“Overnight our public sphere changed. The sense of security was gone, we shut ourselves indoors, the parks were overtaken day and night, and we forbade children to go there,” Shefi Paz, the leader of a grassroots movement against illegal immigration to Israel, explained in an interview with the daily Maariv a few weeks ago. Women were harassed on the street,” she said. “It was like an occupation by a foreign army. No law, no authorities would protect citizens.”
Paz is perhaps not the person you would expect to find at the front of such a protest movement. She is a 66-year-old lesbian, and a former left-leaning LGBT activist. She now sees herself as firmly on the right. For her, as for some in Israel, and for many in Europe and the US, the issue of immigration has changed the terms of the political debate, shedding new light on issues of justice and class. But above all the debate over immigration policy, it seems, is but a proxy for a far larger struggle over the future of democracy itself.
Like many EU countries, Israel now has a substantial community of illegal migrants, mainly from Africa. Illegals number about 34,000, not including some 8,000 more children born to immigrant parents in Israel. Most have crossed Israel’s southern desert border with Egypt. (Another several thousand are believed to have overstayed their tourist visas, but the Israeli immigration authority has turned down requests to disclose the exact numbers.) As in Europe, Israeli media often refer to migrants simply as ”refugees,” but this term only serves to obscure the matter. There are clear indications that many have entered the country in search of better economic prospects. Some 80 percent are able bodied men who have usually passed through safe countries on their way to Israel. Of the small number of asylum requests that Israeli authorities have examined, less than one percent were found to qualify for refugee status.
Most of these migrants have settled in the southern working-class neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, with its high demand for unskilled labor and easy access to public transportation and social services. Given the predominantly young and male demographic, it is perhaps not surprising that per capita crime rates within this group are three to four times the national average. Herein lies another parallel to the European situation: Israeli police have only recently released these statistics, after years of dodging requests out of fear they would end up encouraging biases.
In recent months, Tel Aviv’s southern neighborhoods have become recurrent scenes of street clashes between rival migrant gangs wielding cold weapons: knives, stones, rods and the like. Mainstream media is reluctant to report on such incidents, instead leaving the issue to take on a life of its own online. Thus videos float around among Israelis on Facebook showing frightening violent scenes of fights and riots.
The Israeli legal system, like its European counterparts, is not designed to handle large-scale criminal activity by individuals whose identities and whereabouts are not known, and who have weak, if any, ties to the surrounding community. About half the indictments against migrants in 2018 never made it to court because the suspects could not be located by police and didn’t show up. Israel’s custody and incarceration laws are ill equipped to deter repeat offenders, with sometimes tragic consequences. An illegal immigrant who was sentenced to prison for one year after repeated DUI’s, to cite one striking example, was released after a successful appeal to the Supreme Court. Not long after his release, he murdered a 12-year-old girl, sparking widespread outrage. Life has changed dramatically for residents of South Tel Aviv.
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But this isn’t just a local issue. There are much greater problems with illegal immigration beyond its effects on the local way of life of certain municipalities. To begin with there is the proximity to Africa. Israel is a small country only slightly larger than the state of New Jersey. As is well known, its population of about nine million people comprises a delicate demographic mosaic; a Jewish nation state with a large indigenous minority of Arab Muslims that make up about a fifth of the population. It has limited natural resources but a per capita GDP approaching that of Western Europe. This makes it a coveted destination for economic migrants. Understandably, many Israelis fear that granting residence status to illegals will turn the state into a safety valve for the humanitarian crises of a huge poverty-stricken continent. For a country as small as Israel, this is an existential concern.
But there is more at stake. It is no longer just a question of what policy to decide on, but also a struggle over who gets to decide. In this too, Israel is not alone. In many countries, immigration policy has turned into a litmus test for democratic sovereignty itself. It has become the arena where civil rights, anchored in the state, meet universal human rights, promoted by international institutions and supra-national political structures. These, in turn, compete with states for sovereignty.
