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Trump’s Muslim ban is eerily similar to Israel's refugee policies

As President Trump seeks to maintain white Christian hegemony, the Jewish state can serve as a case study of nationalism run amuck — and what that means for the ‘others’ who live there.

Hundreds fill New York City's Washington Square Park to protest President Trump's decision to ban Muslim refugees from entering the U.S., January 26, 2017. (Gili Getz)

Hundreds fill New York City’s Washington Square Park to protest President Trump’s decision to ban Muslim refugees from entering the U.S., January 26, 2017. (Gili Getz)

Israel’s founding premise that it would be a “Jewish and democratic” state has always meant that if the state wants to remain democratic it must maintain a Jewish majority. Artificially maintaining a certain ethno-religious majority has led Israel to take some decidedly undemocratic measures against various minority populations.

In the United States these days, President Donald Trump is also seeking to maintain a particular ethno-religious hegemony — that of white Christians. What does that mean for the future of the United States and its democratic institutions? Israel, where questions of national identity take on existential proportions, can provide important lessons. The Jewish state can serve as a case study of nationalism run amuck and what that means for the “others”—in this case, non-Jews—who live there.

My new book, “The Unchosen: The Lives of Israel’s New Others,” focuses on two groups of “others” in Israel: migrant workers from Southeast Asia and African asylum seekers. Significantly, a large number of the asylum seekers in Israel are from Sudan, one of the countries on Trump’s “travel ban” list, which has also been referred to as the “Muslim ban.” Who are these people that are targeted by both Trump and Israel? Why did they leave Sudan? What were they escaping? What are their hopes and dreams for the future?

Asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan protest the Israeli government's neglect to review asylum requests, and the state's detention policies, at a demonstration held at Rabin Square, central Tel Aviv. March 29, 2014. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan protest the Israeli government’s neglect to review asylum requests, and the state’s detention policies, at a demonstration held at Rabin Square, central Tel Aviv. March 29, 2014. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“The Unchosen” offers an intimate look at the lives of Sudanese asylum seekers. Almost all African asylum seekers in Israel are denied legal status — and while Israel claims that they’re actually illegal work migrants, the state can’t deport them because to do so would violate the international law against repatriating asylum seekers to a country where they could face persecution or death. So Israel keeps them in legal limbo, hoping that they will “self-deport” if you will.

To maintain its Jewish majority, Israel uses a variety of policies that, taken together, also constitute a Muslim ban. Palestinian refugees cannot return to the lands they lost during the 1948 war. For nearly 15 years, a law banning family unification means that if a Palestinian from the West Bank or Gaza marries a Palestinian who lives in Israel, they cannot come to Israel to reside with their spouse. The same is true of non-Jewish citizens of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon who might marry a citizen of Israel – there is no legal avenue for them to actually live with their spouse in Israel.

Mya Guarnieri's book, 'The Unchosen.'

Mya Guarnieri’s new book, ‘The Unchosen.’

Another, more commonly cited parallel, is the separation barrier Israel built along its southern border with Egypt to stop Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers from entering the country. A key component of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was his promise to build a wall along the the United States’ southern border with Mexico. While many observers liken Trump’s proposed wall to the one that stands between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, the barrier between Israel and Egypt is more analogous.

Why? First of all, the African asylum seekers who used to enter through Israel’s southern border have been falsely portrayed by both the Israeli government and Israeli media as “work migrants” or “work infiltrators” or just “infiltrators.” They’ve been depicted as people who rob Israelis of jobs, who rape, who sell drugs, who pose a threat to the very character of the country.

Sound familiar? It’s almost identical to the way Trump depicts Latino immigrants.

In the U.S. right now, authorities are putting increasing pressure on undocumented immigrants, many of whom are migrant workers. In addition to its in-depth discussion of the lives of African asylum seekers in Israel, “The Unchosen” details the struggles of Christian Filipino migrant workers and their Israel-born children — offering a look at the lives of those who don’t fit the Jewish’s state’s preferred ethno-religious background, and the impact of the policies designed to prevent them and other non-Jews from settling in Israel.

Christian Filipinos celebrate Flowers of May, the month of love, at the Filipino Church in Jerusalem on May 30, 2010. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Christian Filipinos celebrate Flowers of May, the month of love, at the Filipino Church in Jerusalem on May 30, 2010. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

And what might all this mean for the United States’ democratic institutions?

