Default Positions: U.S. immigration & Israeli settlements

Default Positions: U.S. immigration & Israeli settlements

Let me suggest an outrageous comparison, one between Israeli settlements in the West Bank and illegal immigration in the United States. Though hugely different in many important ways, they are similar in at least three regards:

1) Both are often presented in legal terms – a violation of the law and what to do about it;

2) Both concern the question of whether people are allowed to stay in or are forced to leave their current homes;

3) Specific terminology is critical to framing the debate on both questions.

The current U.S. government position is that Jewish settlements beyond the green line are at least “illegitimate”, to quote President Obama, if not outright illegal as a violation of international law. Consequently, Israel should cease all further construction in West Bank and east Jerusalem settlements. Moreover, Israel should prepare itself to evacuate tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Israeli citizens from their West Bank homes as part of a peace agreement in order to facilitate the creation of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state.

On illegal immigration into the United States, the Obama administration calls for creating a “pathway to citizenship” (what I would call “non-amnesty amnesty”) which allows millions of “undocumented workers” and their families (previously known as “illegal aliens”) to remain in the U.S. indefinitely, while tightening up border security and mandating other safeguards to slow down unregulated migration, across the Mexican border in particular. The very idea of mass deportations of the more than ten million persons in the U.S. illegally is dismissed as inhumane, illiberal, and impractical.

How long have these illegal immigrants lived in the United States? Some for only a few months, but for the most part much longer. Given the fact that President Reagan, through the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, already extended amnesty to some 2.7 million people who entered the country illegally prior to 1982, those covered by a proposed new Obama amnesty are most likely to have been in the U.S. less than thirty years.

How long have Israeli settlers lived in the West Bank? Some for only a few months, but the vast majority for much longer, the greatest population increase occurring over the last 20 years. The earliest Jewish immigration beyond the green line began within months of the 1967 war and has increased to the point where now approximately 200,000 Jews live in east Jerusalem and 300,000 live in the West Bank.

In both cases the number of people in question, relative to the total population of the country, represents several percent. In both cases many families have lived in their current location for decades. Should they now be uprooted?

At what point does our internal statute of limitations run out? Where do we draw the line – in terms of years or numbers of individuals – on the acceptability of removing people from where they live or, alternatively, resigning ourselves to live with a situation even when we morally oppose it?

Of course the two situations have completely different contexts. Left out of this discussion entirely is the impact of these relative newcomers’ presence on the pre-existing population – Palestinians and Americans. I raise the comparison only as a point of reference for examining how we think about these issues and what our liberal, conservative, or other default positions are – what we dismiss as “out of the question” and what is “so obvious” to us that it requires no examination:

Thousands of Israelis living in illegal settlements? Send them packing!

Millions of illegal immigrants living in cities and towns throughout the U.S.? Let them stay!

International law violated in the West Bank by the establishment of Israeli settlements? Unconscionable!

State and federal laws violated by people surreptitiously crossing the U.S. border? So?… Reform the law and let those here illegally “earn the right” to stay. After all, people come to America for a better life. You can’t blame them for that. (Note: a majority of Jews living in the West Bank have been categorized as “quality-of-life settlers”, seeking a better life than that available to them in crowded, overpriced Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.)

The undisputed fact that millions of people have broken state and federal law by entering and remaining in the U.S., thereby circumventing the immigration vetting process, does not seem to be the determinative factor for immigration reformers and their supporters in deciding whether people now in the country illegally should stay or go.

Neither issue divides people politically along straight liberal-conservative lines. Yet I assert that many of the people who are willing to overlook or forgive illegal immigrants’ transgressions in the United States are the same people who oppose the Israeli settlements’ establishment as a violation of international law (the Hague and Geneva Conventions). For them, the finding of settlement illegality is the end of the matter. International law must be respected; America must insist that Israel comply with global norms. American law can be set aside, but not international law.

Finally, with regards to immigration and to settlements, notice the partisan insistence by both sides in these debates that specific words be used which either stigmatize or normalize the people and practices under discussion. According to the “immigration reform” advocates, one must say “undocumented workers” or “unauthorized population” instead of “illegal aliens”. One should speak of the benefits of “immigration” as much as possible, without distinguishing between the legal and illegal kinds. Those on the other side of the debate are as particular in stressing “illegality” as the operative concept (partly to counter any charges of racism). They claim they are not anti-immigrant but rather anti-illegal-immigrant.

With regards to the West Bank, one side insists that we should regularly preface the term “settlement” with “illegal” or follow it with the more explanatory term, “established in clear violation of international law”. “Colony” is also acceptable, but “neighborhood”, “community”, “town”, and “city” are not. The opponents of this view reject the use of pejorative terms to describe where Jews live on the other side of the green line.

These differences in vocabulary may seem small, but they are important in shaping our thinking about the issues. Particular words, even the order in which they are used, have an emotional resonance among readers and listeners. Imagine the firestorm of criticism that would engulf any speaker standing before an ethnically-mixed American audience who began a speech by welcoming the “colored people” in the group instead of the “people of color”!

U.S. immigration and Israeli settlements, issues half a world apart from each other, provide an opportunity for us to examine how we choose sides and how we select the language we employ to express our views.

Republished with permission frombikya masr