A Wall, a Fence, and Border Security

Israel’s border security is the inspiration for the US’s southern border security solutions. Our security doesn’t involve surrounding the whole country with 35-foot-tall concrete slabs. We built smart fences with layered security. Only 5% of the security barrier in the West Bank built to stop terrorism consists of very tall concrete slabs.

Here I’ll focus on the border fence built between Egypt and Israel to stop the flow of unauthorized migration from Africa.

The February 2017 US Senate report (you can read it here) compares the efficiency and efficacy of Israel’s border security to that of the already existing southern US border solutions. Israel’s fence is better by far.

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  • 150 miles of fence cost US$415 million
  • Yearly maintenance cost is US$58 thousand per mile
  • It was built in 2 years and the physical structure is made of rebar, barbed wire, and concrete buried underground
  • It’s about 15 feet tall
  • There was a 10-mile section that was easier to breach so they raised that section to 25 feet

Does Israel’s fence “work”? Yes. From tens of thousands of migrants coming through the border, last year fewer than 20 came through.

But here’s what the security fence didn’t do:

  • Write a formal immigration policy for Israel (it never occurred to anyone that non-Jewish people would want to live in a Jewish state, so there are guidelines but no formal policy for people who fall outside the definition provided by the Law of Return)
  • Deal with the tens of thousands of migrants already in Israel
  • Deal with security or trafficking at airports, maritime ports, or any other points of entry not covered by the fence

If the US followed Israel’s plan, here’s what should happen:

  • The US southern border needs about 13 of Israel’s fences (all things being equal), so it should cost US$5.4 billion. This doesn’t take into account terrain differences, proper oversight, consistency, eminent domain issues, etc. Even if you round up for other factors, let’s say US$10 billion
  • It should cost $112 million dollars per year for maintenance

The US already has 650 miles of fence.

  • The lower estimate given by the Senate report says it cost $2.3 billion (though another report says over the years it has been $7 billion). At US prices, Israel’s 150-mile fence would have cost US$530 million (or up to $1.6 billion)
  • Maintenance today on the US fence is US$77,000 annually per mile (or almost US$20,000 more per mile than Israel’s)

In short, the existing US fence was more expensive to build and is more expensive to maintain. But somehow it’s not effective. If the US builds a new fence using a plan based on anything other than Israel’s fence, it will be a case of throwing good money after bad.

Israel’s fence deals with a specific issue: unauthorized African migration, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan.

The US southern border fence claims it will deal with two specific issues: immigration and crime. So I checked a few statistics.

So if the border security “works,” it will stop approximately 400,000 people from entering the US via the southern border. It will do nothing about visa overstayers, nothing about “unauthorized” immigrants already residing in the US, nothing about immigration policy, nothing against any kind of trafficking (most likely), nothing for any other border sector, airport, or maritime port, and nothing about immigration from any other region than Mexico and Central America. It will also probably be over budget and improperly and expensively maintained. In addition, those who might have come via the southern border will likely find alternate routes.

Trump’s US border wall is a Golden Calf. Some will bow down and genuflect to its glittery greatness, and it might even make some people feel better. But like a statue, no matter how much you pray to it, it won’t actually do much.

The Rule of Law

One of the big headlines in Israel this week is that the Supreme Court of Israel ruled to allow a student to enter the country to attend Hebrew University in a Master’s program even though this student has a history of supporting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel. It was among the first test cases of the anti-BDS entry law that Israel passed last year blocking entry to Israel of people who actively advocate BDS and act against Israel. (*Note: this is not the law that allows suing for damages if Israel is harmed by BDS activism. That was a different test case.)

Crash course on Israel’s governmental structure

Israel is not at all like the US system and is much more similar to the UK system. The Prime Minister is the head of the party that wins the election (thus the executive branch and legislative branch are combined). The President of Israel is a ceremonial position and is filled by a person elected by the Knesset, usually after a long career in politics. The President appoints the 15-member Supreme Court based on the recommendations of a judicial committee. Judges on the Supreme Court may serve until the age of 70 unless they resign for other reasons.

