Last week, SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum and Mayor Talal Al-Krenawi of the Negev Bedouin city Rahat issued a joint statement offering the absorption of 1,000 refugees from Syria, who would be supported by employment at the new SodaStream factory in nearby Idan haNegev. The statement came after recent headlines on the closure of the factory in the West Bank settlement Mishor Adumim, hailed as a victory by proponents of BDS, and signaling the fall of another domino in the company’s neverending public relations nightmare. As SodaStream’s stock price dropped to a low of $14.48 in early September, some remarked that Birnbaum’s offer is little more than a cynical ploy for good press, with little chance of actually being executed.

That may be the case—and certainly the likelihood of such a plan is next to nil—but to focus on SodaStream alone is to miss the larger question here. Where is Israel in the debate on Syrian refugees? Why is it that countries such as Hungary have faced harsh criticism in light of their opposition to absorbing a slice of the growing refugee population, while Israel—which not only shares a border with Syria, but even overlaps that border in a 48-year occupation—appears to bear no such responsibility? What makes Israel exceptional?

Israel is not simply exceptional; it is the exception. Israel has a long history of violating or ignoring international law, most notably, war crimes in its continued attacks on Gaza and the expansion of civilian housing in West Bank settlements. And then there is its own, ongoing refugee crisis: the ever growing population of Palestinian refugees displaced in 1948, including Palestinian refugees who remain in Syria today.

The body of international law that both protects refugees and regulates the behavior of states in times of war and occupation was produced in response to the horrors of World War II and the mass murder of Jews and other political prisoners and minorities. Indeed, our entire language of human rights emerged from that historical moment that also saw the violent creation of the State of Israel. Europe’s support for Israel as a project and as a solution to its own refugee crisis was founded on the same logic that guided the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, also in 1948. From this historical conjuncture, Israel became the constitutive exception to human rights and international law.

The Holocaust, then, serves as the historical precedent both demanding the intervention of states on behalf of refugees, and also exempting Israel from this responsibility. Within Israel, the parallel between the historical plight of Jewish refugees and the growing regional refugee crisis has not been missed. For Holocaust survivors and their families this connection may be deeply personal, as expressed by Birnbaum in the SodaStream press release: “As the son of a Holocaust survivor, I refuse to stand by and observe this human tragedy unfold right across the border in Syria.”

And Knesset opposition leader Isaac Herzog echoes the sentiment: “Jews cannot be apathetic when hundreds of thousands of refugees are searching for safe haven.”

Yet, when it comes to Israel, Syrian refugees are not merely refugees. Crossing the Golan Heights, the haggard body of the refugee is transformed into an infiltrator, traversing a boundary still defined by an ongoing state of war between the two countries. The question of absorption is not even on the table because it cannot be on the table; it is a question of giving a legal status to a population of enemy combatants.

It is with this logic that Netanyahu tempered Herzog’s sympathy: “Israel is not indifferent to the human tragedy of the refugees from Syria and Africa. But Israel is a small country, a very small country, that lacks demographic and geographic depth; therefore, we must control our borders, against both illegal migrants and terrorism.”

The figure of the infiltrator thus encapsulates both of these categories—the illegal migrant and the terrorist—because the body of the infiltrator is necessarily illegal, necessarily the seed of terror. The threat of the infiltrator outstrips these categories because she doesn’t have to steal a job out of the hands of a citizen or to wire herself to a bomb. It is the body of the infiltrator itself that threatens the demographic stability of the Jewish state.

Of the two “depths” of Netanyahu’s remark—demographic and geographic—only the former is relevant. It is not that the country is so small it can’t absorb additional populations, but that the sustenance of a Jewish and ostensibly democratic state is a firm Jewish demographic majority. Thus, while Netanyahu claims Israel is too small, the state maintains an active policy of encouraging Jewish immigration.

The refugee issue strikes at the tension at the heart of the Israeli state: demography versus democracy. One thousand Syrian refugees would not upset this balance. But the problem of refugees in the Middle East is not new, and among those who have been recently displaced are Palestinians who have been living in refugee camps for the last 67 years since the 1948 war. Of the 560,000 Palestinian refugees registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency in Syria, approximately 480,000 remain, with the rest largely in Lebanon or Jordan.

And so, in the unlikely scenario that Israel was to grant (temporary) residency to Syrian refugees, the question would remain as to who these “Syrian” refugees would be. One possibility is that Israel would offer to absorb a limited number of Druze refugees. That course of action would reflect a larger policy of distinguishing between Druze and Muslim or Christian Arabs, most notably through the practice of military conscription. But more to the point, does Israel accept Syrians, while excluding the Palestinians in their midst? Does the state allow temporary status to Palestinian refugees, only to displace them for a second time from their homeland?

When the Palestinian Authority recently asked Israel to accept Palestinian refugees from Syria into the West Bank and Gaza Strip, they reminded Israel that the responsibility to such refugees goes beyond immediate humanitarian aid, but represents “a right for all Palestinians living in exile and in refugee camps.” The Syrian refugee crisis could make a crack in the dam holding back the return of Palestinian refugees.

And there is the ultimate reason why no one takes suggestions like Birnbaum’s seriously. We would leave room for the possibility that the SodaStream CEO, more than a plotting capitalist villain, may be sincere in his concern for Syrian refugees. But this earnestness (or not) is marginal to the demographic concerns of the state. The problem of refugees, if anything, points to Israel’s own precariousness: For all its lofty claims of democracy and equal rights, the Jewish state is threatened in the face of a mere thousand refugees.

How to cite this article:

Michael Fin, Callie Maidhof "Where Is Israel in the Refugee Crisis?," Middle East Report Online, September 28, 2015.

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