[Image: “Israeli Ethiopians protest against racism in Jerusalem, 1/18/12.” Photograph by Benny Voodoo, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]
Content warning: Some uncensored anti-Black and anti-Arab quotations and descriptions of anti-Black violence, including gendered violence, follow.
This essay is dedicated to everyone resisting fascism, white supremacy and anti-Blackness in Charlottesville, but especially Sage Smith. #FindSage
African Refugees in Palestinian Refugeedom
The Israeli sketch comedy show Eretz Nehederet in 2009 mocked that year’s elections and how a virtual tie between the Likud and Kadima parties gave tremendous power to the third most successful party, which would be needed to form a governing coalition. That party, the far-right Yisrael Beitanu, is headed by Avigdor Lieberman. A performer portraying Lieberman began his address to the nation and, in such bitter comedy, elucidated a rough Israeli racial hierarchy:
Shalom ezrahim, [Hello citizens]
ezrahim sug-bet, [second-class citizens]
ezrahim sug-gimel, [third-class citizens]
v’aravim, [and arabs; in Israeli discourse Palestinians are mostly referred to as aravim, arabs, and not falastinim, Palestinians]
If Ethiopian Jews represent this third class citizenship, a racialized caste still articulated to the settler society yet subordinated to Ashkenazim and Mizrachim, then where do non-Jewish African refugees fit in this racialization? Quite neatly with Palestinians it seems, as a population to be removed, firmly out of place both geographically and socially in the Israeli geoschematic.
Non-Jewish African migrants have been in Israel for decades in relatively small numbers, especially from Nigeria as laborers. The more recent mass arrival of refugees and migrants, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, began around 2006 and has grown by the tens of thousands since. Ethiopian Jews present a challenge to the whiteness of the Israeli white settler colony, to the European/New Jew vs. Jew antagonism, but they do not inherently present a challenge to the settlerness, the Israeli/Settler vs. Palestinian/Native antagonism. There is always the option to enclose, but not accept nor affirm, Ethiopian Jews. This has been the halting pattern to date whereby Ethiopian Jews are conscripted into the military - Israel’s central citizen forming process - and brought into tenuous, revokeable Israeliness. But enclosing large groups of permanent non-Jewish African migrants presents a challenge to Zionism not unlike that of Palestinians.
Far-right Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made this case in 2012 in a cabinet meeting. “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.” Israel cannot enclose large numbers of non-European non-Jews without threatening the logic preventing Palestinian refugees from returning home. To enclose Black, Muslim refugees from Sudan implies the possibility of enclosing Black, Palestinian refugees in the Ayn al-Hilweh, Baka, Yarmouk and other refugee camps. Israel, with some grumblings, has assimilated about three hundred thousand non-Jewish Europeans - nearly three times the number of Ethiopian Jews brought in colony. Contrasting these situations, we can see how African asylum seekers threaten both Israel’s whiteness (Ashkenazi) and settlerness (Jewish).
Israel responded to non-Jewish African migrants in ways representative of its anti-Palestinian programs. When the trickle of African refugees turned into a flow in 2010, Israel, invoking the experience of the wall running throughout the West Bank, began constructing a barrier with Egypt along the Sinai border to make entry more difficult. The barrier was mostly completed by 2013.
Juridically, Israel amended in 2012, after failed attempts dating to 2008, the 1954 “Prevention of Infiltration Law.” The original law forbade Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes in the Israeli state and legislated their prompt deportation. Following media reports, Netanyahu publicly called Eritrean and Sudanese migrants and refugees “infiltrators.” Gideon Kunda notes that “‘infiltrator’ is a very loaded word [among Israeli Jews], and it was not chosen by accident. It’s part of our collective memory, going back to the early period of the state, to Ma’aleh Akrabim and to Palestinians who tried to return to their land.” “Ma’aleh Akrabim” refers to a 1954 raid by Egyptian or Palestinian militants that killed eleven Israelis on a bus in the Naqab. This law attempts, at the bureaucratic level, to pair African migrants/refugees with Palestinians as foreign, removable bodies under one juridical regime. As David Clinton Wills notes, attaching this law to African migrants makes the migrants into infiltrators, creating them conceptually. Wills continues:
The state of life for African asylum seekers is constantly in flux, constantly unstable, the very rule of law, itself, is always migrating from points of adherence to which the asylum seeker can direct oneself, a north star of law that shifts through the cosmos, never giving direction, but instead, always, a law without the ability to be followed, a rule without guide, strewing the body through space as it tries to do what it is told to do while the letter of the law in this nation shifts its words, making the state unknowable to the subject seeking asylum and constantly building borders from which it is cast out. The law is without direction to follow. The body is unendingly repelled.
Little describes Israel’s "negative articulation" to Palestinians better than “unending repulsion.”
A 2017 law passed that holds a percentage of African paychecks in trust to be paid only upon leaving is a practice Israelis have long wished to apply to Palestinians, a financial inducement to leave Palestine. Avigdor Lieberman’s 2014 platform suggests that Palestinians citizens of Israel “who feel they are part of the Palestinian people, to resolve this issue of duality and divided loyalties from which they are suffering. Israel should even encourage them [to leave] with economic incentives.” Lieberman’s platform follows a 2010 survey that showed a majority of Israelis felt the state should economically encourage Palestinian citizens to leave.
The 2014 riots and attacks on non-Jewish Africans follow similar grassroots Israeli attacks on Palestinians, notably the 2008 Hebron settler attacks that even Prime Minister Olmert called a “pogrom.” In one riot, Israeli - Ashkenazi and Mizrachi - demonstrators “attacked African passersby,” while one Knesset member participating, Miri Regev, said “the Sudanese were a cancer in our body.” Earlier that same day the Attorney General said he supported the mass deportation of Sudanese people should they not meet Israel’s requirements for refugee status. (Fewer than 1% do)
This recalls the 2008 riot where a mass “lynching” - in the phrasing of one journalist - was prevented only by Israeli journalists who were present physically intervening to provoke the Israeli military to action to slightly reign in settler violence, leaving at assaults and arsons just shy of killings in that instance (but not others).
Anti-Black, Anti-Arab, Anti-Semitic
African asylum seekers under Zionism are not Palestinians in practice but they present a challenge to Zionism not unlike Palestinian indigeneity and are treated as such from the designation of ‘infiltrator’ to dislocation into camps. Ethiopian Jews under Zionism are not Mizrachim in practice but they present a challenge to Zionist whiteness not unlike Mizrachim and are treated as such with geographic and economic peripheralization. There is an intertextuality between two distinct anti-Arab racializations (‘Native’ and ‘Mizrachi’) and two distinct anti-Afro-descendant (‘Asylum Seeker’ and ‘Ethiopian’) racializations. The practices formed supporting and (re)producing anti-Arab racisms are those deployed for anti-Black racisms. In both we can see how they are deployed in service to settler colonialism, to the furtherance of settler control in Palestine. Palestinians, including Afro-descendent Palestinians, and non-Jewish African migrants are “unendingly repelled” from Palestine while Ethiopians, African Israelites and Mizrachim are missioned with firming settler title by creating political/ethnic/geographic borders with Palestinians on the settler colony’s periphery while comprising a low wage workforce in Israeli society.
This is not to argue that each practice is not specific. They are all specific, yet disentangling them is a practice in futility. This is in part due to the decade of discursive and bureaucratic entangling of African asylum seekers and Palestinians, and decades of the same in the cases of Ethiopian Jews and Mizrachim. But long before that, prior to and during the early years of the colonial encounter, anti-Black racializations were already built into Zionism.
Ashkenazi personhood, one negating yiddishkeit and inventing a Jewish volk, a herrenvolk really in the actual practice of the settler colonialism, is built through Palestinian dispossession. Defining who could be a New Jew, who could dispossess, was done by distancing Ashkenazim from Mizrachim, who, under Zionism, are deficient Jews afflicted with an overabundance of “Semitic character” (which in practice means “Arabness”), and Ethiopian Jews whose very Jewishness is suspect precisely because their Blackness is not. The colonialities that constructed Europeanness built the racialized judeophobia we call anti-Semitism that Zionism adopted as its premise. This coloniality is built upon a hierarchy not just of racializations generally, but upon distance from Blackness. This is part of what Fanon says when writing “an anti-Semite is invariably a negrophobe.” It is also what makes African refugee or Ethiopian Jewish freedom an impossibility inside Zionism. Anti-Blackness is built into Zionism and brought from Europe to the colonial encounter. Alternately put, Israeli anti-Blackness is built into Palestinian removal. Anti-Zionism is not just a prerequisite for Palestinian freedom, but for Ethiopian Jewish and African asylum seekers as well. Further, this also means that Black freedom in Palestine is a prerequisite for Palestinian freedom and anti-Zionism must effect Black liberation. Calls for Black, African and Palestinian solidarity in Palestine are equally idealistic and pragmatic.
The story of anti-Blackness in Palestine is longer than Israeli anti-Blackness or even Israeli and British. Palestinian anti-Blackness I mentioned above only in passing. It is a racialization that while impacted by Zionism, does not stem from it. It has a different history than what is covered above. I come back to it here only to repeat the Palestinian left's caution, that Palestinian freedom requires successful anti-Zionism but is not synonymous with it. To that end this essay is a failure in only critiquing Israeli anti-Blackness. A fuller examination is yet required to locate further intersections that can be nodes of liberation. Thanks for reading.
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