The Supreme Court in Israel serves two functions. Like the US Supreme Court, it is the final court of appeal. But unlike the US Supreme Court, the Supreme Court in Israel – operating as the High Court of Justice – may also hear petitions to rule on the legality of laws or other issues that would not normally be heard in a court of law. Since Israel doesn’t have a constitution, the Court uses the Basic Laws of Israel as its guide.

In 2017, a law was passed in the Knesset that said that a non-citizen who actively uses a public forum to call for a boycott of Israel and has a reasonable expectation of causing a boycott to occur, can be barred from entering Israel. This more-or-less applies to leaders of organizations, not someone who supports BDS on Facebook.

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It’s pretty divisive issue in Israel. The Left says that the law and its application violates freedom of speech and that Israel has nothing to hide. The Right points out that the democratically elected members of Knesset are acting on behalf of the will of the people and defending Israel at the border against enemy agents trying to destroy Israel from within.

Other BDS activists/supporters have been turned away at the airport, but the student in question here decided to take it to court.

The Court ruled that the law itself was in accordance with the Basic Laws, but that it did not apply in the student’s case. She claimed not to be involved in BDS for the last year and a half and was not planning to be a BDS activist while in Israel. So she’ll be starting at Hebrew U. next week.

Two comments

Academia the world over tends to lean to the left and it’s the case in Israel too. There are a good number of Israeli academics who support the BDS movement – even if it sometimes backfires and they themselves are uninvited to conferences or blackballed in publications. So while it seems on the face of it that the student wanting to attend Hebrew University, and who was backed in court by Hebrew U., is not supportive of BDS, I’m not so sure that it is quite so clear-cut. I guess we’ll see what this student does while she’s here.

This court case is a microcosm of the existential question of what kind of state Israel will be. Will Israel be a state of wide-ranging freedom for all or a repressive state that only allows opinions that agree with the majority?

And that’s where the Court comes in. It should not be a question of political Left or Right, but a question of what is just, not only legal. When the Court took upon itself the responsibility of protecting human rights, the Right called it an “activist court.” And when the Court allows a law to stand that the Left feels is repressive, the Left calls the Court a “rubber stamp.” The truth, of course, is somewhere in between. The Court must act to stop tyranny of the majority, but they must also allow the state to act on behalf of the safety and security of its citizens. The principle is simple, the application is complicated.

“Justice, justice shall you pursue.” – Deuteronomy 16:20

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Palace of Justice, Jerusalem

A Thought about Yom Kippur

When I worked at the University of Washington, I asked to take Yom Kippur off.

“Will you be going to synagogue?”

“No.”

“Will you be fasting?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet.”

“Then why are you taking it off?”

**what?**

I hated that conversation. And I love the fact that I’ve never had to have that conversation in Israel.

I usually go to the Kotel (Western Wall) for Yom Kippur, but I live further away now and it’s probably going to be hot, even in the morning. I don’t know if I want to walk 2 hours round trip to have a few words with God. God is everywhere, right? So I should be able to stay home.

And that is the beauty of living in Israel. No one will question what I choose to do on Yom Kippur and no matter what I do, I don’t feel any less Jewish.

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In the US, there’s a lot of effort that goes into maintaining a connection with Judaism. You have to plan ahead to coordinate holidays; if you want a community, you have to join a synagogue or community center (often paying dues and fees); if you want to be more religious, you have to shop at certain stores, live in certain neighborhoods, reorder your life slightly out of step with the surrounding community. It’s hard.

Here in Israel, I can effortlessly connect to my Jewish heritage. The nation functions on the Jewish calendar, I can walk into any synagogue at any time or never walk into any synagogue ever, I’m in-step with everyone and everything around me. I don’t have to try so hard.

I sound lazy, I’m sure. But it feels to me like my soul is planted in the fertile soil that it needs so that I can grow in other directions.

