Olivia Woldemikael argues that the Israeli state must stop seeing African refugees as a plague to be deported or imprisoned
After bidding tearful farewells to family and friends, risking the treacherous trek through the Sinai desert rife with organ-traffickers and kidnappers, and saving thousands of dollars over the course of years for the mere hope of a better life, Horn of Africa refugees arrive in Israel expecting to find sanctuary. Instead, they are met with Israel’s harsh policies: denial of asylum, deportation, and detention in desert prisons. Recently, the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, codified the de facto anti-immigration regime into law. In December 2017, an ultimatum (in violation of essential human rights) was passed: refugees must accept deportation to Uganda or Rwanda and a meagre $3,500, or face a roundup and subsequent imprisonment. By threatening them with expulsion or years of indefinite confinement with no freedom or future, it appears Israel is creating conditions strikingly similar to the ones the refugees seek to leave behind.
The majority of those who migrate to Israel are from Eritrea, the small key-shaped country with an iron-fisted dictatorship. While thousands of them are filling Israel’s desert detention centres, it was once quite a different story. In an ironic twist of lost history, Israelis were once prisoners on Eritrean soil. During the 1940s Zionist campaigns to establish a Jewish state in British-ruled Palestine, Britain deported the toughest and most dangerous prisoners to a detention camp in Eritrea. Notably, the seventh Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir, was held there. When Europe was deciding on the fate of the Jewish people at the end of World War II, Eritrea was considered as a potential location for a Jewish Colony. If events had taken a different turn, Shamir might have even served there, in the capital of Asmara, as Prime Minister.
“Eritrea has an area of 45,000 square miles, roughly four and a half times that of Palestine, and a population rather less than the non-Jewish population of Palestine in 1922,” reads a 1943 declassified report from the British Foreign Office. This document outlines possible plans for Eritrea, a colony recently captured from the Italians. Around the time of the close of World War II, the British considered placing Jewish refugees in Eritrea. The report reads, “Although material is at present lacking for a reliable estimate of the economic absorptive capacity of Eritrea, it seems likely that a place could be found in that country for a Jewish colony of limited size.” Over several pages, British colonial officers discuss the suitability of different Eritrean regions for the settlement. Divided into six regions, the British deemed Zones A and B “unthinkable for European occupation,” Zone C, was ruled out for it was highly settled and it did “not appear practical to evict these people,” leaving perhaps only too small a parcel of land for the establishment of a Jewish colony.
Ultimately, the scheme was scrapped due to the aforementioned obstacles to European habitation (an appallingly colonial framework to begin with). The memo declares, the zone under consideration “appears to be a most formidable task to improve; human life is supported in North Central Eritrea with considerable difficulty and even so, on a standard of living not conceivable for European immigrants. If these difficulties could be overcome, the actual displacement of the tribes to whom the area (as they would claim) ‘belongs’, it would not be an impossible task, though it would be accompanied by a loud outcry…but could probably be ignored.”
While it may seem outlandish that Eritrea was considered as a potential Jewish territory, it was not the first proposal for the creation of a Jewish homeland on the African continent. In 1903, the British Colonial Secretary offered 5,000 square miles of what is now Kenya to the Zionist Congress. After a few years of research and deliberation, the Zionist Congress eventually voted against the plan.
Decades later, the suggestion of a Jewish territory somewhere in Africa re-emerged in the early 1940s under the Third Reich. Prior to the establishment of death camps, the Nazi administration in Germany considered the deportation of all Jews in Europe to the island of Madagascar off Africa’s southern coast. In 1940, Germany’s impending victory over France and by extension French colonies, made the Madagascar scheme a serious consideration. In a memo to Hitler, SS commander Heinrich Himmler, wrote that he hoped “that the concept of Jews will be completely extinguished through the possibility of large-scale emigration of all Jews to Africa or some other colony.” Another high-ranking SS official, Adolf Eichmann, further developed the logistics, planning to deport all European Jews to Madagascar at a rate of 1 million per year. Before any groundwork was laid, the scheme was rendered infeasible by the advancement of the Allied forces in Europe and a lack of naval power.
