In his first act as leader in June 1977, Prime Minister Menachem Begin announced that Israel would take in 66 Vietnamese refugees whose boat had sank near the coast of Vietnam. “The people of Israel, who experienced persecution and who know perhaps more than any other nation the meaning of the word refugee, cannot stand by and witness the suffering of these wretches,” said the first Likud premier.
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Last September, days after conducting a well-publicized tour of south Tel Aviv, Begin’s successor as Likud chief and prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had this to say: “The filth and stench is one thing, but the fact that Sonya, 72, can only come down once a day [from her sixth-floor apartment] with someone accompanying her, going back up with difficulty at the end of the day, is inexplicable. What I heard from residents was their great distress due to the problem of the infiltrators,” he said, using a word right-wing politicians frequently use to describe African asylum seekers. “We have the right to expel everyone who is here illegally,” he added.
Instead of describing wretches and refugees – with the people of Israel the first to recognize their suffering – the most racist, inflammatory and corrupt person ever to lead this country evoked images from the pages of Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer: Filth, stench, an elderly lady threatened by an African mob. Other members of his party have defined them as “a cancer in the nation’s body,” as carriers of viral diseases or as dangerous due to their sexual proclivities. This is a Nazi discourse to all intents and purposes, in a country of survivors of the Nazi genocide.
In 2006, the number of asylum seekers in Israel was estimated at no more than several hundred. Prof. Amnon Rubinstein, who headed a committee examining the situation of refugees and asylum seekers, stated that Israel had a special obligation toward these people. After all, the Jewish people know what it feels like to face locked doors, he said. When the issue of constructing detention centers – like the ones being built in Europe at the time – came up, Rubinstein objected vehemently. That would be a black day for Israel, he said. What was erected in Europe was reminiscent of concentration camps, and we could never allow ourselves to erect such camps.
As we all know, detention centers were erected here, with thousands of refugees incarcerated in them. Soon, the refugees will be incarcerated in different facilities for an unlimited period. These inmates will have no way out other than declaring their willingness to leave the country and boarding a plane for deportation.
The Israeli government has embarked on an operation that its creators – Netanyahu and cabinet members Arye Dery and Gilad Erdan – hope will lead to the deportation of some 40,000 African refugees, including 5,000 children who were born here and know no other home.
This planned deportation is the latest in a long line of historical injustices the Jewish state has perpetrated since 1948. It puts Israel in a place of dishonor alongside states whose history includes genocide, ethnic cleansing, and the deportation of refugees and asylum seekers. But unlike in the past, when mass expulsions took place in situations of war or violent conflicts – which obviously did not grant legitimacy to crimes against humanity – this time the circumstances are different. This time, it’s only the desire to keep the Jewish state forever pure.
Such thinking, even if its expressions are somewhat hidden, is not new in Zionist or Israeli history. From the beginning, Zionism had to face the question of the existential need to establish a national home with a solid demographic majority for the Jewish people – which had known harsh periods of expulsion and murder – in relation to the liberal, humanist and multinational concept as developed by European liberals at the end of the 19th century. The first Zionist thinkers such as Ahad Ha’am, Theodor Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky were raised on these values.
The Palestinian residents of the land were the victims of the decision that was made (regardless of whether it was imposed on the leaders of the nascent Jewish state, or whether it was consciously and willingly embraced): To turn the Jewish state into a mono-ethnic and mono-national entity to the extent that international and military conditions would allow.
There is no disputing the fact that Zionism, as a movement with a strong component of colonial settlement, never really wanted to leave the Palestinian “natives” on their land. These people were an ongoing reminder of the problematic nature of the Jewish claim to territory it considered its historical inheritance. A large Palestinian presence, beyond its security considerations, left open the bigger question of the rightful ownership of this land. Their transfer from here, hopefully voluntarily and as part of an agreement – and if not, by violence and coercion – was a latent goal in Zionist thinking throughout the British Mandate period. This was supported by many Jewish community leaders here at the time. This objective, which was partially achieved during the Nakba of 1948 [the Palestinian term for the formation of Israel], has not changed to this day, even though it’s understood it will be very difficult to implement under current circumstances.
In many ways, the challenge posed to the Jewish state by 40,000 African refugees is similar to the Palestinian problem. The Africans pose no security risk; they’re not terrorists; and all they ask is to be allowed to stay and make a living, usually in jobs most Israelis won’t do. But if we examine the worldview of the person spearheading the current expulsion campaign, we see that Netanyahu has defined the problem of their remaining here on exactly the same lines. In 2012, he stated that “60,000 infiltrators could become 600,000 and possibly even jeopardize Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish democracy.”
Clearly, these refugees do not endanger Israel’s democracy. But they do pose a threat to its future as a mono-ethnic Jewish state, according to the harsh Zionist conception Netanyahu embraces. And obviously there will not be 600,000 refugees arriving in Israel. But a danger to the ethnic purity of the state still exists with the presence of even the 40,000 wretched souls who are still here.
The extent to which the expulsion of African asylum seekers is linked to the extremist, racist and violent worldview in Israel toward anyone who is not part of the “Jewish Volk” can be found in two incidents.
One night in April 2012, Molotov cocktails were thrown at three apartments housing African asylum seekers and a kindergarten attended by their children. Refugees from Sudan were asleep in the apartments, and it was a miracle no one was burned alive.
Three years later, in July 2015, a firebomb was thrown into the home of the Dawabsheh family in the West Bank village of Duma. The two parents and their infant son were killed. In the first case, no one was ever arrested. In the second case, an extremist from a nearby settlement was indicted on three counts of murder in January 2016.
The common denominator in these two horrific acts – other than the fact that they recall the Nazi pogrom in Germany in November 1938 (Kristallnacht) – is not the attempt to burn alive people who the perpetrators believed did not deserve to live. This murderous racism aimed at the “other,” which exists mainly within parts of the national-religious camp in Israeli society, is met with indifference and disinterest by vast portions of the general public. However, the main problem is the backing given by the government to such views, either through actions such as deportation (of Africans), or through a discourse of apartheid and ethnic cleansing (of Palestinians).
This common denominator does not distinguish between an African child and a Palestinian one. The deportation of refugees and the discourse about ethnic cleansing are part of the same historical development.
In order to understand the current Israeli racism, we must examine not only its contemporary expressions but its historical ones too. Just as in Europe it is impossible nowadays to separate racism and hostility toward Muslims and racism in its historical forms – anti-Semitism, persecution of the Roma, the annihilation of nations in colonial times – and just as neo-Nazis in the United States view blacks, Muslims and Jews as a common enemy, we cannot separate racism directed at Africans in Israel from the racist attitudes (covert and overt) that have existed here against the Arabs for decades.
Racism in Europe is part of a historical and cultural legacy. Hostility, suspicion and animosity toward Arabs is part of the historical legacy of Zionism and Jewish society in Israel. The dehumanization of Africans and Arabs among many parts of Israeli society is similar. They are perceived as inferior and guilty of sex crimes and violence in its many manifestations – national, sexual or criminal. Africans are perceived as a danger to the quality of life, while the Palestinians are seen as a security and demographic risk. A final solution to the greater problem is at least unattainable for now, but beginning with the Africans is possible.
Prof. Daniel Blatman is a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.