My dad had a pin that he liked a lot. He probably got it from Chabad. It said: “We never lost it.” I asked him what it meant and he said that we never lost the answers. I was about seven, so it didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Now I can see that even if you never lost a thing, sometimes it doesn’t always fit properly. But once it’s in its rightful place, everything else seems to realign itself.

I never lost my Judaism, I just didn’t have a way to make it fit properly for me in the US. Now that I’m in Israel, I feel that everything is in its rightful place no matter what I do on Yom Kippur.

***

I’m sorry if my posts offended anyone. I’m sorry that some posts got a bit too long. I’m sorry if I misrepresented something or someone my writing. I hope you can forgive me. I will try to do better next year.

Wishing everyone a Gmar Chatima Tova!
May you be written and sealed in the Book of Life!
May you have a meaningful fast (if you’re fasting)!

***

Traditional Yom Kippur posts: 2015 | 2016 | 2017

But is it good for Israel?

I’m not a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen. I never saw his movies and I never watched the shows. All I really know about him is based on video clips I’ve seen here and there.

The problem is that I like the **idea** of Sacha Baron Cohen. I like the fact that he holds up a funhouse mirror to society and calls out hypocrisy and shows a certain group of people that their beliefs taken to absurd conclusions are very likely based on false foundations.

It’s meant to be funny (granted, sometimes it is), but it’s more often uncomfortable, rude, upsetting, horrible, and ultimately sad (I’m thinking of Borat in a bar in Texas getting everyone to join him in singing “Throw the Jews Down the Well.”)

So now we’ve got Baron Cohen’s new show on Showtime – we get clips in Israel – featuring the Israeliest Israeli Erran Morad. This is from an Associated Press article.

“The reaction has mostly been astonishment about the accuracy of the portrayal. He really got some of our traits down,” Einav Schiff, a[n Israeli] TV critic, said with a chuckle.

“Everyone here knows an ‘Erran Morad’ but I haven’t recognized any outrage or embarrassment about the character. It’s mostly been ridicule for these Americans who have fallen for him,” Schiff added.

I’m Israeli enough to appreciate the spot-on portrayal (it’s quite good), but I’m American enough to be dumbstruck by the words coming out of his mouth and shocked that US politicians are not catching on.

I’m stunned that anyone would believe that Israel has a “Kinderguardians” program that advocates arming kids starting at the age of 4.

Now read that again. I’ll wait.

Do you for even a second believe that it’s a good idea to put weapons into the hands of a 4-year-old? And would you endorse a program that advocates arming children? I think the clear answer – even if you admire Israel and even if you are proponent of gun rights – is a resounding NO.

Now let’s say you don’t care one way or the other about Israel or gun rights. Let’s leave it as a wild card if you know of Sacha Baron Cohen and let’s let Youtube make suggestions based on your previous viewings. You like funny stuff, so the video clip comes up.

So you see this guy (definitely foreign, so probably, as he says, Israeli) saying all kinds of absurd stuff with a straight face and he’s believed by legitimate congressmen and leaders. So you’re left with this impression of a bad-ass, crazy Israeli who advocates guns for toddlers. And since you also know that the Israeli Mossad is the top intelligence agency in the world and the Israeli army is one of the best, maybe Israel really does have a Kinderguardians program.

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This show is probably not good for America, but I’m not convinced that it’s going to do a lot of good for Israel either.

(Prepare barf bags if you have a sensitive stomach. You’ve been warned.)

Israelis – 70 Years Young

This week was Israel’s 70th Independence Day! Hooray!

I saw this video on Facebook and I think it’s a pretty good description of what it means to be Israeli. It’s a melting pot, it’s a salad, it’s a quilt.

 

In my new neighborhood, I think I’ve finally moved to Israel.

This is the opening to an program broadcast in Israel in the late 1970s to help people learn English. You might notice that it was British English back in those days!

***

“Nu, Itzik! Where are you?!”

This was the first thing I heard at 7am on my first morning in my new apartment. It sounded like the guy was standing outside my door. Was it locked?

