East Africa / Horn of Africa / Racism and Xenophobia / Refugees

Latent Recognition: African Refugees in Israel

When I visited Israel about a year ago, my relatives and friends mentioned the plight of African refugees–some 50-60,000 people, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan, who had come into the country illegally, often by embarking on a treacherous journey through Egypt and across the Sinai desert. My aunt took me to Tel Aviv’s Lewinsky Park—where religious and secular charities had set up a mobile library and were providing food to refugees. I was told that the Israeli government did not want to deport asylum seekers out of fear of international condemnation. Nor would they process more than a nominal number of refugee applications out of concerns with further “diluting” the dominant Jewish (and, arguably, “white”) character of Israel. Caught in a limbo, African refugees were left in a precarious political and economic position—unable to work legally and without any definitive, formal status.

The situation has worsened in the months since I left. In January of this year, African asylum seekers began a series of protests in reaction to a new law requiring that they report to a detention centre in the Negev desert in southern Israel. President Netanyahu publically stated that most protesters were economic migrants seeking jobs and opportunities in Israel, rather than political refugees, escaping civil conflict. Reports have also surfaced that the Israeli government is secretly encouraging refugees to leave “voluntarily” by providing them with some small monetary compensation and deporting them to Uganda.

Those of us familiar with the conflicts in southern and western Sudan and Eritrea would certainly balk at the suggestion that most African migrants in Israel are merely “economic” migrants. Some political theorists have also argued that the distinction between an economic and political migrant is, at best, ambiguous and that treating the two as distinct categories tends to obscure and depoliticize the exploitative nature of capitalism. Many legal and illegal immigrants from countries like the Philippines, for example, have come to Israel in recent years, primarily to perform low-wage labor—but as “non-political” economic migrants, they are denied many rights and are vulnerable to being deported. Similarly, Africans seeking asylum often seek out opportunities to work—thus blurring the distinction between an economic and political migrant. (See: here, here, and here).

Portraying African refugees as interlopers out to “take advantage” of Israel’s prosperity is a useful means for the Israeli state to not only deny them asylum, but also to obscure more underlying reasons for anxiety. Israel was founded as a place of refuge for victims of the Holocaust and for Jews experiencing anti-Semiticism in their home countries. The Israeli government’s justification for maintaining the country as a Jewish state is deeply interconnected to the trauma of the Holocaust—which we in the Jewish community are often enjoined to “never forget.” When the UNHCR produced the 1951 Refugee Convention, Israel was one of its first signatories.

Yet Jewish Israelis are constantly being reminded that their demographic dominance is fragile. The Israeli state has largely managed to maintain its Jewish majority artificially—through a set of discriminatory (and, as many critics argue, apartheid-like) measures to keep “foreigners” out.

But do the contradictions of Israeli nationalism simply refract a more pervasive problem: that asylum may be impossible for more than a small minority in any system of nation-states? Whether to seek better economic opportunities or to attain asylum, African migrants face discrimination in many of the countries where they go. (This includes neighboring African countries, such as South Africa). The nation-state, as scholars ranging from Hannah Arendt to Arjun Appadurai have argued, often breeds nativist exclusion and, at times, violence. And while the global color bar may no longer be explicit or legally enforced, it remains intact in many ways. Xenophobia is often directed at African immigrants and refugee seekers worldwide.

Defenders of Israel’s status quo could argue that minorities face discrimination in virtually every country they live. And no nation-state—no matter how liberal and inclusive—can ever open its borders fully to all immigrants, regardless of their race or background or reasons for seeking refuge. (Discrimination, one could argue, is, in fact, necessary to the integrity of nationalism). Even left-leaning political theorists have suggested that the concept of hospitality itself is intrinsically limited and circumscribed—thus, it is impossible to ever fully open one’s doors to the “other.”

While such dilemmas may not be exclusive to Israel, recognizing its pervasiveness still leaves unanswered the question of who will take in this particular group of refugees. Reading the left-of-center Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, I came across one editorial that expressed sympathy towards African asylum seekers, but nevertheless argued that the country’s robust economy and comparatively stable political system had made it a magnet for refugees. Israel, the author argued, could not be expected to take on this so-called burden (“The migrants from the Horn of Africa have no intention to harm Israel,” the author writes, “But their migration, if it continues, has the potential of destroying the State of Israel. …Richer countries, with larger populations, which are not surrounded by enemies, should offer them hospitality”). Can the responsibilities of offering asylum be shrugged off so easily?

These sorts of pragmatic economic and demographic arguments also tend to obscure the racism that is at play in Israel’s decision to deny African refugees asylum and force them into remote detention centers. This becomes more obvious when one compares the fate of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers with other immigrant communities in Israel. Ethiopian Jews, for example, have faced various forms of discrimination since arriving in the country in the 1980s and early 1990s. Despite their membership in the larger Jewish nation, they are more likely to serve in undesirable positions in the military (such as policing the West Bank), to have their spiritual practices questioned by those advocating for religious “orthodoxy,” to be perceived as lowering property values when they move into new neighborhoods, or to be seen as culturally “other” by fellow Israelis. Meanwhile, many recent immigrants from Russia have only tenuous claims to Jewish backgrounds. They often face rabbinical challenges to their acceptance as full-fledged Jews; yet, as a whole, they experience comparatively less discrimination than Ethiopian Jews. (This is due, in part, to their cultural connections to other Russian Jews, their white skin, which renders them less conspicuous and problematic, and the fact that many come from relatively better-educated and more prosperous backgrounds).

In Israel, particularly acute demographic pressures have been compounded by economic anxieties and unspoken and overt forms of racism to create an especially intractable situation. And the construction of a detention center in the Negev weighs heavily in a country that was born out of the failures of Western nations to provide asylum during World War II.

In such a political climate, is there still the possibility for recognition and affinity? Despite the pressures of Zionism, the persistence of racism, and the anxiety caused by growing economic inequality within the country, some Jewish Israelis have found parallels between their own history and the current plight of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees. A small group of African and Israeli activists are advocating for space to be made for these asylum seekers. (See: here, here, and here).

But is this hope possible in a country that has lived for so long with a fortress mentality? Can a country welcome in African asylum seekers while millions of Palestinian refugees remain unacknowledged by the state? Can Israel ever serve as a place of asylum without first questioning the logic of a political system aimed so fixedly at keeping out “outsiders” and “foreigners?” Especially when most of these so-called foreigners are, in fact, natives with longstanding claims to the land.

Keren Weitzberg is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. She is working on a book manuscript that focuses on questions of transnationalism amongst Somalis in Kenya.

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