It may be that supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump and those who back the Israeli government led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are now so closely aligned that the latter have no qualms about the Jewish state being dragged into one of the most contentious American political debates in living memory. But as much as Trump is popular in Israel for his support of the Jewish state, it’s likely that most of its citizens would be just as happy if their border-security policies were left out of the epic struggle over whether America should build what Trump has at times called “a big, beautiful wall” on its southern border.
The pro-Israel community already faces challenges from supporters of the BDS movement, as well as advocates of intersectional theory that falsely claims that the war against the Jewish state’s existence is morally equivalent to the struggle for civil rights in the United States. With a Democratic Party increasingly divided about the Middle East, the last thing Israel’s supporters need is for its practices to be used as a justification for Trump’s demands—demands that created a standoff with congressional Democrats and prompted the current government shutdown.
The dispute over whether or not to extend the barriers already in place along large sections of America’s southern border is rife with hypocrisy and hyperbole on both sides. Opponents who have supported funding for a barrier in the past—as long as it was not the 45th president asking for it—now deride Trump’s insistence on a “wall” as foolish or even immoral. It is equally true that many of Trump’s claims about a “crisis” at the border has been more a matter of political expediency than a true “national emergency,” which if he were to declare one and use it to get his way would be just as extra-constitutional as President Barack Obama’s efforts going around the law to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants.
Reasonable people can disagree about how best to secure the border, but as with everything else in contemporary American politics, Trump’s involvement turns the argument into one in which both sides feel compelled to defend extreme positions that turn into existential struggles that make compromise impossible. Trump’s rhetoric and the ensuing responses from those who despise him have turned what ought to be a technical question—what measures can best secure the border—into an existential political struggle involving positions that are falsely identified as the moral equivalent of good and evil.
Nevertheless, some of the extreme rhetoric about barriers being ineffective is wrong, and Israel’s use of them provides some insight as to how they can be made to work.
The plain fact is that the influx of tens of thousands of Africans who entered Israel illegally was ended by the erection of a fence along its border with Egypt. The security barrier that runs through parts of the West Bank and Jerusalem separating Palestinian Arab areas, and Israeli towns and neighborhoods, was similarly effective in stopping the wave of suicide bombers that poured into Israeli cities during the war of terrorist attrition known as the Second Intifada, which took more than 1,000 Jewish lives and the lives of many more Arabs. While the Palestinians and their supporters call the barrier an “apartheid wall,” its erection was an act of self-defense that saved human life.
Various kinds of barriers also play a part in separating Israel from terrorist forces in Gaza and Lebanon, as well as the chaos in war-torn Syria.
Israel’s fences or walls aren’t foolproof. Hamas dug tunnels under them in order to facilitate cross-border kidnapping and murder raids. In recent months, the Israel Defense Forces discovered that Hezbollah has been digging its own network of tunnels into the Jewish state with similarly murderous intentions. Both Hamas and Hezbollah have also shown that they can fire rockets and missiles over any fence in order to spread terror inside the Jewish state.
The scale of Israel’s fencing projects is not as vast as any project to extend existing fencing between the United States and Mexico. Moreover, while some who cross into America illegally are involved in criminal activity, not since the U.S. Cavalry chased Pancho Villa back into Mexico more than a century ago has the issue there been one primarily about defending the border from armed enemies, as it is for Israel.
Just as important, Israel’s borders are not so much defended by fences or walls as they are by smart technology in areas where the integrity of the barrier is put at risk by the designs of its enemies. Instead of just focusing on construction, there’s a lot that America can learn from the way Israel uses high-tech expertise to monitor its barriers.
But as long as support for any sort of border barrier or wall is identified with Trump’s attitudes about illegal immigration and opposition to it with those of his opponents, you can forget about a rational discussion about the merits of fences, whether in North America or the Middle East.
The real danger for supporters of Israel is not so much that the Jewish state is being dragooned into justifying Trump’s plans as it is that the reaction to the president’s desire for a wall will wind up justifying those who attack Israel’s need for barriers.
Whether or not you think the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States is a crisis, there should be no patience for claims that Israel built its security fences for ideological purposes or to harm those on the other side. While any country has a right, and a duty, to control its borders and determine who may enter, Israel’s barriers are not about politics. If you find yourself claiming that all walls are immoral so as to make a rhetorical point about Trump, you might do well to remember that Israel’s fences are a matter of life and death, and not a referendum on your least favorite politician.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.