“Yalla! Itzik, let’s go!”

I’m not Itzik. I’ll pretend that I didn’t hear anything and hide under the blanket. The cats are already freaked out and hiding under the bed.

cat-2806957_1920Representative picture – this is neither me nor any of my cats

***

“Hey! Benny’s mom!”

A little old lady was sitting next to me at the bus stop and a car stopped in the middle of the street. The driver was calling out to this lady.

“Where are you headed?”

At first it was obvious that she didn’t quite know who this was and her only clue was that this was her son’s friend. “I’m on the way to the doctor.”

“Get in! I’ll take you!”

“Oh, no. That’s fine.” A car had come up behind the guy and waited while the exchange continued.

“No, no, no. I’d love to take you. Get in.” Another car came from the other direction.

It took her a moment to get to the other side of the street and get in the car, but everyone waited. And off they went.

***

In my old neighborhoods, there were a lot of foreigners, especially Americans. So going to the grocery store was always a culture shock experience of long lines, bagging your own groceries, cashiers shouting for change, and barely contained chaos. The people in line and in the store are just barely hanging on to their sanity to get through the experience.

“I only wanted to buy some bread and cheese! Why?! Why is it like this?”

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In my new grocery store, it’s exactly the same: long lines, bagging my own groceries, cashiers shouting (for change, for greetings, for someone to switch her/him out), and Wild West chaos. But the people are different.

“Hey. I’m behind you. Ok?” I’m now in charge of holding this guy’s place.

“I’m back in one second.” Now the lady in front of me is off because she forgot something.

“Oh, where did you find that? I should get some too. I’m back in one second.”

We’re all in it together and no one is upset about anything.

***

Walking around my neighborhood, I see that it is a place where people actually live. They try to beautify their porches. They grow flowers and herbs. They vigorously clean every Friday. They make the best of what they have. Children play in the many parks. It’s a place where people know their neighbors – if not by name, then by sight.

Here’s a newly rejuvenated park that I found in my wanderings. It was early-ish, so no people around yet.

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Center of the Universe

In my first year of graduate school, I lived in a house in town rather than on campus. We didn’t have cable and for some reason we couldn’t pick up local stations, but the Canadian stations came in clearly. I started watching the news from Canada and I noticed something that really surprised me: the 30-minute evening news spent 20-25 minutes on world news and 5-10 minutes on local news. (The other thing that surprised my poor puritanical ears was the use of the F-word in primetime, but that’s another story.)

My point is that somehow it took until I was 22 years old to really understand that there was a big wide world out there where things happen. It’s not like I lived a sheltered life. I’d traveled internationally with my family. I knew who the prime minister of Israel was. Many of my mom’s friends were from another country (like we were). It had just never really sunk in that there might actually be something happening outside the US. I mean, isn’t the US the Center of the Universe? (And isn’t its capital the neighborhood of Fremont?)

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But now I live in a different center of universe. Although sometimes when I travel it is made abundantly clear to me that a lot of people couldn’t care less about Jerusalem and some have never even heard of it.

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By Heinrich Bünting – [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=698773

Given my recent posts, it may surprise you, dear reader, to know that I did not listen to a single word of the State of the Union speech. Honestly, it hardly made a ripple in the Israeli news. Over here we were dealing with something else entirely and my attention swerved from one center of the universe to another.

This week’s headlines in Israel were about Poland. On the eve of international Holocaust Remembrance Day the Polish Senate passed a law criminalizing any mention of the Polish nation as complicit in or as perpetrators of the Holocaust. It’s not clear to me how they plan on imposing this law internationally and how it will affect the vocabulary allowed to historians (the problematic phrase is “Polish death camps” or statements implying the nation of Poland was complicit) and it’s a backhanded insult to Israel and Jews around the world.

