on security issues like the NIF. The leaders of both Reform and Conservative Judaism in the United States, which together represent the overwhelming majority of affiliated American Jews, condemned the government’s policy and called for the illegals to be granted asylum.

Nor was this reaction confined to religious groups. Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt had likened the African immigrants to the Dreamers, the group that liberals have embraced as part of their in opposition to the Trump administration. Even more damaging was his claim that deporting the migrants would make Israel appear racist.

Others make direct analogies to the plight of Jewish refugees fleeing for their lives during the Holocaust. That’s a stand that diminishes the enormity and the historical uniqueness of the Shoah in a way that would be labeled anti-Semitism in another context. The migrants were not marked for death as Jews were, and no one who hides them is in any danger.

Though many of African migrants are now seeking asylum, few fit the traditional definition of someone fleeing threats to their lives. Most came to Israel seeking a tiny island of prosperity, not a refuge from imminent death. If their only need was for a safe haven, they might have ended up in any number of African countries closer to their homes. It was Israel’s First World economy that attracted them.

Moreover, those who speak up for the migrants seem indifferent to the cost of this illegal immigration on the south Tel Aviv neighborhoods where they have gathered, and whose original residents were at the forefront of the pressure on Netanyahu. That already poor section has been further devastated by the arrival of a population that has no legal work and strains the city’s already overburdened resources.

The absurdity of asking the tiny Jewish state to solve the economic and security problems of the vast African continent seems to be lost on many who seem more interested in accusing Israelis of racism than anything else. While some assert that Israel ought to act like a normal liberal democracy and accept as many refugees as possible, it’s not unreasonable to argue that the country’s specific purpose as a haven for Jews should take precedence.

But while supporters of granting asylum to the Africans haven’t made much headway among Israelis, many American Jews, including some of the most ardent advocates for Israel like Alan Dershowitz, believe Israel is in the wrong. And that is a problem neither Netanyahu nor his defenders can ignore.

As much as criticisms of Israel’s policy towards the migrants are hypocritical and unfair, the immigrant experience and sympathy for newcomers lies at the core of American Jewish identity. For Americans who favor “sanctuary” in their own country for illegal immigrants, the notion of denying asylum to anyone—let alone Africans—is tantamount to Israel trashing their idea of Judaism.

Immigrants may have built Israel, but that does not deprive it of the right to decide who may enter the country and who may stay, especially when the arguments for asylum are weak. But the sympathy for African migrants and the notion that deporting them is contrary to Judaism, no matter what the facts of the case might be, is a powerful argument that can undermine support for Israel perhaps even more than arguments about settlements.

The bad optics of Netanyahu’s zigzag policy aren’t as much about a weak prime minister as they are about a Jewish state that needs to try to balance the need to avoid antagonizing Diaspora supporters with the imperative to defend its sovereignty. Right now, that seems to be just one more intractable problem that seems beyond the capacity of its leaders to solve.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — the Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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