Israel and Arizona: Similarities, Differences, Questions

In the July 25 Washington Post, columnist Ruth Marcus writes about the uproar in Israel over what she describes as a "flood" of refugees who have crossed the border illegally from Egypt at the end of the long trek from their homelands in Eritrea and Sudan. Marcus observes that "the velocity of the refugee flow" — some 60,000 over the last seven years into a nation of eight million — and its concentration in Tel Aviv "have created a serious social problem for a country that already has more than its share of troubles."

Marcus shows some understanding of the anger and anxiety in Israel, but is unsettled by plans for "a massive detention facility" to hold those who cross the border illegally. She says that while the Israeli government claims that most are "motivated by economics rather than fear of persecution", it has not established a process for evaluating claims for asylum.

Marcus expresses alarm at the broad public concern in Israel and especially at the riots that broke out after rapes that were blamed on the newcomers. She calls the response "particularly troubling in a country founded as a haven for refugees from the Holocaust." She concludes that Israel is "falling woefully short" of the Torah's command to "love the stranger, for you yourselves were once strangers in the land of Egypt."

As a former resident of Arizona, I was struck by the parallels between the situation in Israel and that of my own home state, which has experienced a much more intense influx of illegal immigrants who walked across the border. In 1990, according to U.S. government estimates, the illegal immigrant population of Arizona was 88,000. By 2008, that number had soared to 560,000, the vast majority coming from Mexico in search of economic opportunity.

The illegal immigrant population in Arizona has shrunk considerably over the past four years. But the backlash was produced by the anxieties stirred by the steady rise to more than a half million, in a state whose population was about seven million. That is a far greater concentration than the one currently vexing Israel.

Now, there are stark cultural differences between the two situations, to be sure. Arizona's newcomers entered a society with a long history of immigration from Mexico. In its history, culture, and economy, Arizona has long been closely tied to its Mexican neighbor, the state of Sonora. Mexican-Americans are well established and influential at every level of Arizona society.

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But while different in important respects, the situations in Israel and Arizona are similar in fundamental ways. Many Arizona citizens — including many Mexican-Americans — have felt overwhelmed by the stresses on neighborhoods, schools, medical facilities, and social services.

One wonders if well-intentioned columnists should do more than invoke scripture in addressing such complex and volatile situations. Perhaps they should also ask to what extent any society can be expected to embrace sudden change. Both Israel and the United States are nations of immigrants. Neither one has adapted smoothly to recent, dramatic circumstances.

Is that the fault of small minds and shriveled hearts? Or is there something more fundamental at work here, something that speaks to human nature, the desire to maintain hard-won patterns of order? Are there limits, or must one always embrace the strangers, no matter how many cross the border illegally as they seek a better life?