Jewish rights vs. refugee rights?
I recently saw a German pseudo-leftist neoconservative complaining that the slogans announced for a Berlin demonstration were exclusive of Jewish people – due to Palestine solidarity, of course. Some of the slogans, meanwhile, simply upheld the rights of refugees. That these might not be considered pro-Jewish would have been very confusing to anyone just a few generations ago: In the 20th century, Jewish refugees were a central part of this same struggle – both as beneficiaries and as actors. Where once Jewish people and our long history of flight and persecution appeared intrinsically connected with the struggles of all persecuted people, the foundation of the Jewish ethno-state and its promise to take in any Jewish refugee, has driven a wedge deep between our particular cause and the broader universal struggle it was once a part of. Indeed, not only has the State of Israel removed the threat to most Jewish people of ever becoming stateless; in the process of its founding it has forced a new group of people into the status of stateless refugees, and has aggressively prevented their repatriation. It has further yet sought to extract itself from the universal obligation upon all states to take in refugees not of their own dominant group, clinging to its demographic-ethnic imperative to protect Jewish rights by maintaining Jewish supremacy – supremacy of arms outwards, towards the displaced Palestinian population and neighboring countries, and supremacy of numbers amongst its enfranchised subjects.
In sum, it has created the perverse situation in which one might suppose that protecting Jewish people is in tension with protecting refugees or undocumented people. And this is not some mistake in understanding the situation: it is a reflection of a reality in which the “Jewish Question” has been resolved (temporarily) in a manner that undermines universal protections of persecuted people. The same institutions ensuring Jewish people are not susceptible to becoming refugees are invested in preventing others from returning home, invested in exempting at least one country from the obligation to take in and protect refugees – thereby negating the demand that people in flight be allowed to resettle wherever they may go, the same demand once at the forefront of the struggles of Jewish people.
We must recognize that the only durable and just resolution to the plight of refugees is to universally uphold, implement, and protect the right of all people to safely flee and resettle. Providing particularistic protections for one group undermines the struggle for refugee rights writ large, and at the same time pits the persecuted against those awarded special protections, threatening those protections and undermining their viability in the long term. A historically-aware defense of Jewish rights must uphold the rights and protections of all persecuted people and reject attempts to protect only persecuted Jews, especially at the expense of other people. A defense of the State of Israel as a Jewish ethno-state, now more than ever, is fundamentally incompatible with the fight to protect all those who are persecuted as we once were, as we may be again some day.
Refugee protections everywhere are the only defense we will have left when the State of Israel inevitably ceases to be able to provide the special protections it has promised.