Israel is not a ‘place of refuge’

Contrary to media claims, Israel is not “betraying” its history by deporting asylum seekers. It’s continuing it.

Israel asylum seekers
People protest against the Israeli government's plan to deport African asylum seekers, in front of the Rwandan embassy in Tel Aviv on February 7 [Reuters/Amir Cohen]

In early February, Israel started handing out deportation notices to some 20,000 asylum seekers, most of them from Eritrea and Sudan. More than 35,000 are expected to be deported or jailed indefinitely in the upcoming months.

The Israeli state has already made the necessary preparations for the operation. In early January, it advertised positions for 100 inspectors who will have the task to “locate, detain and monitor illegal persons”. It also established the Assisted Voluntary Return Department, which offers a sum of $3,500 to those it has identified as “infiltrators” to return to either their countries of origin or a third country.

Meanwhile, mainstream media reporting on the deportations approached the topic from the perspective of Israel’s foundational myth. Reuters reported on the issue, describing it as “a moral dilemma for a state founded as a haven for Jews from persecution and a national home”. Then an oped in the New York Times went further and declared that Israel had “become a place of no refuge”. Another oped in the Washington Post claimed that “Israel is betraying its history by expelling African asylum seekers.”

But, contrary to these claims, Israel has not “betrayed” its history and “become” an intolerant place. It has always been this way. And this line of thinking – circulated especially among “progressive” or “leftist” Zionists – not only whitewashes Israel’s historical record, but also ignores how the very foundation of the Israeli state reinforces racial hierarchies.

The first ‘infiltrators’

Israel’s establishment in 1948 saw the forced expulsion of over 750,000 Palestinians and the subsequent and continuing decades-long ethnic cleansing of the remaining indigenous population. As a result, today, some 6 million Palestinians live in exile outside of their homeland and hundreds of thousands are displaced within it.

Israel continuously denies their right to return to their cities, towns and villages of origin, and not only claims that maintaining a Jewish demographic majority is imperative to the country’s survival, but also denies responsibility for their expulsion. As a result, the Palestinian refugees remain the largest and longest-standing refugee population in the world.


What happened in 1948 in Palestine can help understand the current situation in Israel, where black asylum seekers and immigrants are dehumanised to the point where they are called “infiltrators”, held in open-ended detention in a desert prison and deported.

Leaders of the newly-established Israeli state first used the term “infiltrators” to describe Palestinian refugees who were attempting to return to their lands. Thousands of these returning refugees were shot and killed along the new border in the first half of 1949. In 1954, the Israeli Knesset passed the Prevention of Infiltration Law to legislate its practice of preventing Palestinian refugees from returning to their land. This was part of the settler colonial process, in which the driving force was and continues to be the elimination of the indigenous people.

Upon its establishment, Israel declared itself a Jewish state, clearly emphasising its exclusionary nature. The founding fathers of Zionism, all Ashkenazi, intended Israel to be a utopian, European settler colony. They soon realised, however, that they would need to include, first, Arab Jews (Mizrahi) and then, later, Ethiopian Jews to maintain demographic dominance over the indigenous people.

This inclusion would always remain partial, and the state would attempt to control the demographics of the non-white Jewish population. In the 1950s, for example, hundreds of Mizrahi babies were abducted from their parents and sent to live with Ashkenazi families in order to “de-Arabise” them.

More recently, the Israeli authorities admitted that Jewish Ethiopian women were injected for years with long-term contraceptives, which resulted in an almost 50-percent drop in the birth rate of the community.

Decades of formal and informal racist policies have kept Ashkenazi Jews at the top rung of Israeli society. As Israeli journalist Gideon Levy has argued, “the entire political, economic, legal, academic and even military leadership is made up of Ashkenazim, with a smattering of Sephardim as the exceptions that so remarkably prove the rule … [that] Israel is run by an ethnically pure elite.”

It is, therefore, not surprising that the 35,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers and refugees, who are not Jewish, are facing deportation and imprisonment in Israel. A country founded on the legacy of displacement, ethnic cleansing and white supremacy cannot possibly treat people of colour otherwise.

Just as the term “infiltrators” referred to Palestinian refugees attempting to return to their lands, today it is in for those seeking refuge from other countries. In this sense, the issue of expelling asylum seekers is not a “moral dilemma” for Israel; nor is it a sign of the Israeli state growing “less tolerant”. It is just a reflection of what it truly is: a racist, settler, colonial state. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.