The Lie of Liberal Zionism and Israel’s African Refugees
The Lie of Liberal Zionism and Israel’s African Refugees
Jonathan Freedland Turns a Blind Eye to the ‘Jewish’ State’s Inherent
expulsion of Israel’s Black African refugees is highly embarrassing for Israel’s
‘liberal’ defenders. It is demonstrating
that the Zionist ideology that underpins the ‘Jewish’ State of Israel in inherently
racist in a way little else has done. It
is impossible to argue that the refugees are a ‘security threat’ as their only
crime has been to flee persecution. The
only reason that Israel refuses to grant them citizenship is because they are
not Jewish and are Black. If that isn’t
racist what is?
freely admits, the reason for their expulsion is because ‘threaten’ Israel’s Jewish
identity in the way that Jews once threatened Aryan or Magyar identity. It is racist to the core. It clearly demonstrates what ethno
nationalism means in practice – the expulsion or removal of the other. What makes it worse is that it isn’t simply
the fact of the refugees not being Jewish.
One-third of the million Russian immigrants who came in the 1980’s weren’t
Jewish either but, unlike these refugees they were White.
Freedland is Britain’s most prominent liberal Zionist. As such he is adept at walking the tightrope
between defending Israel and Zionism and distancing himself from what he sees
as its excesses. As a senior editor at the
Guardian as well as a columnist for the Jewish Chronicle Freedland tries to
square support for Israel and opposition to overt racism. It is a difficult juggling act, even for as
keen an apologist for Israel as Freedland.
also one of the key figures behind the false anti-Semitism allegations in the Labour
Party. See for example Labour
and the left have an antisemitism problem Freedland has made it a
mission to demonstrate that opposition to Israel and Zionism is, by definition,
anti-Semitic. His argument was that ‘93% of British Jews said Israel formed some part of their
identity.’ In fact the most
authoritative study The
Attitudes of British Jews Towards Israel in 2015 found that just 59% of British
Jews identify as Zionists, down 12% in five years and 31% did not identify as Zionists.
But even were Freedland correct, it is both a
dishonest and an intellectually sloppy argument. Opposition to an identity is never the same
as racism. If a majority of an African
country were to identify with FGM would it be racist to oppose FGM? Or if a majority of Afghans were to identify
the Burka as integral to Islam is it racist to oppose the Burka? It is indicative of the intellectual slippage
Asylum seekers outside Holot internment camp in the Negev Desert
‘the desire to be rid of these African newcomers has
been mired in plain racism from the start. Recall that, in 2012, Likud’s Miri
Regev, now the culture minister, referred to them as a “cancer.” She eventually
apologised for the comparison — to people living with cancer.’
Freedland quoted the testimony of Emanuel Yemani,
an Eritrean refugee who described his conversation with an Israeli immigration
“soon we’ll deport all of you, and you’ll sit under
a tree, open your mouth and wait for a banana to fall, like a monkey.”
“But I’m a human being, not a monkey,” Yemani
“Don’t you see yourselves, that you look like
monkeys?” the official replied.
is the visceral racism that drives the expulsion of Israel’s African refugees
but Freedland refuses to draw the conclusions and ask where this racism comes
sentiments such as this are confined to the political margins of society in the
West, in Israel they are centre stage. In
Britain even UKIP would distance themselves from such atavistic racism. Not so in Israel. Deputy Defence Minister Eli Dayan declared
in a radio interview in 2013 regarding Arabs that ‘To me, they are like animals, they aren’t human.” In most countries he would be out of the government
and out of Parliament. In Israel he
still remains Israel’s cabinet and why shouldn’t he when his Prime Minister,
Benjamin Netanyahu declared
that Israel needs a fence in order to keep out the ‘wild beasts’ in the surrounding countries?
himself was explicit
that the Black African refugees pose a threat to Jewish identity. In May 2012
Israel’s cabinet meeting that: “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. This phenomenon is
very grave and threatens the social fabric of society, our national security
and our national identity.”
And by his logic, Netanyahu is correct. Because what is a Jewish state other than a
state with a Jewish demographic majority?
That is Freedland’s dilemma. A Jewish
state is nothing if it is not a Jewish majority state.
Freeland understands how terrible it looks for Israel
to be deporting thousands of Black African refugees solely because they are not
Jewish (he doesn’t mention the question of their colour). This is something that worries even Israel’s
Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, who warned
Netanyahu of the damage to Israel’s reputation internationally.
Freedland instead of asking why it is that Israel is
so desperate to get rid of little more than one half of one percent of its
population, tries to avoid facing up to what Israel as a Jewish state really
Instead he asks ‘What
do we mean when we refer to Israel as a Jewish state?’. Is it solely about demographics, a Jewish majority
or does it have something to do with its ‘Jewish
character.’ Does it ‘embody Jewish values’?