All this has given rise to an ideological shift with far-reaching consequences: As liberal rights are detached from their base in the nation state, liberalism increasingly turns away from a commitment to the will of the citizens, as expressed through national democratic institutions. We are faced, then, with a non-democratic—and ultimately an anti-democratic—form of liberal ideology. Since in Israel, as elsewhere, this may not be immediately apparent, one must dig into the details.
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The beginnings of illegal immigration from Africa were modest. In 2005 a few hundred Sudanese illegals crossed the Israeli-Egyptian border in the Sinai desert. It would take two years before the government took notice and turned its attention to the issue. While the number was still a few thousand, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert moved to nip illegal immigration in the bud. He reached an understanding with Egypt about a policy dubbed ”Hot Return,” meaning the immediate return to Egypt of anyone apprehended crossing the border. He also created a detention facility for those caught inside Israel. The policy was intended to send a strong signal that Israel would not become the solution for Africa’s plight. Only some 600 individuals were given temporary residence after the UN granted them refugee status.
An array of NGOs self-described as human rights watchdogs immediately sprang into action. They petitioned the courts against the return policy as they would against almost any policy intended to curb illegal immigration. The courts issued a decree nisi, which had an instant cooling effect on “Hot Return.” Meanwhile, the dominant agenda-setting media mobilized, especially the left-leaning dailies Haaretz and Yediot, along with the leading TV news shows. The news filled up with comparisons between today’s African immigrants to Israel and Jews fleeing Hitler’s Germany. Shrill accusations of cruelty and racism abounded. The government finally caved in and abandoned the return policy.
Detention also came under attack. The Supreme Court—which holds sweeping powers in Israel—repeatedly struck down legislation intended to facilitate the detention of migrants, eventually reducing the maximum incarceration time to three months.
This points to a unique aspect of the Israeli case, which sets it apart from Europe: International NGOs have an exceptionally strong presence in Israel, because of the particulars of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Thus when illegal immigration appeared on the political agenda, there was already an entire infrastructure in place which made it possible for NGOs to fight for their preferred policy through the legal system. These organizations are an essential part of the international atmosphere which holds the Jewish nation state to a set of standards demanded of no other country. Flush with foreign money these organizations have built a cadre of young, highly motivated lawyers, ready to support illegal immigrants in myriad ways: legal battles against policies, criminal cases, and asylum requests to name a few. (See, for instance, The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, African Refugee Development Center, Physicians for Human Rights, Workers Hotline, and ASSAF–Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel. And there are more.)
These NGOs succeeded in blocking most policies. But there was one plan in which the state persevered. Despite endless legal activism, red tape and budgetary problems, Israel built a fence on the border with Egypt. It took almost a decade to complete, but finally in 2013 there it was— 241 kilometers of it stretching all along the border with Egypt, with minor gaps where the terrain was already impossible to traverse. By that time the bulk of the infiltration through the southern border was over, with the total number of African immigrants exceeding 60,000.
To be sure, it was not only the wall that stemmed the tide. It was also the determination which it signaled, along with what was left of the original detention policy and the refusal to grant legal status to large numbers. Walls alone do not stop determined migrants. Israel has a long sea border, and it is far closer to North Africa than the southern islands of Italy or Greece. If people are ready to risk crossing the Mediterranean Sea in fragile vessels, they are much more likely to attempt trespassing Israel’s long shores.
There were therefore more policy initiatives designed to underline the same message. One was the “Leave Fund” conceived by the single NGO which sided with the state—The Israeli Immigration Policy Center, founded and headed by Yonatan Jakubowicz. The idea was to withhold a portion of the immigrants’ salaries, to be returned to them only upon departure from Israel. This policy was partially emasculated by the courts and then watered down further by the state in the hope that some version of it will pass muster with the judges. The question is still pending.
Then there was the plan known as ”deportation to safe third countries.” And for a while it looked like this would finally work: the deportees would receive $3,500 each, which amounts to some four or five times the per capita GDP in the destination countries, on top of compensation which the governments of these countries would also receive from Israel.
