Israelis and Africans: the other refugee story

We all know the story of Israel and the Palestinian refugees. And certainly, even in this most politicized of conflicts, no one should dispute the continuing human suffering of the civilian Palestinian population. There should be shame that this is what “national” security looks like, with the price paid by the Others, locked inside high walls.
But there’s another migration “crisis” in Israel too, albeit one we’ve heard little about here in the UK before this week. A flow of African asylum-seekers, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan – some 60,000 in total. Who, according to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu,‘threaten our existence as a Jewish and democratic state’. So the migrants must go. New laws allow these ‘infiltrators’ to be detained for up to three years: in the Sinai desert, Israel is now building thelargest detention centre in the world, capable of holding 11,000 asylum-seekers and migrants.
Security threats are often conjured out of shadows. Let’s hope the rational voice of Police Chief Yohanan Danino – who has pointed out not only that crime rates are lower among foreigners than Israelis, but also that these rates would be lower still if asylum-seekers were allowed to work – soars above the scaremongers’ din. But I won’t be holding my breath.
But this is not just a familiar debate about crime rates and migrants. There is something more chilling about the Israeli state’s language, the emphasis on fundamental identity politics. Discussing events with colleagues and friends this week I’ve been surprised how even the usually pragmatic UN realists privately find these statements of bald nationalist intent unsettling and distressing. Why?
The immediate answer is obvious: it’s to do with that other refugee crisis, the Holocaust, the ghosts of the 1930s. Jewish identity is so closely associated with a history exile, loss and suffering that it seems we expect a natural sympathy for the dispossessed. As Hannah Arendt argued, the Jewish population was left ‘the scum of the earth’ when in twentieth century Europe the rights of man were substituted for the rights of the national citizen. So Israel, a Jewish nation-state, was created. This solved the immediate problem, but did nothing to challenge the exclusionary logic of ethnic nationalism. There’s a bitter irony that it should be the people whose history offers the starkest warning against nation-states who now appear intent upon building one with rigid boundaries. This, I think, is why so many refugee advocates have reacted so strongly to the stark words of the Israeli Prime Minister.
But then I began to wonder. Should we expect an Israeli state to show additional compassion simply because of a history of suffering? The Hebrew Bible may implore Jews to ‘hide the fugitives, do not betray the refugeesThe alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt’. But those verses are part of the EU’s Christian tradition too. States aren’t compassionate beings: realpolitik will out.
And all democracies demands a demos. Substitute “British” or “Danish” or “Dutch” for Jewish in Netenyahu’s comments, and its not hard to imagine a surprising degree of mainstream political consensus around the idea of a “migration crisis” demanding immediate action. Arguably, there’s actually a hypocrisy in expecting the Israeli state to behave better than other Western gated communities, when in fact it’s simply carrying national sentiment to its logical conclusion. This doesn’t make Israel right: but it reminds us that many of our own migration policies are pretty shameful too.  Liberal nation states are more convincing in paper than in practice.
But no longer focusing on the exceptional history of Israel and its Jewish citizens – either as excuse or castigation – would mean we would judge a modern state by modern norms. The old defences of historical trauma would provide no cloak for what is — stripped of its collective nationalist political stripes – a nasty case of racism. For if all Israeli citizens must be part of a Jewish nation, there is, effectively, no real possibility of any full integration for African migrants. Their incarceration should neither be defended as the necessary cost of the politics of Jewish survival; nor should it be condemned as uncharitable. It should be, however, identified for what it is: illiberal and – by token of those same values that Israel still claims to uphold – unjustifiable.