Israel hosts approximately sixty thousand African refugees (termed “infiltrators” in Israeli parlance), mainly from Eritrea and Sudan. Most, fleeing violence and instability, have entered Israel through Egypt over the past five years. Israel is barred from deporting Eritrean or Sudanese refugees, as the United Nations has declared that doing so would put their lives in danger. Though South Sudan’s refugees constitute only a small fraction of African refugees in Israel, approximately seven hundred total or 0.1 percent of all refugees, the deportations have highlighted at least two noteworthy trends. The first is Israel’s resort to forcible and racially driven expulsions in an effort to retain its majority Jewish makeup. Second is the claim by some South Sudanese of a kind of essentialized religious, historical, and cultural affinity with Israel in order to foster a strategic bond.
Just prior to the deportations, xenophobic manifestations of Israel’s imperative to retain its Jewish majority were clear. At an anti-refugee demonstration in Hatikva on 24 May, Likud Member of Parliament Miri Regev stated from the stage, “The Sudanese are a cancer in our body.” A week later Israeli crowds chanted, “Deport the Sudanese” at a similar demonstration in Shapira. Other politicians have also added fuel to the fire. Interior Minister Eli Yishai recently claimed that African refugees were raping many Israeli women who “do not complain out of fear of being stigmatized as having contracted AIDS.” He recently added, “Israel belongs to the white man.” A number of South Sudanese arriving in Juba have described their recent treatment in Israel as brusque, marked by visa confiscations and arrests that barred them from clearing their Israeli bank accounts or receiving final paychecks.
Though it might not be obvious from these recent events, Israel has consistently supported southern Sudan, particularly during its first civil war with the north, and it was among the first countries to recognize South Sudan as a sovereign state last year. To Israel, South Sudan is another formerly-enslaved nation that escaped the clutches of Muslim violence and intolerance. In turn, it is often seen as “black” and “Christian” versus its “Arab” and “Muslim” neighbor to the north, though the makeup of Sudan and South Sudan is more complex than this simple division suggests. As the Sudanese academic and politician Francis Deng has consistently argued, the ideas of “racial, cultural and religious homogeneity…oversimplify and falsify a dynamic picture of pluralism [in Sudan/South Sudan].”
This simple dichotomy begets the powerful notion that South Sudan is an ally to Israel in a hostile part of the world, particularly in regard to Omar al-Bashir’s regime in Khartoum. Al-Bashir’s alliance with Iran and Hamas has particularly riled Israel, with Sudan serving as a way station for Iranian weapons en route to the Sinai Peninsula and ultimately to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. As Galia Sabar of the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University recently said, “We have a phenomenal interest in South Sudan, a Christian country in the heart of an area of great importance to us.” South Sudan presents itself along similar lines. Salva Kiir, South Sudan’s president, visited Israel in December 2011 and made such remarks as: “We have shared values. We have waged similar struggles, and we will go hand-in-hand with Israel in order to strengthen and enhance bilateral relations.” In Juba, Israeli flags are prevalent, and one neighborhood goes by the name Hai Jerusalem (Long Live Jerusalem).
As a result of this perceived affinity, some Jewish, both American and Israeli, and South Sudanese leaders alike have registered shock at the deportations. Charles Jacobs, president of the American Anti-Slavery Group, wrote an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post that called the South Sudanese “a special people” deserving of special treatment. He recounted that many American Jews, upon learning years ago of how the Muslim north was oppressing and killing those in the south, “saw [them] as ‘the Jews of our time.’” “We should continue to treat them as the very special people they are,” he concluded, asking for the refugees to have “a bit more time” to make arrangements to return home. Continue reading