Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday rejected a call to host refugees from Syria and elsewhere, saying that while Israel is "not indifferent to the human tragedy of the refugees," it is not in a position to take them in.
Netanyahu was responding to Israeli liberals led by opposition leader Isaac Herzog, who said Jewish history demands that the nation show compassion. Having themselves felt the “world’s silence,” Herzog said, “Jews cannot remain indifferent” to the carnage in Syria and the refugees’ plight.
Herzog’s comments met with support from other liberal lawmakers such as Zehava Galon, who called for opening Israel’s gates to a token number of refugees from its violence-stricken northern neighbor.
In responding to such statements, Netanyahu stressed Israel’s medical care for over 1,000 injured Syrians, as well as efforts to aid African nations and thus stem the flow of migrants. However, he said that Israel’s “lack of demographic and geographic depth” requires controlling its borders against both “illegal migrants and terrorism.”
His reference to demographics referred to oft-expressed concerns in Israel about the country's Jewish population being overwhelmed by non-Jews.
Israel's 6.2 million Jews make up nearly 75% of the country's population, with its Arab citizens comprising more than 20%. In addition, an estimated 4.6 million Palestinians live in occupied territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
For many Israeli Jews, even the smallest number of additional non-Jews is a potential threat, and the Syrian refugee crisis and the debate about Israel’s role has reawakened the country’s most deep-seated fear -- that of losing the Jewish majority and subsequently the character of the Jewish state.
Even those in support of opening the gates to refugees say they mean 10,000 at the most, with some calling for a token action such as that taken by former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who in 1977 took in about 70 refugees from Vietnam.
Nachman Shai, a lawmaker from Herzog’s party, was among those who were adamant that Israel had an obligation to do something. “We will not be able to solve the refugee problem but we cannot plug our ears and look away,” he said.
However, Immigrant Absorption Minister Zeev Elkin accused Herzog of gambling on Israel’s strategic interests for the sake of “one minute of favor” in international media. He also expressed the fear that the refugee crisis could give Palestinians an opening to bring the so-called right of return, which would allow Palestinians to return to land they occupied before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, in “through the back door.”
Transportation Minister Israel Katz said it would be a mistake for Israel to get involved in the Syrian civil war by taking in refugees. “We are too close, too involved. We are not a European country,” he said.
Sobelman is a special correspondent.
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