These events are profoundly connected — they tell the shared story of brave refugees yearning for recognition, protection, and basic human dignity in the face of an oppressive regime whose essence cannot tolerate their existence.
Palestinians in Gaza organized the inspiring Great March of Return to protest Israel’s cruel and illegal collective punishment policy manifested in the closure of the Strip the denial of the right of Palestinian refugees — the majority of Gaza’s population — to return to their towns and villages from which they were expelled in 1948.
The march came on the heels of weeks of powerful protests in Israel against the government’s brutal plan to deport African refugees who were seeking safe haven in the state, which led to an extraordinary albeit short-lived victory for asylum seekers and their advocates. This is a moment of national and international reckoning about why Israel is inherently unable and actually unwilling to recognize the rights of non-Jewish refugees.
Over 40,000 African refugees, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, are currently seeking safe haven in Israel. They have made harrowing journeys to Israel escaping countries impoverished and destabilized by war and violence due to global capitalism and militarism. But upon arriving, thousands were placed in crowded detention facilities in the Negev desert, where they faced severe restrictions on freedom of movement and limited access to critical services, including of course, the asylum system.
Those who have managed to apply for asylum have faced an abysmally low chance of approval. Israel has accepted less than 1 percent of all applicants, the lowest of any country in the OECD. A signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Israel is prohibited from deporting people to countries where they would face threats to their safety. And yet, in late December 2017, the government first announced a shadowy program to expel the refugees — and detain those who refuse to leave by April 1 — going so far as posting a job advertisement in February calling for civilians to act as bounty-hunters.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference announcing the new agreement for handling asylum seekers and illegal African migrants in Israel, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on April 2, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
The liberal Zionist Jewish-Israeli Left was rightfully outraged and then temporarily relieved by the deal announced Monday. The outpouring of solidarity has been heartening and unprecedented — never before have we seen such a large segment of Jewish Israeli society take a stand in support of non-Jewish refugees, or against bigotry, and discrimination. The creative acts of civil disobedience have been courageous and transformative.
Over 2,000 families from kibbutzim and moshavim, small Jewish rural communities, pledged to provide sanctuary to asylum seekers. Over 700 rabbis from around the world called on Netanyahu to allow refugees to stay. Physicians, school principals, and flight crews joined the efforts to publicly reject these unjust laws and policies. The popular and international pressure no doubt led to the Israeli government signing an agreement with the UN, though while limited in scope and now cancelled, was nonetheless a victory for international law and more importantly, it was a reminder of the power of the people to create change.
Asylum seekers and anti-deportation activists protest Netanyahu’s suspension of the UN agreement, April 3, 2018. (Yotam Ronen / Activestills.org)
‘Who are we, really?’
It is a moment pregnant with the possibility of social and political transformation. But the transformation can go only as far as the questions a society is willing to ask itself. “What have we become?” will always be a far less generative (though far easier) question to ask than, “Who are we, really?” While answering the former takes us to the streets of South Tel Aviv and the detention centers in the Negev, the answer to the latter is in the blood of young protestors in the Gaza Strip.
The dehumanization and unlawful deportation of African asylum seekers from Israel is not simply a reflection of the particular brand of bald-faced racism of the Netanyahu administration, but rather is the inevitable implication of the Zionist political ambition to establish an exclusive, settler-colonial state in historic Palestine. During the 1948 Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”), and as a result of the establishment of the State of Israel, 531 Palestinian villages were destroyed and 750,000 Palestinians fled or were forced to flee their homeland. With the majority of the indigenous inhabitants expelled from the land — part and parcel of the logic and necessity of settler-colonialism — Israel declared a new ethnically exclusive state for the Jewish people. Such exclusivity required that both a “demographic balance” favoring Jewish people, as well as social and political supremacy within the state be entrenched in law.
Through a series of laws and policies, Israel sought to ensure its Jewish majority, which it had attained by force. These laws (the 1950 Law of Return, and the 1952 Citizenship Law) worked in tandem to permit any Jewish person, anywhere in the world, to become a citizen of Israel while forbidding Palestinian refugees under the Law of Entry (1952) and the Anti-Infiltration Law (1954) from returning to their land.. Taken together, these laws create an immigration regime that not only places an indefinite ban on Palestinian refugees and their descendants, but ultimately discriminates against any non-Jewish person.
For the last several years, as Israel worked to expel African asylum seekers, the grounding legal paradigm was the 1954 Anti-Infiltration Law, designed initially to prevent Palestinian refugees like those in Gaza from returning to their homeland so as to maintain a Jewish majority. With its indifference to the demands of Palestinian refugees and its cruel response to the human suffering of African asylum seekers, including its flip-flopping on a potential solution, the current Israeli government continues to embrace its answer to the “Who are we, really?”
Palestinians protesting in Gaza during the start of the ‘Great Return March.’ March 30, 2017. (Mohammed Emad / Activestills.org)
It is an answer that rightly disturbs the liberal Zionist Left in Israel and the U.S., but facing it is the only hope for ultimately choosing the side of justice. We cannot commit to justice while guarding against the possibility that we might be held accountable for our complicity. Justice requires that those Jewish communities who offered sanctuary also welcome the original Palestinian inhabitants back to their homeland. Justice for African asylum seekers requires that Israeli Jews relinquish their undue privilege to and on the land of historic Palestine and instead commit to a world where all people have equal rights. This is part of the long arc of moral universe and real work of justice; that we work to destroy the systems of oppression that we benefit from.
Until historical justice — in the form of return, reparations, and self-determination for all — is built upon the ruins of these oppressive regimes the world over, there must be no ban and no borders on stolen land.
Jamil Dakwar is a human rights lawyer and adjunct lecturer at John Jay College and Hunter College, New York. This piece is submitted in his personal capacity and not as an ACLU staff member. Nadia Ben-Youssef is a lawyer and human rights advocate and the director of Adalah Justice Project.