It is strange how supporters of Israel are responding to Donald Trump’s Muslim and Syrian refugee ban. Some have applauded it, effectively acknowledging that Israel cheerleading is a right wing cause. Others have sought to be seen taking the side of anti-racism and religious tolerance, all the while ignoring Israel’s terrible treatment of Palestinian, Syrian and other refugees.
The case of Bernie Farber illustrates the difficulties this left/liberal camp faces. On Facebook the former Canadian Jewish Congress president and self-styled refugee rights advocate recently wrote, “while Trump is barring Syrian refugees…” and contrasted the move by posting a Times of Israel story titled “Israel said readying to take 100 orphaned Syrian refugees.”
In fact, Israel has an appalling record on helping with Syrian refugees. All the other states bordering Syria have accepted thousands of times more people fleeing the conflict. Over two million Syrian refugees are in Turkey. Far poorer and less populous than Israel, Jordan has around one million Syrian refugees while Lebanon has over one million. Even Iraq, which has three million internally displaced, has over 200,000 Syrian refugees.
Despite signing the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 refugee protocol, Israel announced in 2011 it would block anyone crossing into the Golan Heights, which violates the principle of non-refoulement (not forcing those seeking asylum to return to a country in which they are likely to be persecuted). Instead of adhering to its international legal responsibilities, Israel re-fortified a 90-kilometre fence in the occupied Golan Heights and laid new minefields to deter crossings. It also added a 30 km long fence on part of its border with Jordan partly to block Syrians from coming through that country and in 2013 completed a 200 km barrier along its border with Egypt largely to stop East African migrants (Israel already has a fence on its border with Lebanon and another one in the West Bank).
A June 2016 Financial Times story titled “Israel: walled in” depicts the numerous barriers the country has erected partially to deter refugees. The British paper quoted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling for Israel to surround itself with fence “to defend ourselves against wild beasts” in the region.
Now, six years into the conflict, Israel is saying it will take 100 Syrians. Only someone afflicted by ‘Israel worship’ could claim to support refugee rights and applaud this disgraceful record.
In a September 2015 story titled “One country that won’t be taking Syrian refugees: Israel” the Los Angeles Timesquoted Netanyahu’s rationale for shutting the door on those fleeing the humanitarian tragedy. Netanyahu claimed his country’s “lack of demographic and geographic depth” made it impossible to accept any refugees. (With 60% of Israel’s population, half its landmass and a sixth of its GDP, Lebanon has taken over one million Syrians.)
In Ynet Netanyahu’s former Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy, Yoaz Hendel, elaborated on why “Israel can’t take in refugees.” Hendel writes, “the demographic threat is real, and the need to preserve the Jewish nation state’s character as a democracy doesn’t allow for large minorities. The current numbers of Muslims pose a complicated challenge even without additions.”
In effect, Syrian refugees threaten what Farber et al. euphemistically call Israel’s “right to exist”. As non-Jews, particularly Arabs, they threaten the Jewish supremacist character of the state. Any Jew living comfortably in Toronto or Montréal, whose family migrated to Canada from Eastern Europe a century ago, can immigrate to Israel tomorrow. But, Israel lacks the “demographic and geographic depth” to offer temporary (or permanent) shelter to individuals fleeing a conflict 50 km away.
Israel’s response to the humanitarian tragedy on its border reflects its status as a 19th century European colonial outpost. Even the European and North American colonial states that spawned and promoted Zionism have become more racially and ethnically accommodating. There are some 200,000 Syrian refugees in Germany, 5,000 in Britain, 15,000 in the US and 40,000 in Canada.
Despite its unconscionable record, Farber found cause to applaud Israel. Rather than contrasting Trump’s ban with Israel’s openness, if the former head of the Canadian Jewish Congress truly embraced universal human rights he would criticize the US president for mimicking Israeli policy.