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.