Israel's No-Win African Refugee Situation: Israelis Are Imperfect, but It's Unfair to Compare Their Immigration Problem to the Holocaust

By Prince-Gibson, Eetta | Moment, July-August 2012 | Go to article overview

Israel's No-Win African Refugee Situation: Israelis Are Imperfect, but It's Unfair to Compare Their Immigration Problem to the Holocaust


Prince-Gibson, Eetta, Moment


In late May, protestors rioted against the tens of thousands of African migrant workers and asylum seekers living in south Tel Aviv. They attacked passersby, smashed cars and vandalized shops.

Within two weeks, the government began a brutal campaign to deport refugees from South Sudan. Interior Minister Eli Yishai, orchestrating the expulsion, was widely quoted to have declared that Israel "belongs to the white man." Soon, he promised, he will expel all the Africans in order to ensure "the Jewish character of the Jewish state."

With tiresome predictability, liberal pundits have taken up the usual refrain in response to such rhetoric, arguing that we, the people who experienced the Holocaust, should behave more morally, should remember what it means to be a refugee, should know where racism leads. The Internet is humming with references to pogroms, Kristallnacht and the Nuremberg race laws.

But such Holocaust references--proffered mostly by middle-class self-described liberals who have never met a migrant worker--reveal both our conceit and our self-hatred. And they paralyze debate, making it impossible for liberal Israelis to solve problems by normal political means. It's as if the Jewish people's past suffering places a special moral burden on our collective and individual shoulders--as if victimization elevates a people to a special level of humanity. The implication is that if we, the entire Jewish people, do not manage to be better than others, then somehow we are worse.

In their absurdity, our glib and arrogant comparisons to ultimate evil--referred to by Internet pioneer Mike Godwin as Reductio ad Ilitlerum--leave us with no realistic imperatives to which we can hold ourselves or our politicians accountable.

But there are realistic imperatives, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the members of his inflated coalition know them. They must know that traumatized peoples rarely sublimate their victimization into collective responsibility, and that only social policies predicated on compassionate social welfare, decency, interdependence and a belief in the value of both the individual and the community can help us become a more caring society.

Instead, Netanyahu and his coalition have played to society's basest emotions. They have created a bad situation and then made it worse.

An estimated 60,000 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants from Africa live in Israel today, according to aid organizations. Some 85 percent of them are from Eritrea and Sudan. Because of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees--of which Israel was a principal drafter--the Eritreans cannot be legally deported. Because Israel has no relations with Sudan, it is technically impossible to deport the Sudanese. So these people will be living here for a long time.

The problem is not unique to Israel. Dealing with illegal immigration and providing for asylum seekers and refugees is a challenge throughout Europe, North America and beyond. But Israel's government has not formulated any immigration plan for the thousands of Africans streaming across the Israeli border. …

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