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Israel's African problem: An interview with Mark Regev

The full transcript of an interview with Mark Regev, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official spokesman, on the African refugee problem in Israel.

In light of the recent events concerning Sudanese refugees in Israel and the outburst of violent demonstrations in Tel Aviv, I have decided to publish an interview I conducted with Israel’s Mark Regev on April 2 to better understand the government position in regards to the African refugees in its borders.

The interview, which was conducted for an article I was writing in Rolling Stone magazine, took place shortly after a court injunction was placed on the Israeli government’s decision to begin deporting South Sudanese refugees back to their country of origin amid a deteriorating situation between Sudan and South Sudan. The interview gives good insight into how the government perceives and treats the issue of asylum seekers.



OR: Could you explain the government’s decision to deport the South Sudanese refugees?


MR: The policy is clear. Last year, I think in 2011, we had more illegal immigrants entering Israel than we had legal immigrants. And Israel is a small country; we are some 8 million people. And I think we have to deal with this issue. It would be irresponsible not to deal with this issue. The government has adopted a 4-tier strategy of dealing with the issue of illegal immigration.

One is of course what David sent you [he is referring to a link that was given to me by his staff], the issue of the border fence. Two, is making it much more difficult for illegal immigrants to work in Israel. Ultimately the Israeli economy is a first world economy and that serves as a magnet to people who are coming from many places, but specifically Africa. Thirdly, the prime minister has talked about a detention center to be established for illegal immigrants; to make sure their needs are taken care of, that they have housing and healthcare and other services, until…you know… humanitarian treatment.

And finally, is deportation to their countries of origin. That’s the four-tier process. Now we can’t ignore this issue, we have to deal with it. We can be flexible in the way we deal with it but we are not going to solve anything by ignoring the issue.


OR: One of your orders is saying to prevent them from work because Israel is a first world country and therefore it attracts people looking for work, so…?


MR: You got to remember what is the absurdity of the situation. Let’s say refugees… I shouldn’t say refugees, very few of them are refugees. Illegal immigrants who are coming to Israel are not coming from their country directly. They are coming through third-countries, where they are not persecuted. It’s clear they are coming here because of the economic magnet.


OR: Well according to refugees that I am using for my story and that I spoke to, they were indeed persecuted in 3rd countries. The conditions in Egypt for example…?


MR: To be fair, Israel is the only democracy in the region. Does that mean that a hundred million people can come to Israel and declare themselves legitimate refugees?


OR: I am not sure.


MR: Well, I am asking you according to your logic, sir.


OR: Umm… no obviously not.


MR: Alright. This is a real problem we can’t ignore it.


OR: But, the South Sudanese refugees are 700 people not hundreds of millions.


MR: As the Prime Minister said, firstly we can be flexible with the implementation and secondly, we are waiting for the judicial process. Israel is a country where there is rule of law. We can’t ignore the problem and hope it will go away. We are a very small country. We are a successful democracy, and we cannot be the solution for the region and beyond, for all the ills. Those solutions have to be found in greater democratization in other countries.


OR: Do the 700 south Sudanese refugees living in Israel’s borders pose such a deep threat to the state that they should be deported?


MR: Once again there is a four-tier strategy….


OR: Right, I understand that but I am talking about these 700 refugees?


MR: We can be flexible on implementation of that four-tier strategy and of course we respect the decisions of the courts. I can’t go beyond that at this stage.


OR: Ok. And also you mentioned the detention center that is to take care of the needs of refugees?


MR: According to our legal system if someone is in your country illegally you cannot prosecute them for working illegally and you cannot prosecute employers, which is more important, if they don’t have a place where they can live because then they don’t have—according to our legal people—they don’t have the ability to live and feed themselves, to take care of themselves, to find dwellings and so forth. The idea of the detention center is so we can enforce laws against employers who are illegally employing them, because the detention center—which will have the highest international standards—will deal with the issue: will they have a place to stay, will they be provided with food and medical care and education for children, if need be.  And social services because obviously some of these people have had very traumatic experiences, and so forth. And only with the detention center can we—according to our Supreme Court and our judiciary—can we legally enforce the ban on work. That’s the only way to deal with the magnet. If people can come to Israel illegally, and make a hundred times what they can make in Africa, the magnet is not going to go away. We have to be successful in enforcing labor laws.


OR: So you do not believe the majority of these people are in fact fleeing crisis situations in their own country?


MR: According to our own investigation only a fraction of 1 percent of these people qualify as bona fide refugees and then of course they have the right to stay here indefinitely until they can go to a third country. But the overwhelming majority are illegal economic migrants.


OR: This is still contrary to their status elsewhere where 85 percent of Eritreans get refugee status and I think around 50 percent of Sudanese?.


MR: Once again, first of all these people are coming from third countries. They are not coming directly.


OR: Well the ones that are in the US are also coming from third countries, no?


MR: And they are automatically given refugee status in the United States?


OR: No, but they are at least going through a process in which I guess 85 percent of Eritreans are getting refugees status and 50 percent of Sudanese, or South Sudanese,  not a fraction of 1 percent?


MR: Our studies… in our studies… in what we have been doing only a fraction of 1 percent qualify as refugees.


OR: And those Eritreans and South Sudanese are capable of going through the RSD process?


MR: What’s the RSD process, sorry?


OR: The Refugee Status Determination process?


MR: Obviously some of them have, you should speak to the Ministry of Interior. They know more about the details of that process.


OR: Thank you very much, I appreciate your comments.

