While the bulk of the Israeli government’s animosity is reserved for indigenous Palestinians, in recent years a group of new immigrants has also encountered high levels of hostility. While no immigration is without its challenges, this group of migrants has been subject to political persecution and vigilante attacks like no other – because they are not Jews.
The three largest shifts in the population of Palestine – and later Israel – in the last 133 years occurred in the late 1940’s, the early 1950’s, and the last decade of the twentieth century. In the first instance, the newly declared State of Israel drove out hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs and didn’t permit those who fled the fighting to return to their homes after the armistice. In both the second and third instances, the Israeli government facilitated the immigration of about a million Jews from around the world.
All three of the aforementioned major modern-day shifts in Israel-Palestine’s population increased the country’s proportion of Jews to Gentiles. Despite this, in the lands controlled by Israel – sovereign Israel, the occupied territories and besieged Gaza – non-Jews outnumber Jews today, 51 per cent to 49 per cent.
Clearly, no people willingly agree to have fewer rights and privileges than their neighbours, just because they belong to a different racial or religious group. So Jews in Israel who want the state to continue granting them more rights and privileges than Gentiles – something it has done since its inception – seek to limit the suffrage of non-Jews living in Israeli-controlled territory, to prevent them from challenging their subordinate status with either the bullet or the ballot.
In the twenty-first century, there have been no major changes in Israel’s population, and none are expected in the near future. At present, Jews are leaving Israel at more or less the same rate as Jews are moving to Israel; by some measure, the former figure exceeds the latter.
Defenders of human rights see this as a positive development, a sign that despite the existence of anti-Jewish racists, most Jews outside of Israel feel secure enough to continue living wherever they are. In these places, political leaders respond to racist attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions with public expressions of solidarity with the local Jewish community.
Top Israeli leaders like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, are horrified by these migration trends, and issue repeated calls for Jews living in other parts of the world to abandon their lives there and immigrate to Israel. At the same time, he identifies Palestinian citizens of Israel as a population “problem”, boasts of reducing their birthrate, and encourages Israeli Jews to vote in order to offset ballots cast by Arabs.
Given Netanyahu’s anti-Palestinian policies and public statements, his government’s draconian response to the first wave of non-Jewish immigration in Israel’s history should come as no great surprise. Still, the circumstances of this group’s migration and the contempt that they elicit from Israel’s political leaders almost beggars belief.
In 2012, Israel built an expensive high-tech fence along its land border with Africa. But in the six years previous, about 60,000 people fled political repression and ethnic cleansing on the African continent, trekked across the Sinai Peninsula, crossed the border into Israel and requested asylum. Two-thirds of these refugees, Eritreans, were escaping slavery, the other third, Sudanese, were escaping ethnic cleansing.
These 60,000 people amount to just half a per cent of the population residing in Israeli-controlled territory, and just a tiny fraction of the 50 million refugees in the world today, the highest tally since World War Two. According to the international refugee law it co-signed and co-authored after the horror of the Holocaust, Israel should have accepted their asylum applications and allowed them to live full lives.
Instead, Israel refused to grant almost any of the Africans legal work permits, keeping them impoverished. It funneled them into the country’s poorest neighbourhoods without investing any extra resources in those ghettos, increasing competition for scarce resources and generating resentment against them. It then incited extra racism against them, accusing them of being diseased criminals and potential terrorists.
The government’s unwillingness to allow these refugees to resettle in Israel is particularly egregious, because it receives tens of millions of dollars from the United States every single year for that explicit purpose. In the past decade, Congress has transferred hundreds of millions of dollars in refugee aid money to the Israeli government, who funnel it to the Jewish Agency, a sectarian group that only assists Jews and has not spent a penny on any actual asylum-seekers.
Racist incitement by political and religious leaders has caused hatred of the African asylum-seekers to mushroom to alarming levels. Israeli Jews have smashed African storefronts, firebombed African homes and a kindergarten, and attacked African people in the streets, even stabbing a one-year-old African baby in downtown Tel Aviv. If they are caught, the perpetrators of these acts of racist violence are given mere slaps on the wrist, no more.
With public sympathy for the asylum-seekers all but extinguished, the government passed a law permitting it to round Africans up off the streets, out of Israeli cities, and into desert containment camps. Once there, the government applies its stated policy to “make their lives miserable“, in order to pressure them to grudgingly agree to be deported back to the tortures they originally fled from, instead of languishing in these jails for what might be the rest of their lives.
Though Israel’s High Court often rubber-stamps legislation that discriminates against non-Jews, it overturned this particular law, saying that the refugees had committed no crime by applying for asylum and did not deserve to be incarcerated. After the Knesset passed a second version of the same law, the High Court struck it down a second time. Ignoring the court’s directive to dismantle the detention centre, the government just passed a third version of the law.
Israeli plans to deport these Africans to the European Union or Australia – states that are also loathe to give refuge to non-white asylum-seekers from the third world – have failed. But the leader of one African country, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, has publicly agreed to take in at least some of these asylum-seekers – though not to grant any of them legal status or refugee rights. In exchange, Israel will reportedly compensate Rwanda with arms and weapons training.
It is unclear whether the refugees-for-arms deal with Rwanda will be carried out, forcing these asylum-seekers back to Africa and putting more guns into Kagame’s hands. But if it is, it will be a sad sequel to the shameful role Israel played in the Rwandan genocide two decades ago. Even as local militias murdered between half a million and a million Rwandans, the Israeli government permitted its arms traders to keep selling weapons to the factions carrying out the slaughter.
The Israeli government could have repaired some of the damage it has already done on the African continent by at least granting status to the 60,000 African asylum-seekers who managed to make it in to the country before the border was sealed. But because limiting the numbers of non-Jews in the country has always been an Israeli imperative, even this small group of luckless refugees is targeted by the state for ethnic cleansing.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.