An uncomfortable comparison

COMPARISONS with dark chapters in Jewish history tend to elicit the knee-jerk Israeli response of asur le’hashvot, the Hebrew for “you can’t compare”. But a government plan to deport more than 34,000 African migrants to Rwanda is provoking more hand-wringing than usual, not least because Israel itself was created by refugees and survivors of the Holocaust.

The government has proposed a plan to offer financial incentives including the payment of $3,500 to African migrants who agree to leave Israel “voluntarily” and go to Rwanda or Uganda. It said that those who do not agree to leave may be expelled by force or imprisoned.

In response activists in Israel are promising to hide Africans threatened with expulsion in their homes. They have named their campaign to provide shelter the “Anne Frank Home Sanctuary”, after the Dutch-Jewish girl who hid with her family from the Nazis in Amsterdam. Opposition to the plan has also made it onto the airwaves. A popular television programme has cut actors’ names from its credits, listing them instead simply as “grandson of a refugee from Russia” and “granddaughter of a refugee from Iraq”.

Adding to pressure, a group of Holocaust survivors has written an open letter to Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, saying: “We who know what it is to be a refugee, what it is to be without a home and a state that will protect us from violence and suffering, cannot understand how a Jewish government is capable of deporting refugees and asylum-seekers to a journey of suffering, pain and death.”

The government objects strenuously. It insists that its deportation policy adheres to international law, adding that refugees will not be sent back to war-torn or repressive countries such as Sudan and Eritrea. In any case, it argues, none of the deportees qualifies for political asylum. But rights groups say Mr Netanyahu’s government has obstructed asylum-seekers with red tape. Of 15,000 applications processed, just 12 were approved.

The government has relented a little. It is reducing the pace and scope of deportations. Only unmarried men will be expelled. Hoping to minimise embarrassment, Rwanda, a close friend of Israel, has also said it will not accept migrants removed against their will. (Israel’s ministers, though, insist that the arrangement with Rwanda still stands).

Yet Mr Netanyahu will probably not water down his policy much more. His voters like it and he worries that rival parties might outflank him on the right. Last year Gallup, a pollster, named Israel near the bottom of an index in which it measured people’s acceptance of immigrants. Some fret that refugees are causing crime; others that they will dilute the Jewish state. Ayelet Shaked, the justice minister and a member of the nationalist-religious Jewish Home Party, gibed that “Israel is not Africa’s employment agency”.

Such concerns are overblown. Israel’s booming economy has driven unemployment so low that the country is short of labour. And the addition of 34,000 Africans will hardly transform the character of a population of almost 9m. In any case, the flow of African migrants to Israel through Egypt ended in 2013, after Mr Netanyahu erected a new border fence.

Yet the debate is widening cleavages between those championing Jewish nationalism and what others deem the Jewish values of charity and humanism that also underpin the state. Yehuda Bauer, a former director of Israel’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, has denounced Israel’s policy of herding African migrants into “modern concentration camps” in the desert.

Critics also contrast this with Israel’s Law of Return, one of the underpinnings of Israel’s existence which grants citizenship to Jews no matter where they are born. Under it some 27,000 Jews immigrated to Israel last year. Yet this two-tiered system provides no standard process of naturalisation for non-Jews. That may have made sense when Israel offered a vital haven for persecuted Jews and could not afford to open its doors more widely. But 70 years on it is a prosperous country in need of workers. Meanwhile most Jews around the world live in peace and do not want to exercise their right to move to Israel.