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African Asylum Seekers in Israel/Palestine: Refugees, Return, and "Infiltration"
Over the past 15 years, over 200,000 refugees, asylum seekers, and contracted foreign workers migrated into Israel. The growth of Israel’s asylum-seeking population, primarily from Sudan, South Sudan, and Eritrea, has struck central nerves in the Israeli body politic, drawing out contradictory impulses from various sectors. The public response has been divided between the governing coalitions of populists and their right-wing constituencies, set against civil society activists, liberal-left cultural figures, and the refugees themselves. The government has framed the “crisis” around refugees through legal and discursive tools that were central to the mass dispossession of Palestinians during Israel’s establishment in 1948, making today’s (African) refugee issue inseparable from the conflict over Jewish sovereignty itself. The 1954 “Prevention of Infiltration Law” was originally implemented to interdict Palestinian refugees who, in the state’s early years, could still walk across the borders from Lebanon or Gaza to their former villages. With the resumption of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s premiership in 2009, the government began to invoke this law to define African asylum seekers as “infiltrators.” The discourse of infiltration signified a confluence of perceived threats, from Palestinian guerilla activity in the 1950’s to the “threat” that egalitarian democratic representation – if applied to all populations under Israeli sovereignty – would present to the country’s Jewish character. And yet, as James Loeffler and Philippe Sands have written, some of the principal legal minds active in the creation of Israel were also central to the codification of international law on refugees, asylum, and genocide. These thinkers viewed Israel as an exemplary cause: a state of refuge for a quintessentially stateless people, a national home for a de-territorialized minority. The tension between these impulses runs through the Israel’s juridical, political, and cultural foundations. When/how do advocates for refugee rights appeal to international law? And in what ways have activists appealed to Israel’s national identity/memory – insofar as the Jewish people were definitional to the creation of legal, moral, and cultural norms surrounding refugees? How does Israel’s geographic position – at the center of the Levant and sharing an overland border with the African continent – shape its reception of refugees? I will analyze recent developments in Israeli law, political discourse, and culture, reflecting on Israel’s complex position as either an analogue or a dark mirror for other developed nations’ ambivalence toward the refugee issue.
Geographic Area
Africa (Sub-Saharan)
Mediterranean Countries
Sub Area