And here you see the dishonesty of Zionism’s
liberal defenders writ large as they attempt to reconcile the inherently racist
character of Zionism with the idea that Israel embodies an ahistorical set of ‘Jewish
values’ preserved in aspic since Moses came down from Mount Sinai.
African refugee in chains
Freedland argues that it isn’t
the refugees that threaten the Jewish character of the Israeli state but the
expulsions that threaten its ‘Jewish values’. This is of course nonsense. Israel was not born in the spirit of the prophets
but with the sword of Joshua. It was, to
use a biblical metaphor founded in original sin amidst the terrorism of the Zionist
militias, the massacres and the expulsions.
The aim of the Zionist movement was not the creation of heaven on earth or
a light unto the nations so much as a Jewish racial state. Hence Israel’s obsession with
This tension runs throughout the discourse of Zionism’s
defenders as they pretend that Israel is a ‘Jewish
democratic’ state. Freedland is
fully signed up to this oxymoron of an idea which conveniently forgets that a Jewish
majority could only be obtained by driving out ¾ million Arabs in 1948. Israel’s
democracy is conditional on Jews being in a large majority. If this is ever threatened then either
the majority excludes or expels the existing Arab population or it admits that Israel
is no longer a democracy but an ethnocracy i.e. an Apartheid state. That is the dilemma in the West Bank, where 4
million Palestinians live. Israel can’t
remain a Jewish majority state and annex the West Bank including its
people. This is where the fiction of a ‘peace
process’ originates. As long as there is
a pretence of ‘negotiations’ then the final status of the West Bank can be put
Freedland like the liberal
defenders of Apartheid in South Africa has to resort to euphemisms and circumlocutions,
as he tries to evade the meaning of words and concepts. Freedland refers to the description of the
African refugees as ‘infiltrators’
but is coy about what that term actually means.
His reticence is understandable.
Infiltrators is the term that was
applied to the Palestinian refugees in the early years of the Israeli state. Having been expelled from their lands, they attempted
to come back in the quiet of the night.
They, the indigenous population of the land, were shot on sight because
they were deemed by Freedland’s Labour Zionist friends as ‘infiltrators’,
literally infiltrating and therefore undermining the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. It is a term that encapsulates the racist
mindset of the settler colonial state of Israel.
A good example of what a Jewish state
means in practice is the Jewish National Fund’s response to the decision of the
Supreme Court in the Kadan case in
2000, which ruled that Arabs could not be barred from renting or buying ‘Jewish’
land. The JNF declared
A survey commissioned by KKL-JNF reveals that over 70%
of the Jewish population in Israel opposes allocating KKL-JNF land to non-Jews,
while over 80% prefer the definition of Israel as a Jewish state, rather than
as the state of all its citizens.
Despite the pretence that a Jewish
and a Democratic state were compatible, Israel has always found in practice
that the Jewish and the democratic were in opposition to each other. After all if a state is truly democratic then
its Arab component must have the right to become a majority. Whereas if the Jewish part is most important
then preventing that scenario is the most important of the state’s tasks.
Israel was not founded in order
to protect and defend Freedland’s ‘Jewish
values’ but as a state based on a Jewish racial majority. Zionism consciously set out to transform being
Jewish from a religion to a nation/race.
Zionism was a volkish movement that believed in a blood and soil version
of nationalism, the idea that putting Hebrew land under the feet of Jewish immigrants
would transform them from their diaspora mentality.
That is why the appeal to an
eternal and mythical concept of ‘Jewish values’ is absurd. Jewish identity has changed many times over
the centuries. From traders to money
lenders to militant workers and revolutionaries to settler colonials. Today the majority Jewish identity is Zionist,
but it is not the only Jewish identity. Indeed
today what one means by Jewish values depends on where you are. The values of the Jewish community in
America, which are generally liberal, differ vastly from the overwhelming
racism of the Israeli settler state.
Freedland is, of course, quite
right to point to the Biblical injunctions to protect and safeguard and not to
turn away the stranger but it is not these passages that Zionism looks to. Zionism looks to the most bloody and racist
passages of the Bible. It is the god
that smote and wiped out the heathen that Zionism takes sustenance from. The example of Phineas,
the grandson of Moses’ brother Aaron, who killed a Jewish man and his Moabite
wife, is cited by those opposed to miscegenation, sexual relationships between Jews
and Arabs. Opposition to mixed marriages
on racial grounds is a majority opinion in Israel. Some 3 out of every 4 Israeli Jews sees marriage to a non-Jew as ‘national treason’ – their opposition is not on religious but racial/national grounds.