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Israeli 11th and 12th graders go to Poland for their class trip and visit concentration camps, say prayers over the dead, rebury remains, and remember the atrocities that were committed on Polish soil. Outside of Israel, thousands of people participate in the March of the Living trips to honor their lost family members and show that they survived. Will this law mean that if anyone says the phrase “Polish death camps” during the trip, they might be liable for a fine or up to 3 years imprisonment?

There is no doubt that there were Poles who rescued and protected Jews – Yad Vashem has documented proof – but there were plenty who did not. The question for me is: why is there is a need to criminalize any mention of Poland as a perpetrator? You can argue, debate, and present facts and witnesses. Why threaten jail?

Israel is angry about this law. Schools and Jewish groups are reconsidering their Poland trips. Poland is scrambling, but it doesn’t look like they’ll back down on the law.

Here’s a thought: Maybe this diplomatic wrinkle will give Jews the opportunity to reevaluate the purpose of Poland trips. The world and Jews especially should never forget the horrors of the Holocaust and the extinguished souls should be remembered forever. But maybe it’s time to also balance the history of victimhood and survivor guilt that color a large part of Jewish identity with the drive toward a future of strength and unapologetically doing good in the world (start-up nation, center of R&D in technology and medicine, etc.). If Israel is a phoenix rising from the ashes of the Holocaust, maybe all Jews would be better served with the more universal idea that while we will always remember where we came from, we can and must allow ourselves to fly and reach for the stars.

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Immigration

After the US president’s announcement that he was rescinding the DACA program, I was reminded that Israel has faced very similar issues recently and just a few days ago Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled that Israel could not forcibly deport illegal migrants.  Specifically related to DACA is the situation of children born in Israel to foreign workers.  They are not citizens of Israel, but they feel no connection to their parents’ homeland.  Yet some of these kids – under the age of 12 – may face deportation. (I don’t know if the decision of the court affects them.)

Let’s start with some definitions.  There are two ways people gain citizenship in a country:  jus soli and jus sanguinisJus soli is a Latin phrase meaning the “right of soil.” That means that if you are born within the borders of a country, you are a citizen of it.  Jus sanguinis is Latin for “right of blood” meaning that the right of citizenship is passed down from one’s parents.  The US and Israel have a mixture of both.

There is no way that a short little blog post will completely explain immigration issues in a US or Israeli context.  But I wanted to point out that Israel is also facing challenges with immigration and we all could probably learn from each other.

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Israel’s biggest challenge is that it doesn’t actually have an immigration policy per se.  Yes, there is the Law of Return that applies to Jews who wish to come to live in Israel.  But the founders didn’t really imagine that anyone other than Jews would want to live in a postage stamp-sized Jewish country.  For decades this was generally fine.  There were some general rules, but no real policy and anomalies could be handled on a case by case basis.  After 1967, Palestinians started to work in Israel.  Then there was an influx of foreign workers and later non-Jewish refugees from Ethiopia and Sudan found their way to Israel and hoped for a better life. These people were not necessarily looking for citizenship, but a policy would have to address their rights and status.

Then the situation started to get complex.  What do you do with children of non-Jewish foreign workers – either legal or illegal – who were born in Israel, only speak Hebrew, and have built a life in Israel?  What about children of refugees born in Israel who may or may not have gotten asylum in Israel?  What about the Israeli citizens who live in south Tel Aviv and now live in a de facto refugee center because the majority of Ethiopian and Sudanese refugees live there?

Israel chose compassion first to deal with the situation of human beings in Israel, so many of the children were granted residency status, but still some were left out due to technicalities.  The issue of refugees and asylum seekers was a bit more clear cut.  If asylum or refugee status was granted then they stayed; if not, they were deported (not always to the country they fled from).

And yet, Israel still doesn’t have a formal immigration policy except for the Law of Return.  I imagine that if you want to have a Jewish and democratic state and you don’t have total agreement on who is a Jew and you haven’t decided how to deal with the question of immigration of non-Jews, having a formal policy would be nearly impossible.

So while US immigration policies may be headline news around the world, the US is by no means the only country dealing with huge questions of who can come into their country and how those decisions reflect the values of that country and its people.