The State of Israel, built by immigrants and on the principle of encouraging immigration of Jews from all over the world, is facing a serious crisis of conscience.
Since 2006, an estimated 60,000 people, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, have entered the country, mostly across the 270 km border Israel shares with Egypt. As they arrive, most are taken to the Saharonim prison inside Israel, registered and then taken to Tel Aviv where they are dropped off and left to their own devices.
The arrivals are initially covered by the International Refugee Convention which Israel signed up to in 1954 but more recently, the Likud-led government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been responding to rising anti-immigrant feeling by launching an 'emergency plan' which aims to intern and deport the vast majority of immigrants, most of whom come from Eritrea, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Sudan (both North and South).
The rhetoric is becoming more strident. African immigrants, collectively referred to as 'infiltrators' in official jargon, a term condemned by the US State Department, have been labelled 'a cancer in our body' by an Israeli lawmaker and the Prime Minister argues that the majority of new arrivals are economic migrants, not genuine asylum seekers. In addition to this he asserts that many Israelis see African immigrants as a law and order issue and worry about the viability of the Jewish State in the face of mass immigration.
Though Eritreans and immigrants from Sudan are not allowed to be repatriated for the time being due to instability and persecution in their homelands, an Israeli court ruled that people from South Sudan could now return home safely since their country gained independence from the North in 2011.
The temporary papers granted to new arrivals state clearly that they are not allowed to work. Consequently, the poorer parts of Tel Aviv and other towns have seen an influx of thousands of intermittently employed young men who are blamed for an alleged sharp rise in crime in these areas.
In May 2012, rising tensions spilled over into violence on the streets of the poor Hatikva district in south Tel Aviv with groups of demonstrating residents targeting Africans on the street and African homes and businesses being attacked and ransacked.
In addition to deportation the government has devised a scheme which offers anyone who returns home voluntarily a one-off payment of USD 1,300. The take-up on this offer has been relatively low since many of the immigrants prefer to wait for the outcome and implementation of new legislation, hoping for a chance to remain in Israel for the time being.
Facing multiple uncertainties from the fragile post-revolutionary settlement in Egypt to the South and the explosion of violence in Syria to the North, Israel is currently having to reassess its position in the region and examine previously held assumptions anew. The influx of African migrants is part of this new reality that is pitting very different visions of the nature of the Jewish State against each other.