Sovereignty, Democracy, and Israel’s Illegal Immigration Woes

July 10, 2019 | Gadi Taub
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Currently Israel is home to some 34,000 illegal immigrants, mostly Africans who have entered the country via Egypt in search of economic opportunity. As in Europe, the media routinely refer to these migrants as “refugees,” but that designation, notes Gadi Taub, applies properly only to a tiny fraction. Taub, exploring the social and political tensions that illegal immigration has brought to the fore in Israel, calls attention to the implications for Europe and the America:

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 [of the migrants], 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.

But there is more at stake. . . . As is the case everywhere else, the price for high-minded [and] 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.

As Taub notes, the Israeli press, academia, civil society, and even social-media platforms tend to frame the debate over immigration policy as a conflict “between defenders of human rights on the one hand, and xenophobic nationalists on the other.” The cost of doing so, he argues, is that underlying “issues of democratic sovereignty” are ignored:

The common thread running through . . . efforts to thwart the immigration policies of elected governments is an attempt to bypass the democratic mechanism of decision making. . . . [A]bove 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 sweeping powers of the courts can be said to have turned liberal rights from checks on the democratic process into its replacement.

Taking the long view, we should note that this clash between the extreme [liberal vision that sees any immigration restriction as a human-rights violation] and democracy may well be destructive to both. Infringing on the ability of citizens to protect their hard-earned 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 with which democratic nation-states have endowed them: 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.”

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