But then an uproar in the press ensued, claiming that the migrants are being deported “to their deaths,” that they will face rape, torture, or, at the very least, incarceration and confiscation of their identity papers. Intellectuals weighed in, celebrities followed, and stickers appeared in Tel Aviv cafés: Stop the Deportation! The state bureaucracy was helpless against all this, despite the fact that this time the lies were so blatant that even the courts reprimanded the NGOs for disseminating them (see, for instance, two rulings from the Supreme Court and Beer Sheva Administrative Court respectively). There was no evidence whatsoever that any harm awaited the deportees in Uganda and Rwanda, the countries that had agreed to take them in. But nothing could stop the emotional momentum of the public debate and the Court finally partially yielded and shifted the burden of proof to the state. By that time the orchestrated campaign blaming Israel for heartlessness and racism was projected outside the country via the English-speaking press, and eventually Uganda and Rwanda, reluctant to appear to cooperate with alleged anti-African racism, withdrew from the agreements.
In reality, if race played any role at all in all this, that role was in favoring black Africans. Caucasian illegals are deported from Israel in short order, with virtually no public attention. For example, 2018 saw a record number of deportation of Eastern European nationals totaling almost 7,000.
Currently things are at a stalemate again. The state is dragging its feet in examining asylum requests, but as time goes by, the immigrant community, which enjoys a wide array of social services, is taking root in the south of Tel Aviv, and everyone knows what the next step in this struggle will be: a campaign for family reunification permits which, some fear, may end up tripling or quadrupling the immigrant population, creating momentum for permanent residence in the process.
As with everywhere else, the price for high-minded lax immigration policy is paid by the poor as more unskilled workers compete for jobs, social services are stretched, and weak metropolitan neighborhoods become foreign countries to their own older residents, with a sharp increase of violent crime.
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In any other context an LGBT activist like Shefi Paz, who now heads a grassroots movement against illegal immigration, should be enjoying virtual immunity from criticism in progressive circles. But this does not apply to the hot button issue of immigration. Among contemporary progressives, anyone who believes in any limit whatsoever on immigration is bound to encounter accusations of bigotry—even if they have spent their lives fighting for minority rights.
This makes it hard for people like Paz to sound their voice, not only in mainstream media, but also on social media. Facebook has recently deleted material she uploaded criticizing the Supreme Court’s attitude toward illegal immigrants. Apparently any objection to illegal immigration is now considered by major social platforms to be “hate speech,” and anyone who does not unequivocally support it is labeled a racist.
This way of framing the issue is, of course, a central feature of the debate in Israel, as it is in Europe and the US. It creates the false impression that the conflict over immigration stands between defenders of human rights on the one hand, and xenophobic nationalists on the other.
This conveniently marginalizes the all-important issues of democratic sovereignty. The common thread running through all the efforts to thwart the immigration policies of elected governments, is an attempt to bypass the democratic mechanism of decision making. There’s an overwhelmingly liberal press, which has been almost entirely uniform in towing the party line, and has the power to suppress truths and disseminate falsehoods. There are the NGOs funded by foreign governments and liberal foundations in Europe and North America influencing the public debate, as well as waging legal battles against the state. There are the academics who come from ultra-liberal institutions, dominated by identity politics, and connected to an international academic community, lending their moral support and their scholarly authority to the politically correct narrative about ”refugees.” And above all, there are the edicts of a decidedly liberal judiciary, which in Israel has vast powers over the other branches of government without reciprocal checks to balance it. The courts can therefore strike down at will every and all government action, whether legislative or administrative. The sweeping powers of the courts can be said to have turned liberal rights from checks on the democratic process into its replacement: liberal decrees are thus poised to replace–not just limit–legislative powers. Decision making—that is sovereignty itself—is essentially being relocated to the courts.
