Why Israel is turning its back on its own history

With the newest policy to send away Sudanese and Eritrean refugees, the Israeli government turns its back on victims of genocide and mass atrocities.
Photo: Ishai Parasol/ CC BY-SA 2.0 / Flickr

In the dawn of the new year, the Israeli government ordered thousands of African refugees and migrants to leave the country within three months or face imprisonment.

The statement came from the Population and Immigration Authority, which coordinates government units that deal with the regulation of the legal status of citizens, residents, and foreigners, and targeted refugees from Sudan and Eritrea.

This move reflects a fundamental level of hypocrisy of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

As Israel turns its back on refugees, so too does it turn its back on its history as a nation of refugees seeking safety in the wake of conflict. On next International Day of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust on 27th January, it is important to call out this hypocrisy and stand in honor of the victims of the Holocaust by supporting those escaping similar atrocities today.

Forced Deportation: racism in Israel

The statement refers to refugees as “infiltrators,” and calls on Sudanese and Eritrean refugees to voluntarily leave Israel to their home country or to a third country– namely either Uganda or Rwanda, who both have long-standing ties with Israel.

Those who leave Israel by the end of March will receive a grant of $3,500, payment of airfare, and assistance in arranging travel documents. These offerings, though, are only a thin veil for a fundamentally racist policy.

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination stated“the Committee is concerned at the recent increase in racist and xenophobic acts, manifestations and discourse” against asylum-seekers of African origin.

They also take issue with the “unavailability of precise data on complaints, investigations, indictments and prosecutions against politicians, public officials and religious leaders involved in such manifestations and discourses.”

African refugees in Israel

According to UNHCR, The UN refugee agency,  there are 27,000 Eritreans and 7,700 Sudanese in Israel. Of these prominent numbers, only ten Eritreans and one Sudanese have been officially acknowledged with refugee status from the Israeli government.


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An additional 200 victims of violence from Darfur, Sudan, received humanitarian status, with plans of doubling that number. However, Israel has not received any Eritreans or Sudanese since May 2016 and has taken serious measures to keep additional refugees out, including a fence along the border between Egypt and Israel.  

In a statement from UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler, the refugee- support institution called on Israel to halt its policy of relocating Eritreans and Sudanese to sub-Saharan Africa, sighting some 80 cases in which people forced to leave Israel risked their lives as they travelled through conflict zones in South Sudan, Sudan, and Libya with the hopes of crossing the Mediterranean to Europe following their deportation.  

A nation of refugees

Israel, a nation built by refugees in the wake of the Holocaust, attempts to sidestep their deeply racist policies by claiming that these refugees and asylum seekers are not, in fact, in mortal danger, and rather came to Israel as economic migrants.

In this way, Israel justifies their stance that these migrants are “illegal infiltrators,” giving Israel the moral right to carry out these deportations.

However, Sudanese and Eritreans are, in fact, in mortal danger in their home countries.

Sudan has been divided by violence for nearly 20 years, not only in Darfur, which has long been on the international stage, but also across Sudan, with little-acknowledged force in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains.

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Eritreans face a constant climate of repression, violence, and paranoia under President Isaias Afewerki’s government, who has ruled Eritrea since its independence from Ethiopia in 1993. According to a report from Human Rights Watch, 83 percent of Eritrean asylum seekers in various European countries were granted some form of protection in 2013, showing that most of the world acknowledge the extreme dangers these refugees face in their own countries.

The same report details the abuses faced by deportees forced to return to Sudan, where they were detained and interrogated in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, and were tortured, held in solitary confinement, and charged with treason for visiting Israel, which is illegal for Sudanese citizens, punishable by up to ten years in prison.

Unrest and Protest

Despite the Israeli government’s racist stances, there has been significant protest both in Israel and across the world. One petition launched by Zazim Community Action, an Israeli online grassroots organizing NGO, demands that Israeli pilots protest this policy by refusing to fly African asylum seekers to what many believe would be certain death. In the wake of this action, a group of pilots on Israel airline El Al have announced on Facebook that they won’t fly deported asylum seekers to Africa.

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On January 16, 2017, a group of Israeli rabbis launched an Anne Frank-inspired movement calling on Israelis to hide African asylum seekers who would otherwise face deportation, honoring one of the most famous victims of the Holocaust.  

The Holocaust’s legacy

The UN General Assembly adopted resolution 60/7 to designate January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day on November 1, 2005. This resolution was an important step in honoring the victims of the Holocaust and a call for the world to ensure that “never again” becomes a reality.

By moving to deport African asylum seekers, Israel turns its back on victims of genocide and mass atrocities, and in so doing also turns its back on its own history.

Looking forward, Israelis and non-Israelis alike must embrace their role in contributing to a world in which those desperately seeking refuge from the world’s worst atrocities are welcomed with open arms and where atrocities such as the Holocaust, identity-based violence in Sudan, and violence in Eritrea become obsolete.  

Francesca Freeman

Francesca Freeman is a program assistant for the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa Program at the Social Science Research Council. She graduated from the University of Chicago with a double major in anthropology and comparative race and ethnic studies and a minor in human rights. At the University of Chicago, she focused her research, writing, and advocacy work on conflict studies and early warning signs of genocide. She has previously worked on international grassroots mobilization against genocide and mass atrocities as the Student Director of STAND: The Student-Led Movement to End Mass Atrocities and as an intern for The Aegis Trust in Rwanda.
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