Q&A: Israel and the Syrian Refugee Crisis
In this Q&A, Moshe Maoz, professor emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem — an expert on Syria who has served as an advisor on Arab affairs for the Israeli government — reflects on Israel’s role in the Syrian refugee crisis.
Israel is totally against granting any refugee status, and not just for the current flow of refugees. There were quite a number of refugees in the past from East African countries – Ethiopia, Uganda, Sudan, that Israel rejected. And those that managed to come to Israel [about 50,000] are not treated as refugees. They have been put into special places [desert detention camps] and are not going to be integrated into Israeli society. Israelis feel these refugees are going to change the Jewish character of Israel. Israel is two Jews with four views, but this is the official line.
Some Israelis say we should take some of them. But the government is vehemently against it. Some of them say they’re bringing diseases. Can you imagine? The same accusations that Jews suffered in Europe. I’m so ashamed that this kind of language is being used, especially when it comes to refugees from Syria and Iraq that are going to Europe.
There are liberal Israelis who say, let’s take them in. Let’s integrate them. The argument is that Jews suffered in Europe as refugees, so Jews should prevent the same thing from happening now.
There’s another argument for accepting refugees: Israel needs manpower. Israel is importing thousands and thousands of workers from places like China and Thailand. They need people who can do work.
What aid has Israel provided, either at its borders or in Europe?
Israel has a number of hospitals — one is a military hospital in the Golan Heights, and there’s one in Safed. For the last few years, they have been admitting wounded Syrians from the war and treating them very well. But they are sending them back. And private organizations help Syrian refugees in Jordan, maybe also in Turkey. But they are being sent back afterward.
Good Israelis who care about these refugees — nonprofits, unaffiliated with the Israeli government — are helping them.
What is the conversation about Syria in Israel?
There has been a great debate here in Israel, for the last several years, since the rebellion started, about Israeli policy in Syria. It has nothing to do with refugees. There is a very strong debate about whether Israel should intervene. Most Israeli Jews would say, let them kill one another. Which I don’t think is very Jewish.
Some would say, support the devil that we know, Bashar [al-Assad], because we can live with it; he is pragmatic and secular. Others say, no, he’s a butcher. He’s already killed a quarter of a million of his own people. How can we be Jews helping him? Also, strategically, he’s linked to Iran and Hezbollah, Israel’s archenemies. So there’s a very heated debate about these issues.
The government strategy is to stay neutral, not to intervene. But there is a lot of confusion, because there is no consensus.
I would say that Israel should support the Sunni Muslim rebels. Not militants, not al-Qaeda types. The majority of Syrians, 70 percent, are Sunni Muslims, and most of them are pragmatic, even moderate. We overlook the majority. It’s in Israel’s interest to have a stable government in Syria.
Israel should signal to [other Sunni Muslim countries] that we support your brethren in Syria. Sunni Muslim countries are potential allies of Israel vis a vis the common danger – Iran and its allies in Syria and in Hezbollah. We have a common interest and a moral commitment, I think, as a Jewish state, to protect these poor Syrians who have been butchered by Bashar al-Assad. So it’s a combination of a moral motive and also a strategic interest.
Israel has a good reputation for dispatching aid and personnel to crisis situations in other countries. Is their approach to the Syrian refugee crisis a departure?
Israel doesn’t make the same efforts with its neighbors because they’re Arabs. There are some exceptions: Israel helped Turkey only a few years ago when there was an earthquake. Turkey is Muslim, but not Arab. But to help Syrians, and also Palestinians — does Israel help Palestinians in Gaza after the war a year ago? No.
We help Japan and Haiti. Israel helps remote nations, whereas for its next-door neighbors, Israel does nothing.
The idea that refugees would change Israel’s Jewish character is nonsense. Years ago, under Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Israel took in Vietnamese refugees. They grew up in Israel. Why not take in Arabs? Not very many, but at least a token number.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement that Israel would not be taking in refugees included the words, “We will not allow Israel to be flooded with illegal migrants and terrorists.” Is there a terrorism risk to allowing refugees in?
Israeli security is the best in the world. There are almost no terrorists among these migrants coming to Israel. Of the 50,000 who came in from East African nations across the Egyptian border before it was closed, there were no terrorists among them. They want to live, they want to work. Netanyahu uses all kinds of slogans to frighten the Israelis.
Israel admits many Jewish refugees. And Jews were very, very anxious to be admitted by European countries during the Second World War. The Syrian refugee crisis is a chance for Israel to say: We are Jews, we were treated very badly, but we can do better now.
In response to Netanyahu, opposition leader Isaac Herzog said, “You’ve forgotten what it means to be Jews,” and noted that Prime Minister Menachem Begin — under whom Vietnamese refugees were absorbed into Israel — “is turning over in his grave.” Is Herzog alone in this sentiment?
[Herzog] represents a quarter or a third of the population. He represents the more moderate outlook that we should support refugees. But the majority is against it. For years, Israel has been inviting thousands and thousands of workers from Thailand, from China, from other places in the world. Why not use the Syrian refugees? Israel needs workers for road construction, agriculture and other kinds of blue-collar work, jobs that Israelis don’t want to do. They’re lazy.
A recent poll showed that four out of five Israelis oppose taking in refugees, and 80 percent don’t think Israel has a role to play in aiding the refugee crisis. Why is public opinion here so uniform on this issue?
Many Israeli Jews support the government line. After all, this is a government that was elected by these people. I would say that 60 percent of Israeli Jews support the government. And maybe some others, because they have been frightened by the propaganda.
I’m Israeli, I was born here, I‘m a very devoted Jew and Israeli and Zionist. I’m so ashamed of these kinds of viewpoints. There’s a lot of xenophobia and racism in Israel, unfortunately.
Israel has changed. It’s not the same Israel that I grew up in. There’s something different. There are some islands of wisdom and of moderation. But there is a flood of xenophobia and racism. You can argue that it’s a reaction to what Jews suffer in the diaspora.
Many people are drawing a parallel to the refugee situation during and after World War II. Is that comparison viewed in the same way in Israel?
Yes, but not within the government. The government [makes such comparisons] only to frighten the population. For example, Netanyahu says Iran is like Germany; they are going to eliminate Israel. This is, again, nonsense. Iran of course is a threat. But it’s also the government’s way to frighten the population. And the refugees are part of this idea of a threat, a danger.
Jews suffered as refugees so much more than any other nation. But [many Israeli Jews] don’t feel any empathy, including the government, for the plight of the refugees now. This I cannot accept.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.