So although Freeland understands
very well where the racism that manifests itself in the expulsion of African
refugees comes from, he is not prepared to draw the conclusion that it is Zionism,
the belief in a Jewish majority state, based
on a Jewish race, that has led to this situation. Thus it is that the liberal Zionist is forever
living a lie. That is the price that Freedland
pays for maintaining the pretence that a ‘Jewish’ Israel is compatible with the
liberal values that he takes for granted in Britain.
One suspects that if Jews were
treated in the same ways as Palestinians in Israel then Freedland would be the
first to cry ‘anti-Semitism’.
The desire to be rid of these African newcomers has been mired in plain
racism from the start, writes Jonathan Freedland.
African asylum seekers and human rights activists protest against deportation outside the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya (Flash90)
What do we mean when we refer to Israel as a Jewish state? Do we simply
mean a state with a majority of Jews — or a state that somehow has a Jewish
character, one that at least aims to embody Jewish values?
There is nothing abstract about this inquiry. On the contrary, this week
it acquired moral urgency. On Sunday, the Israeli immigration authorities
issued deportation notices to an estimated 20,000 asylum seekers from Africa.
For now, women, children and fathers are exempt. The focus in this first round
is on men without children, men who had fled mainly from Eritrea and Sudan
while those countries were shaken by brutal political violence and war. The
refugees have 60 days to leave Israel — or else be jailed indefinitely.
When this plan was first agreed by the Israeli cabinet back in November,
officials said it was necessary to expel these “infiltrators” — the word
favoured by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — in order “to protect the Jewish
and democratic character of Israel.”
The intended meaning was, presumably, that the presence of 60,000
Africans in Israel threatened to alter the country’s demographic make-up:
expanding the non-Jewish minority and thereby making the country numerically
less Jewish. But, in fact, the threat is the exact other way around. It is not
the refugees but these expulsions that threaten the Jewish character of Israel,
for they violate every value Jews are meant to hold dear.
For what injunction burns through our most sacred texts? “Do not
ill-treat a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of
Egypt”. I recall what the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, once told me in
the context of Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians: “You cannot ignore
a command that is repeated 36 times in the Mosaic books: ‘You were exiled in
order to know what it feels like to be an exile.’” Sacks said he regarded that
as “one of the core projects of a state that is true to Judaic principle.”
Yet Israel is now abandoning that core project and trampling all over
that Judaic principle. A people who spent two millennia as intermittent
refugees is turning a hard heart towards those who find themselves as strangers
in a strange land. Indeed, Israeli officialdom refuses to recognise their
plight at all.
In recent years, tens of thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese fled their
ravaged homelands, making the perilous trek, often on foot, through Sinai: the
very route taken by the Children of Israel as they fled slavery under Pharaoh.
Of those who made it to Israel, evading the brutal grasp of both
Egyptian security forces and people traffickers, the total number to be granted
refugee status is ten. You read that right. Ten.
This violates not only the teachings of Judaism, but of Jewish history.
Our experience as a people over many centuries was one of expulsion, exile and
the desperate search for shelter. Yet now Israel says it does not believe that
these Africans were fleeing bloodshed, insisting that most are mere economic
migrants. As if the same was not said of our forebears when they washed up on
England’s shores more than a century ago. Netanyahu’s rejection of refugees
even departs from recent Israeli history. His predecessor as a Likud prime
minister, Menachem Begin, managed to find room for several hundred Vietnamese
“boat people” four decades ago. But now, when Israel is so much richer and more
capable of generosity, there is no room for those who look different.
And make no mistake, that’s what this is about. The desire to be rid of
these African newcomers has been mired in plain racism from the start. Recall
that, in 2012, Likud’s Miri Regev, now the culture minister, referred to them
as a “cancer.” She eventually apologised for the comparison — to people living
If you doubt the unvarnished bigotry at play here, listen to the
testimony of Emanuel Yemani, an Eritrean refugee who, in now-fluent Hebrew,
described an encounter with an Israeli immigration official. He was told that
the documents he’d brought as requested were no longer needed, because,
we’ll deport all of you, and you’ll sit under a tree, open your mouth and wait
for a banana to fall, like a monkey.”
“But I’m a human being, not a monkey,” Yemani answered.
“Don’t you see yourselves, that you look like monkeys?” the official
The good news is that the opposition to this move has been fierce, from
Israeli Holocaust survivors pleading for the refugees to be allowed to stay, to
El Al pilots refusing to fly the planes that would deport them. In a
significant shift, Jewish groups and religious leaders in the US and Canada
have been petitioning Israeli embassies, urging a change of heart. Some have
done that here, too, but more of us need to join that effort. There is nothing
anti-Israel in denouncing this immoral policy. To fight it is not to oppose the
Jewish state – it is to urge it to be worthy of that name.