While the genocide and anti-Semitism of the Third Reich is far more extreme than Israel’s response to immigrants and refugees today, the problem posed by these people, defined as unwanted, is conceptually similar. African refugees in Israel are viewed as a tumorous growth sickening the body of a nation, like the Jews in Europe once were. The obvious response is to excise them. This was made apparent by Israeli politician Miri Regev’s statement, in which she referred to African refugees as “a cancer in our body.” Her words reveal that fundamentally, Eritreans and other African asylum seekers are conceived of as disruptions in the purity—primarily the Jewishness and non-blackness—of the nation. It is the less than elegant echo of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s declaration in 2012 that African migration “threatens the social fabric of society, our national security, and our national identity,” reinforcing the ideal of ethno-religious homogeneity at the heart of Israel’s nationhood.
Post-fact, taking debates about the creation of Israel in Africa seriously requires a stretch of imagination. In spite of moral uncertainty over Israel’s creation on a land already inhabited by the Palestinian people, we must at least recognise the fact that the Jewish people have a historical connection to modern-day Palestine. The placement of a Jewish state on the African continent, in comparison, seems random and ideologically misplaced in today’s world. However, during the 1940s, at the height of colonialism, settling ‘vacant’ land in the Global South was the norm. Africa was parcelled out, resource and labour expropriated—according to European power dynamics with little consideration of native populations. The practice of sending Eritreans to Uganda reflects thus a similar warped colonial ideology that underpinned the plan to resettle Jewish refugees in Eritrea. Eritrea is as culturally, religiously, and historically as distinct from Uganda as it is from Israel, if not more. Yet, in this worldview, Africa is a dumping ground and Africans are interchangeable, possessing no agency over the determination of their lives. Only under a neo-colonial framework could sending Eritreans to an arbitrary country in Africa with far fewer resources, education and employment opportunities, and capacities to accommodate long-term refugees than Israel, seem logical.
Whilst Israel’s immigration policies are not more condemnable than those of Western Europe and America, their foundations in blatant racial and religious supremacy are more transparent. Western countries hide behind Malthusian claims about the limitations of their country to support new immigrants, protesting against refugees as drains on the economy and a burden to the population. Israel, in contrast, egregiously encourages immigration from the white Jewish diaspora, with ‘Birthright’ trips targeted at youth and national calls for “mass immigration.” While locking up young Africans, Israel welcomes Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe with acculturation and integration programming. Israel has spoken loud and clear: it’s not a refusal to accept immigrants that defines immigration policy, it’s about who those immigrants are and where they come from, a stance that is little surprising considering the millions of Palestinian refugees displaced and denied the right of return.
At the very core of the Jewish identity lies a long history of marginalisation and persecution, which would lead one to expect a Jewish state to respond with empathy to the plight of the modern-day refugees. Unfortunately, such has not been the case. Yet, what Israel must realise is that the route to the preservation of national identity is not through the exclusion of refugees and migrants; for they, like any desperate oppressed people with a will-to-live, will keep arriving.
April 2018 is the suspected trigger date of the cash-or-jail ultimatum. This is a defining moment for Israel and all refugee and immigrant hosting nations. It is the time when Israel will show whether it can overcome the real threat to the social fabric of a nation: values that are incompatible with multiculturalism, religious pluralism, and ethnic and racial diversity. The cure for Israel, as with Europe and America, will not be found in the forcible removal of immigrant population from the national body or detainment as a last-ditch attempt to prevent them from metastasizing. The cure will be found in refusing to see refugees and migrants as a plague and to see them as human beings deserving of the most basic decency. It is neither a crime nor a sickness to be without a home, Israelis of all people, should know that.
Olivia Woldemikael is is a writer and a former humanitarian worker with a passion for social justice. She is currently pursing a PhD in Political Science. Her work focus on migration, critical approaches to development, and African politics.
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