Israel's demonisation of refugees – is this a nation forgetting its history?
By Daniel Knowles World Last updated: June 5th, 2012
Throat-clearing to begin with: racism happens everywhere, and there are few countries (perhaps Sweden is one?) where refugees get a genuinely welcoming reception. The lines engraved onto the Statue of Liberty, from the "New Colussus" by Emma Lazarus, have never fully been honoured anywhere: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
But there is something particularly depressing about the stories emerging from Israel about xenophobia and hatred of refugees from Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia. Take this report in the Guardian, about an apartment building housing ten Eritrean refugees which was firebombed on Monday. Or this story, from the Economist, which recounts a demonstration where hundreds of Jews, led by settlers from the West Bank, marched through Tel Aviv chanting "Africans out". Meanwhile, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, denounces "infiltrators" while the interior minister Eli Yishai attacks "Aids-infected migrants" who, he alleges, only come to rape women.
Do they not see the irony of Jews attacking refugees? Israel is a nation founded by illegal immigrants – Holocaust survivors escaping and finding their way to ports in southern Europe, where they boarded ships to British-occupied Palestine. One of the darker parts of Britain's imperial history is the story of the 51,000 Jewish holocaust survivors held in internment camps on Cyprus from 1946 to 1949 in an attempt to stop them migrating to Palestine. Another is the story of the SS Exodus, a former packet steamer carrying 4,500 refugees which was commandeered by British troops at Haifa Port and sent back to France. The 1960 dramatisation is credited by some with stimulating American support for the nascent Jewish state. Israel's only purpose is to protect a refugee people, the Jews, from persecution.
When I visited Israel a few years ago, I was struck by how depressed many of the young, liberal Jews I met were about the state of their country. They worried about new settlers from France, the United States and Russia, who went around talking about "Arab dirt". They worried about the Orthodox men who, all the while claiming unemployment benefit and subsidised housing, denounce both Israeli Arabs and secular Jews alike as impure and worthy of contempt. They worried about what people abroad thought of their country, when the only images we see on our TVs are of Palestinian houses in the West Bank, occupied for generations, being demolished to make way for more gun-toting fundamentalist settlers.
Travel anywhere in the world – from Hanoi to California – and you meet young Israelis who, while still fiercely patriotic in principle, in practice are only too happy to escape their country, setting up youth hostels (there is an Israeli one in Bangkok) or taking under-the-table jobs. In the West meanwhile, young Jews feel less connected to Israel than ever before. For the '60s generation of liberal young Jews, Israel was a beacon of hope – a socialist-leaning democracy, defined by its Kibbutzim. Leonard Cohen was not alone when he volunteered to fight in the Defence Forces in 1973. Now, for many young Jews, Israel is just another far-away country, and one with a dodgy human rights record at that.
Benjamin Netanyahu argues, like the nationalist he is, that a flood of refugees from Africa threatens Israel's national identity. "If we don't stop their entry, the problem that currently stands at 60,000 could grow to 600,000, and that threatens our existence as a Jewish and democratic state" he said on Sunday. Perhaps he has a point; Israeli statesmen already fret about the growing demographic gap between Jews and Arabs, both within Israel-proper and between Israel and the West Bank. But it feels to me like the bigger threat to Israel's national identity is that it forgets why it is special. Lose that, and the future of a Jewish state in Palestine looks a little less secure.
Tags: 1947, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel, Palestine, refugees, Sudan, the Exodus
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Received on Tue Jun 05 2012 - 11:47:33 EDT