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Like elsewhere, in Israel, there is a sociological dimension to the ideological controversy over immigration. It is a struggle between liberal elites, which attempt to impose their will from above, and the rest of the citizenry, which relies on representative party politics. It is a class struggle of sorts, with a clear economic side: weaker citizens pay the price of a policy that economically benefits elites, and these elites, in turn, use high-minded rhetoric to promote it. This, indeed, is a major part of what lies behind the rise of populism in many parts of the West.
David Goodhart best captured the sociological aspect of this relatively new class divide when he called its two factions the “Anywheres” and the “Somewheres.” We may also call them, in the tradition of Zygmunt Bauman, the “mobile” and the “sedentary” classes.
The former, the mobile Anywheres, are internationalist in outlook and often in lifestyle. They are, as Goodhart emphasizes, equally comfortable in various corners of a globalized world, and work in jobs which bring them in contact with their peers in other countries. They can take their laptop, and often their families too, and relocate with relative ease. Their social milieu is also international and their lingua franca is English.
The latter, the sedentary Somewheres, are tied down to a local market, a local milieu and a local language. Most importantly, their political power is also dependent on a specific nation state and its democratic mechanism of government.
It should therefore be clear why immigration policy is key to this clash over the locus of sovereignty: not only does it challenge the legitimacy of the borders of nation states—a crucial element of their sovereignty—it also challenges the concept of citizenship by deploying universal human rights against the “exclusionary” idea of citizens’ rights, and citizen sovereignty. This is how universal human rights have made the subversion of democracy seem altruistic.
Yet immigration policy is but one arena in this struggle between the Anywheres and the Somewheres and between their respective world views. And once we realize that we are facing an explicitly anti-democratic form of liberalism, the common denominator of many different policies which these elites support becomes clear: a lax and inclusive immigration policy; a delegitimization of national identities; a multi-cultural balkanization of national solidarity; international trade agreements which favor mobility of both labor and capital, and which reduce the control of states over their economic policy; an erasing of borders under supra-national structures; an increase in the power of unelected bureaucracies at the expense of elected politicians; a preference for the judiciary over the legislative and executive branches; a doctrine of judicial supremacy; the subordination of national to international law; an emphasis on universal human rights at the expense of citizens’ civil rights; and support for international institutions at the expense of state governments.
To the extent that such international institutions embody these Anywhere views, it is worth noting that though many of them are clearly liberal in outlook, they exercise jurisdiction over people who have no democratic reciprocal control over them.
All this may well backfire in a terrible way against the moderate forms of liberalism which have served democracies so well since World War II. If there is one crucial lesson to be learned from the horrors of the 20th century, it is that the suppression of the right to self-determination—the source from which modern nationalism and modern democracy both emerge, reciprocally supporting each other—can push nationalism to erupt in violent, anti-democratic ways.
In Israel, illegal immigration is the one high-profile area of policy where the Supreme Court has demonstrated its dominance over the other branches, repeatedly striking down policies the public at large has steadily supported. It is also the issue by which the parameters of the struggle have been most visibly laid bare: a high-minded elite cadre of Anywheres using means outside the democratic process to impose a policy for which the Somewheres are paying the price. It is the issue that demonstrates even to those less informed about theories of democracy that liberal arguments are being deployed against the majority in such a way as to undermine the very principles of government with the consent of the governed.
Taking the long view, we may also note that this clash between extreme liberalism and democracy may well be destructive to both. Infringing on the ability of citizens to protect their hard-earned liberal rights is bound to hurt these very rights, since their only real guarantee is the fact that we can dismiss our governments and appoint their replacement. It also reduces citizens to subjects, because liberty without participation in sovereignty robs people of the most crucial right that democratic nation states have endowed them with: taking part in shaping their collective destiny. Without this most fundamental right, they cannot be, in the beautiful phrase of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, “masters of their own fate, in their own sovereign state.”
Gadi Taub is an Israeli historian, author, and columnist in Haaretz. He is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Public Policy and the Department of Communications at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is also the head screenwriter and the co-director of the acclaimed Israeli TV series Harem.