What the Plight of African Refugees in Israel Says About Zionism

Joseph Dana

With the growth of its technology sector and the discovery of large natural gas fields off its northern coast, Israel’s GDP has risen steadily in the last decade. Given its wealth and a relatively small population of 6 million, one would think Israel would have no problem absorbing African refugees fleeing persecution. After all, the country was partly built by Jewish refugees fleeing the ravages of Europe after the Second World War. Yet, the Israeli government’s reaction has been anything but welcoming.

Israel has an extraordinarily harsh record with non-Jewish asylum seekers. Since the founding of the country seven decades ago, less than 200 non-Jews have been granted political asylum. This was born out of a rejection of Palestinian refugees attempting to return home after Israel’s founding, but has extended to persecuted people from all over the world. Despite a high global recognition rate for Eritrean and Sudanese asylum claims – 84 percent and 74 percent, respectively – Israel is desperately trying to shut its door.

For the last decade, tens of thousands of African refugees have flooded into Israel via Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The influx has stopped as a result of a high-tech, 242-kilometer fence on the border, but there are still at least 40,000 refugees remaining in the country. The state refers to them as “infiltrators,” a term adopted by the Israeli media and part of a wider rejection of the rights of non-Jewish refugees to live in the country.

According to recent opinion polls, more than 70 percent of Israelis want these Africans resettled outside the country. Over the last decade, Israeli political leaders have referred to refugees as a “cancer,” riots have targeted refugees across the country and the state has frantically searched for a way to offload these people to no avail. Refugees have been jailed without charge and offered cash to leave the country “voluntarily,” but nothing has resolved the issue.

In a surprise announcement this month, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said he had arrived at a deal brokered by the United Nations refugee agency with some European countries to resettle thousands of refugees. Within hours, however, Netanyahu reversed his decision, citing criticism from the right. His supporters felt the deal was too kind to the refugees and they rejected it forcefully. Meanwhile, Italy and Germany, two countries thought to have agreed to accept refugees, denied that they were part of any agreement.

This shocking about-face has brought back the possibility of Israel offloading the refugees to an unnamed African country. Initially, this country was thought to be Rwanda, with which Israel maintains close political and business ties. After global protests, Rwanda backed out of the plan, leaving Uganda as the likely alternative.

Israel has a long history on the African continent, one that it might prefer to forget. In the early part of the 1950s, the Israeli state invested heavily in sub-Saharan Africa, attempting to win support at the UN from newly independent African countries. The relationship was marked by Israeli export of agricultural know-how, water technology and, in some cases, military training in exchange for support at the UN. But the relationship went sour when Israel threw its weight behind the apartheid regime in South Africa.

By the late 1960s, Israel had begun an elaborate and secretive relationship with South Africa marked by military collusion. In exchange for military equipment, expertise and assistance in circumventing international boycotts of apartheid South Africa, Israel received huge amounts of raw materials and cash throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, a time when global economic markets were in the doldrums. This secret relationship ended Israel’s warm relations with many African states, which in turn lent diplomatic and material support to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The recent influx of African refugees has spiked waves of anti-African violence across Israel but has failed to start a serious discussion about Israel’s relationship – both current and historical – with Africa. Indeed, Israeli PR specialists have used the presence of black Ethiopian Jews to convince the international community that it is a bastion of multiculturalism, notwithstanding the fact that this minority has been heavily discriminated against. Some Ethiopian Jews have even taken to wearing shirts stating that they are not African asylum seekers, so as to avoid attacks in Tel Aviv and other cities.

It is tempting to lump Israel’s response to the refugee crisis with other Western countries grappling with similar refugee inflows. But there are key differences. For one, Israel’s foundation narrative is one of redemption. The long-suffering Jewish people – history’s forever refugees – found a new lease on life with the creation of the state. Part of the country’s first set of laws was a guarantee that any Jewish person anywhere in the world could automatically acquire citizenship.

In early Zionist advocacy, leaders declared that the country would be a “light unto the nations” and a bastion of European values in the Middle East. Whenever that axiom is put to the test, however, Israel fails to live up to its own hollow rhetoric. The country can’t pretend to ascribe to universal values and profess liberalism while turning its back on desperate refugees. Zionism sought to liberate one of history’s perennial outsiders. The persecuted African refugee on the streets of Tel Aviv demonstrates how that liberation has failed to maintain any universal value.

Joseph Dana, based between South Africa and the Middle East, is editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact.