Wednesday, 14 February 2018

The Lie of Liberal Zionism and Israel’s African Refugees

Jonathan Freedland Turns a Blind Eye to the ‘Jewish’ State’s Inherent Racism

The proposed 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?

As Netanyahu 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.

Jonathan 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. 

Freeland was 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 of Zionists. 
Asylum seekers outside Holot internment camp in the Negev Desert

In an article for the Jewish Chronicle Benjamin Netanyahu’s appalling betrayal of Jewish values, Freedland had to admit that

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 official.

“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 answered.
“Don’t you see yourselves, that you look like monkeys?” the official replied.

This 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 from. 

Whereas 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?

Netanyahu himself was explicit that the Black African refugees pose a threat to Jewish identity. In May 2012 he told 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 means.
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 demography. 

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 off indefinitely.

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 that:   

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’.

Tony Greenstein  
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 with cancer.

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, 

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 answered.

“Don’t you see yourselves, that you look like monkeys?” the official replied.

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.

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

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