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    1. Those are very loaded and disputable claims, Maor: “The way one enters Judaism is the same way one enters an ethnicity and a nationality – be born into such a family.” You effectively drain the idea that Judaism is a religion of all meaning, by treating it as a racial heritage. You don’t seem to be aware of the delusory nature of racial identity. As of 2008, upwards of 500,000 of the 1.3 million Russian-speaking olim were not halachically Jewish. This may be because they have one or more Jewish grandparent, but not their mother’s mother, or are married to, or related to someone married to, someone who is Jewish by descent. One wonders what you propose to do with them.

      Reply to Comment
    2. palestinian

      Maor , I prefer to call it Jew-hatred just as Muslim-hatred and Arab-hatred ,like in Israel .

      Reply to Comment
    3. Maor

      Rowan, first of all I would never speak about race, since I don’t know what race is. I was referring to ethnicity and nationality, or the more acceptable trendy concept of ethno-nationality. Judaism is the common religion of the Jewish people, an ethno-national group. The Jewish law (Halacha) according to which a person is a Jewish if his/her mother is Jewish perfectly reflects the ethic character of Judaism. That does not mean that all Jews identify with the ethno-national components of the contemporary Jewish identity, nor that everyone identifies with the religious components. In Israel, the ethno-national identity of the Jewish people became salient, more than the religious aspects. Even atheists in Israel who are Jewish according to the Halacha would consider their nationality Jewish (or Israeli). I’m close to being atheist, and for me my Jewish identity is cultural, national, more than it is religious. My vision is that there will be also Muslim-Jews and Christian-Jews, that is, to separate the religious from the ethno-national, but we’re still far from there. Israel also understand its Jewish character mostly as an ethno-national than religious character (though of course the two are not easily separated, and religious parties constantly push to strengthen the religious aspect of that character).

      The Olim you referred to, from the former soviet union, are not considered Jewish according to the Jewish law of their mother is not Jewish. The “Law of Return” set different rules for immigrants than the Jewish religious law, that creates the situation that third generation to Jewish people can be considered as NATIONALLY Jews (according to Israel) but religiously as non-Jewish.
      “One wonders what you propose to do with them” – why should I do anything with them? They are nice people, I’m happen to be involved with one.. why should I propose to do anything with anyone? I’m an extreme liberal, I would never tell anyone what to do as long as it doesn’t hurt me.

      Reply to Comment
    4. In some cases, ‘ethnicity’ has a valid employment because what is meant is something vague in practice. However, ‘Jewish identity’ is anything but vague nowadays, especially in the context of first-class citizenship in the state of Israel, as opposed to the second- and third-class citizenship of non-Jews (you and your jolie amie, for instance, cannot marry). Therefore I would categorise the term ‘ethno-nationality’ here as a ‘weasel word’ (i.e. a euphemism) for ‘race’. Under the 1970 revision to the Law of Return, “the child and the grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew” all qualify for citizenship. This makes a nonsense of your cosy ‘ethno-nationality’ with its ‘genetic commonality’ and ‘distinctness’. In reality, in Biblical and in post-Biblical times, Jewish nationality was something quite arbitrarily determined by power politics, dynastic alliances, overlordships, subjugations, assimilations and purges, in other words, something entirely political, as nationalities always are. I have never imagined that nationalities had any necessary ‘genetic commonality’ and ‘distinctness’, so for me, for instance, the Khazar hypothesis is a non-issue. But when you make ‘genetic’ claims, you need to be reminded of all this.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Maor

      Rowan, maybe I wasn’t clear or you’re taking what I wrote to directions that I had no intention taking it to: I am not making any genetic claims regarding contemporary politics, and I’m definitely not saying that only the “genetically Jews” should be considered as Jews – on the contrary, I’m in favor of establishing the Jewish identity as a purely cultural-national one, in which our Palestinian friend can also be “Jewish” if he wants, without giving up his Muslim or Christian beliefs. In my vision, a Jew would be someone who joins the Jewish collective, by culture, language, customs, and yes, some kind of affiliation to the land of Israel. There is no Judaism (whether religious or cultural) without Israel, and there is no Israel without Judaism, even when it has nothing to do with religion.

      Regarding “second- and third-class citizenship of non-Jews” – I’m afraid you don’t understand the issue of marriage in Israel: This is not a product of Israel being a Jewish nation state, but of its lack of separation between state and religion (any religion). Israel does not have civil marriage, only religious marriage. This is what we can call “equal discrimination” (which I’m very much against) – it’s not against non-Jews and not against Jews, it’s against everyone. If you are Jewish, you can get married only through the Rabbinate. If you’re Muslim, you can get married only through Sharia courts (yes, in Israel the Sharia is a part of the law). Marriage is a religious concept in Israel – it applies to all religions. The fact that my partner and I can’t get married in Israel is a discrimination against both of us!

      There is generally no discrimination in the Israeli law against non-Jewish versus Jewish. You can find all kinds of interpretations of discrimination (often based on ignorance of the law and its reasoning), but nothing explicit.

      Reply to Comment
    6. I know this is an incredibly complex issue, Maor. I’m quite intrigued by what you say, actually. “In my vision, a Jew would be someone who joins the Jewish collective, by culture, language, customs, and yes, some kind of affiliation to the land of Israel. There is no Judaism (whether religious or cultural) without Israel, and there is no Israel without Judaism, even when it has nothing to do with religion.” That’s a fascinating formulation. If it were applied, I could certainly become a Jew right away (unless someone discovered that I was actually a noted Polish neo-Nazi using a false name, of course).

      Reply to Comment
    7. Esther Noodelman

      If it’s so much easier to get into the USA,why don’t they go there?

      Reply to Comment
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