Don’t Mention Jews/Africans: How to Campaign for Refugees

In the 1940s American Jews campaigning for the resettlement of Displaced Persons (DPs) in Europe who had survived the holocaust avoided mentioning Jews. This was because the American public was relatively intolerant in 1945, as outlined in Loescher and Scanlan’s book Calculated Kindness: Refugees and America’s Half Open Door.  Rather than campaign for Jews, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the American Council on Judaism (ACJ) joined forced to create the ‘Citizen’s Committee for Displaced Persons (DPs)’, a title with no mention of Jews. Matthew Gibney, in his 2004 book on the ethics of asylum, noted that Truman ‘went out of his way to stress that the DPs were of “all faiths” (and by implication not only Jews) when he called on an extremely reluctant Congress to pass new legislation in 1947 (US Government 1963:327).’

In Israel, the Ghanaian ambassador’s wife recently complained of being laughed at and harassed while shopping and a number of ambassadors from African countries said that they were ‘afraid to walk down the street’. Foreign Minister Ayalon responded with: ‘We have a problem with illegal immigrants whom we are determined to send away….We will do so with respect and cooperation.’ Unlike in the case of Holocaust survivors who managed to gain resettlement despite the relative intolerance of 1940s America, African asylum seekers reaching Israel are treated as one would predict they would be treated in country with widespread intolerance.

The racism that permeates Israeli society does not need to be the central issue concerning asylum for refugees in Israel, just as antisemitism in the United States was not the central issue in efforts to bring DPs to the United States. The 1951 Convention for the Protection of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol is to ensure that no asylum seeker be deported to a country where his or her life would be in danger regardless of how racist the host country population is.

There are reasons that could possibly explain why antisemitism didn’t prevent Jewish DPs from being resettled in the United States. The AJC and ACJ campaigning in the United States perhaps employed particular advocacy skills that lead to their success in downplaying the number of Jews who would be granted residency in the United States under a policy of resettlement for DPs. Furthermore, perhaps most Americans throughout the vast territory of the United States did not know the precise percentages of DPs that were Jewish. Perhaps most Americans could not even distinguish between the various religions of DPs. My late grandmother, Joan Gerver Z”L, was not a DP, but she was Jewish woman living in New York in the 1940s. She told me about one of the first apartments she looked at after my grandfather came back from the war. She and the landlady were chatting amiably  until the landlady told her, in an off-handed manner, that it was good my grandmother wasn’t Jewish. My grandmother quickly and politely turned down the apartment and, sixty years later, laughed when telling the story, somewhat disbelieving herself that attitudes were so different in 1940s New York, and that antisemitic landladies just assumed they knew precisely who was and was not Jewish. Her story shows that a Jewish New Yorker could probably rent an apartment from an anti-Semite, even if they didn’t want to, and in some ways this sheltered them against some of the practical implications of living in an intolerant country.

The success of the AJC and ACJ in downplaying the presence of Jews among European DPs, and the fact that many Jews could hide their Jewish identity, is perhaps not comparable to the current case of African asylum seekers in Israel. Perhaps Israel will need to be a more tolerant country before non-Jewish Africans receive asylum. Yet, the 1940s case in the United States also highlights that it is possible, however difficult, to  pass a law granting asylum even if the majority of the population is intolerant against the majority of those will receive such asylum.

The primary question may not be whether Israeli society can be more tolerant. The question may be whether Israeli law can provide basic rights to migrants, asylum seekers and refugees regardless of how intolerant Israeli society is. One reason why this is possible may be because of what Ronald Dworkin calls ‘the integrity of the law’ in his seminal book on  jurisprudence, Law’s Empire. Put simply, the implications of having integrity includes ensuring that a law is applicable to all. Jewish DPs were resettled in the United States precisely because European DPs in general were being resettled, and legislation could not specifically discriminate against Jews. In other words, while Congressmen were uneasy about supporting Jewish DPs, they still supported resettling DPs in general. Once the law was discussed, they felt it unethical to write-in a clause discriminating against Jewish DPs even if they would not have supported resettling only Jewish DPs.

The distinction is important because it allows an intolerant country to pass tolerant laws. The principle of integrity, despite intolerance, is not new to Israel. Any citizen in Israel can receive welfare payments, the right to education, and other basic services even if the citizen is of a section in society that the majority dislike and discriminate against. This is not to argue that this is always the case – but it can be the case, and so racism and discrimination does not need to be a reason to prevent equal access to services or general societal support for such service provisions. A working Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process in Israel can mean Africans facing daily racism, and a public that wants them deported, can still have the opportunity of not being deported if the general integrity of the law would prevent outright discrimination in a working Refugee Status Determination process.

Integrity of the law is not the same as equality. A law which is applied to all in an equal manner can create inequality. For example, a progressive tax system means that some pay taxes which are a greater percentage of their salary; yet, integrity of the law would demand that the tax code apply to all, and one person of a given income bracket is not taxed more or less than another person of the same income bracket, all else being equal. In the case of Israel, a law which gave asylum to refugees would not necessarily give equal rights to all asylum seekers, because some asylum seekers may not succeed in proving they are refugees. Yet, integrity of the law would give all asylum seekers the right to apply for refugee status, regardless of the color of their skin.

The moral price we pay as a society for ignoring integrity of the law is significant. While a diplomats wife might have legal actions she can take to defend herself against harassment, racism that leads to deportation without the right to apply for asylum is an irreversible human rights violation. With the case of a diplomats wife, the law protects her despite societal discrimination. With the case of deportations, the law discriminates against asylum seekers because of societal discrimination.

Yet, just as widespread discrimination exists against citizens who still have access to basic healthcare and education, the Israeli public may not support rights for ‘infiltrators’ yet support asylum for those who have proved they are refugees. If anti-Semitism could co-exist with resettlement of Jewish refugees in 1940s America, then perhaps racism and refugees can co-exist in Israel.  With time, those who are given in asylum in Israel may one day tell their grandchildren about not being able to rent an apartment because they were “infiltrators”, laughing in disbelief at a more intolerant past. Hopefully, it will not take that long.



About the Author
Mollie Gerver is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics where she researches the repatriation and resettlement of African migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in Israel.