Activists in the U.S. hailed the Trump administration’s backtracking from the original travel ban — as a result of a temporary court ruling as a victory. But a certain case in Israel suggests that, if there is a protracted battle over the ban — like with the White House issuing a slightly modified version of the same order — it could end up eroding the country’s democracy and its democratic institutions.

In Israel, too, every time the country’s High Court struck down a law designed to deter and make miserable African asylum seekers, the Israeli parliament crafted a new, slightly modified version, in an attempt to circumvent the High Court’s ruling. That continual ping-ponging between the Knesset and High Court has called into question the health of Israel’s democratic framework, evidencing the way the state often finds ways to sidestep — if not outright disregard — the rulings of the highest court of the land. In Israel, the lack of a formal system of checks and balances makes such games dangerous yet leaves enough flexibility to avert a full-on constitutional crisis: the stakes of a direct confrontation between the Executive and the Judiciary in Washington are far higher.

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    1. Grandpa Frost

      The author of this article seems to lack the simple recognition that certain cultures are incompatible with other cultures. This incompatibility is cause of most wars in the Middle East today. And it is also an excellent argument for both Israel’s and Trump’s policies.

      Reply to Comment
    2. R5

      A little tiring at this point when the anti-Israel crazies keep trying to ride anti-Trump sentiment. Every day this website tries to equate Israel with Trump. Is it even worth counting at this point, or is this stupidity going to continue for the next four years?

      Reply to Comment
    3. i_like_ike52

      The claim that Trump has “banned Muslim immigration to the US” is an out and out falsehood. He has put restrictions on Muslim immigration from a small list of FAILED STATES that have rampant terrorism and weak governments that are either not able to cope with it or are actively encouraging it. The vast majority of Muslims countries and Muslim populations around the world are not affected. Now, one may ask why all these failed states plagued by terrorism happen to be Muslim countries. I’ll leave it to you to provide the answer.

      Reply to Comment
    4. i_like_ike52

      The header starts out with “As President Trump seeks to maintain white Christian hegemony,” which is extremely loaded. Trump has never said any such thing. However, if we look at the Arab/Muslim Middle East, we see that in the last 60 years, all the minorities in the Middle East…Jews, Christians, Bahais, Yazidis and even Muslim minorities such as Shi’ites in Pakistan, or Sufis are under extreme pressure and even violence and these populations have decreased precipitously in that period. Thus, if a “progressive” is worried about things like this, then struggling against Islamic supremacy and its related repression of all minorities should be the focus of the “progressive” agenda, and not mythical supposed American attempts to “maintain white Christian hegemony”.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        There is a fake either/or quality to this. Progressives knew President Obama was trying as hard as possible within his means to stop Isil and other radicals–they knew he was not ignoring that one bit–but was also not trying to bring to his country any version of religious-racial supremacy. You can pooh-pooh it but progressives know that the same cannot be said of Trump or Netanyahu. And this may shock you but progressives actually care about America as something other than a tool of the Israeli Right.

        Reply to Comment
      • Mark

        Sadly, everyone is struggling against Islamic supremacy. It’s built in to the core of the religion and is a plague on anyone who takes the religion seriously.

        Reply to Comment
    5. Bruce Gould

      “Then a couple of weeks after I arrived, I was standing outside Ulpan Etzion, and an elderly lady sitting on a bench started talking to me in broken English, asking why I came to Israel…and suddenly she got angry at a boy of about 12 standing nearby. ‘Get away from her’ she snapped…’Look, he’s talking to the Jewish girl’ the woman said. The boy was Arab. I turned away and said..’What is this, Alabama in 1911?'”

      – page 50, ‘No Country For Jewish Liberals’ by Larry Derfner.

      Reply to Comment
      • i_like_ike52

        Perhaps Derfner is not aware of this, but if an unmarried Muslim woman was caught talking to a non-Muslim man, there is a significant chance she would not just be reprimanded, as in this case, but killed in one of the all-too-common “family honor killings” that plague the Arab countries of the Middle East. Human rights activists might want to shift 10% of the time they use for criticizing and use it to fight this gross abuse of human rights.
        BTW-I don’t think the common “progressive” excuse that “far be it from us it to intervene in Palestinian society”. If one can worry about Israeli society, they should be willing to devote time and effort to improving Arab society as well.

        Reply to Comment
        • Mark

          “Honour killings” are a great boon to the regressive left. You can support as a quaint expression of indigenous culture, but at the same time you can castigate the police for not protecting women. It’s a sure fire winner!

          Reply to Comment