The Myth of an Israeli Ethnostate: a lesson in Far-Right Fictions

Operation Dove’s Wings in 2013, brought members of the Ethiopian Jewish community to Israel decades after previous rescue missions Operation Moses and Operation Solomon in the 1980s & 90s. [Getty]

Entering the terms “Israel” “Jews” and “Ethnostate” into the search bar on Twitter, Google or Facebook will yield millions of results. Progressive activists can often be found deriding Israel as a Jewish supremacist monolith that seeks to purge its predominantly Arab non-Jewish population. Then there is the cocktail of far-right interests. Some like white nationalist Richard Spencer, who in 2016 led a Nazi-style salute before a crowd of followers, tend toward praise. They celebrate what they perceive Israel to be: a successful ethnostate in a world of increasing racial and cultural pluralism.

Others equally misconstrue Israel as an exercise in fascistic ethnonationalism, but furiously lambast this as evidence of a hypocritical conspiracy in which nefarious Jewish and Zionist forces plot to degrade the ethnicities and cultures of white-majority countries such as the United States while preserving their own in Israel. The phrase “Open Borders for Israel” is a common semi-sarcastic retort of the more aggressive wings of the alt-right Twittersphere, and it is not uncommon to see it posted below tweets and articles addressing all manner of issues regarding Israel or the Jewish diaspora. Yet, the idea that Israel is a state in which citizenship and rights are exclusively assigned to members of a particular racial or ethnic group, simply does not stand up to the facts.

A tongue-in-cheek Facebook page with over 11,0000 followers dedicated to the #OpenBordersforIsrael meme that perpetuates the myth of Israel as a closed, homogenous society

Of Israel’s population of around 9.2 million, 74.25% are Jews of a variety of backgrounds. By the time the State of Israel was proclaimed, the majority of Jews in the State and the region were Ashkenazi. The term Ashkenazi derives from the old Hebrew word for Germany and is a broad term used to describe Jews who have primarily resided in the Western and Eastern European diaspora in recent centuries. Following Israel’s Declaration of Independence in May 1948, a flood of Jewish migrants and refugees entered the new state. Many were Holocaust survivors or immigrants from America. Almost 1 million new arrivals from outside Europe were Mizrahi refugees expelled from Islamic nations in the wake of the declaration. The word Mizrahi derives from the old Hebrew word for “East”, and denotes Jewish populations who long sustained communities in the Middle East and North Africa. Today over fifty per cent of Israeli Jews are of Mizrahi origin.

Yemenite Jews at a camp near Rosh Ha’ayin. (Photo: GPO) The cultural differences between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews has impacted the degree and rate of Mizrahi assimilation into Israeli society. Although social integration is constantly improving, disparities persist.

Large numbers of Persian Jews followed previous flows of Olim (Jewish emigres to Israel) in the late 1970s as Iran’s Islamic Revolution cracked down on minorities and dissidents. Other migration flows have included Ethiopian Jews, and Russian Jews whose immigration was tightly controlled under the Soviet regime. Many recent Russian emigres are not halachically Jewish (i.e. their maternal line is not Jewish, so they are not considered as such by Jewish religious law), but often have a Jewish grandparent on one or both sides of their family tree. Many of these post-Soviet immigrants are secularised or even formally Christian.

Approximately 100–200 refugees from Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraqi Kurdistan, and North Korea have been absorbed as refugees. Most of them were given Israeli resident status. The number of Vietnamese people in Israel and their descendants is estimated at 150 to 200. Most of them came to Israel in between 1976–1979, after prime minister Menachem Begin authorized their admission to Israel and granted them political asylum. There is also a significant number of naturalised foreign workers and their children born in Israel, predominantly from the Philippines, Nepal, Nigeria, Senegal, Romania, China, Cyprus, Thailand, and South America.

Newly arrived refugees from Vietnam ride the bus to the Ben Gurion Airport arrivals terminal, June 26, 1977 (Moshe Milner/GPO)

Even relatively speaking, Israel is no more an ethnostate than the Western European cultures the alt-right itself derides as “overrun” by immigrants. For example, just below 90% of the UK population identifies as White British, compared to Israel’s 74.25% Jewish population (which is itself heterogenous). Yet like Israel, the United Kingdom has a vibrant history of immigration and upholds equal rights for all citizens regardless of ethnic background.

In fact, when comparing Israel to its neighbours, it often appears to be the exception in terms of cultural and ethnic plurality. Jordan’s population is 98% Arab, over 95% of which are Muslim. The Gulf States of Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait are increasingly open to international business and expats, but are among the most difficult countries in the world for immigrants to gain citizenship.

Like most countries, especially those still experiencing their growing pains, Israel still has plenty of work to do when it comes to coexistence. However, the alt-right attempt to frame Israel as a homogenous Jewish ethnostate, hypocritically plotting to “force multiculturalism” on Europe and the US is a dishonest and dangerous delve into inaccuracy.

16th century cameo enthusiast.

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