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Israel’s policy on African asylum seekers reflects its internal divisions

January 3, 2018 at 5:16 pm

An African migrant holds a placard at Tel Aviv’s Levinsky park, January 9, 2014

Yesterday, the BBC reported that, “The Israeli government has issued a notice for thousands of African migrants to leave the country or face imprisonment.” Other British news outlets followed in reporting the story, with the Guardian and the Independent weighing-in on the topic.

Ordering migrants to leave within 90 days or face arrest and indefinite detention from April, Israel has reportedly offered to pay up to $3,500 (£2,600) for those willing to leave within the given timescale. Forward reports that Israel is also offering the government of Rwanda $5,000 for every deportee that it accepts, as part of an initiative to send the migrants on to a third country. The order exempts children, the elderly and victims of slavery and human trafficking, but estimates still suggest that the move could affect up to 40,000 individuals.

In another twist to the tale, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instructed National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat to re-examine the plan for expulsion. Haaretz reported that “the need to formulate an alternative plan arose due to the fear that indefinite incarceration would lead to a shortage of space in state prisons and would come at a large financial cost to Israel.”

Yet this is only the latest episode in the continuing saga of Israel and its East African asylum seekers and migrants. For years now, Israel has been faced with an influx of refugees from war-torn Sudan and Eritrea that has called into question the founding principles of the state. At their peak in 2013, refugee numbers reached an estimated 60,000, with many living in South Tel Aviv neighbourhoods like Shapira, near the historic town of Jaffa, and the city’s Central Bus Station. Many more languish in institutions like Holot Detention Centre, situated deep in the Negev Desert but earmarked recently for closure to allow for a reallocation of government funds.

Israel tells African asylum seekers: leave or face prison

The irony of this hard-line approach towards refugees fleeing war is not lost on many observers, who have been quick to point out the geopolitical conditions that contributed to the creation of Israel in 1948. With centuries of persecution in Europe, increasingly savage pogroms and the rise of right-wing ideologies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, European Jewry faced an incredibly difficult situation. Many emigrated to the United States and Latin America, and although some managed to enter the Holy Land, tens of thousands were held in British internment camps in Cyprus due to a ban on immigration to Mandate Palestine.

In light of this historical experience, which still figures strongly in Israel’s official narrative and psyche, one could be forgiven for thinking that the state and its people would be more sympathetic towards others suffering from a similar plight. However, the attitude towards East African migrants in Israel reflects a broader trend; a primary concern for domestic issues in a society increasingly fragmented between left and right, European Ashkenazim and Oriental Mizrahim, the “haves” and the “have nots”.

This internal conflict has been played out in the Israeli press, with Haaretz opinion writer Ron Cahlili asking, “When will the leftists in their kibbutzim absorb refugees?” Referring to the traditionally socialist agricultural settlements that date back to early 20th century Palestine, many of which still exist, Cahlili argues that leftist sectors of Israeli society represent something of a broken record in their condemnation of Israeli asylum policy and calls to “remember our refugee roots”.

Such “leftists” usually live in more affluent areas of Israel than their Mizrahi counterparts, who were placed in periphery towns or run-down neighbourhoods of Tel Aviv upon their arrival from Arab countries in the early 1950s. Many on the left are of Ashkenazi origin, the result of intense immigration from Russia and Eastern Europe, and played a central role in building the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish community) and modern Israel’s middle class. As such, they are arguably less likely to suffer economically or socially from the influx of African migrants and asylum seekers, who compete with the Mizrahim for low-paid employment opportunities and cheap housing. As far as Cahlili is concerned, “This is a war for jobs, for homes, for basic survival, for human dignity.” Indeed, it’s a matter that forms part of the wider debate on what equality means in a state which claims to be fair, democratic and civilised.

Israel is to deport 40,000 African asylum seekers

The plight of these thousands of refugees lies in the hands of those members of the political establishment who seek to remove anyone who does not fit their idea of what it means to be an Israeli in 2018. Perhaps they hope that in directing public anger against outsiders, they can detract from the very real inequalities that are a hangover from the creation of the state and its efforts to create a homogenised Israeli identity from multifarious Jewish communities. As a state which is a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Israel has an international obligation to provide asylum to those fleeing war and persecution. That it does not, or is unwilling to do so is a poor reflection of a society founded by refugees who met repeatedly with closed doors in the face of the Jewish people’s historical suffering. Rather than simply repeating the same idealistic and empty mantra of “equality for all”, Israel must tackle the roots of its social problems that allow the everyman to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others in defence of the self.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.