This weekend, protests exploded in cities and at airports across the country against Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and halting the resettlement of Syrian refugees. As details of the ban’s content and enforcement have emerged, its similarity with long-extant Israeli policy has been uncanny.
Ever since its coordinated campaign of ethnic cleansing that created 750,000 Palestinian refugees from 1947 to 1949, Israel has barred these refugees from returning home. In order to prevent their return, Israeli forces destroyed villages and planted forests over their remains. They also booby-trapped homes with explosives and shot Palestinians attempting to cross the border. Laws were passed transferring property belonging to these refugees to the Israeli state.
Today, there are more than five million Palestinian refugees worldwide, many living in refugee camps. For seven decades they have been banned from returning to their homes in Israel. African refugees who have fled to Israel more recently have fared no better. They have been rounded up and put in prison camps and threatened with deportation or prison. These individuals, fleeing war and famine, are a threat to the country’s security and identity as a Jewish state, according to the Israeli government.
The similarities between Trump’s executive order and Israel’s long-standing policies extend beyond the banning of refugees, however.
Since the order went into effect on January 27, reports have emerged that U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents are arbitrarily detaining travelers who carry green cards and visas and denying them access to their attorneys. There have been reports that CBP officers are checking the social media accounts of the detainees for their political views. Rogue officers have also been deporting travelers in defiance of a number of court orders.
To anyone of Arab or Muslim descent who has attempted to enter Israel via Ben-Gurion Airport, this is all too familiar. Israel’s airport security actively engages in racial profiling, targeting Arabs and Muslims. There have been countless documented stories of detention and interrogation, including checking email and social media accounts, invasive strip searches, extended bans and deportations.
Reports that permanent legal residents are being banned or pressured to surrender their green cards by U.S. officials are also reminiscent of Israeli policy. After Israel seized control of East Jerusalem in the 1967 War, it designated the Palestinian population of the city non-citizen residents. Since then, Israel has stripped more than 14,000 Palestinians of their residency, as part of ongoing efforts to “to expand the Jewish population in the city and reduce its Palestinian population” according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. To expand and speed up this demographic war, the Israeli government recently considered proposals to strip residency from tens of thousands of Jerusalem Palestinians en masse.
America’s pivot towards Israeli-style security regarding refugees, immigrants, and residents should come as no surprise. Over the last two decades, relations between U.S. and Israeli security networks have strengthened. Following the 9/11 attacks, Boston Logan Airport hired the former director of security at Ben-Gurion airport as a consultant. Under Presidents Bush and Obama, the United States signed multiple Homeland Security agreements with Israel that included provisions for joint airport security measures. U.S. police forces also regularly travel to Israel for training.
But Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency has introduced a new and important ideological dimension to this Israelification of American security. Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, former editor of the white nationalist media company Breitbart, is an ardent Zionist and appears to be at the center of this executive order. The so-called “alt-right” ideology Bannon and Breitbart espouse is worryingly similar to Zionism’s focus on maintaining a specific demographic balance and hierarchy of ethnic identity.
Philosophy professor Omri Boehn explored this relationship in a recent New York Times op-ed:
At an event at Texas A&M University when Richard Spencer, one of the ideological leaders of the alt-right’s white nationalist agenda — which he has called “a sort of white Zionism” — was publicly challenged by the university’s Hillel Rabbi Matt Rosenberg, to study with him the Jewish religion’s “radical inclusion” and love. “Do you really want radical inclusion into the state of Israel?” Spencer replied. “Maybe all of the Middle East can go move into Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Would you really want that?” Spencer went on to argue that Israel’s ethnic-based politics was the reason Jews had a strong, cohesive identity, and that Spencer himself admired them for it.
Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is reliant on maintaining a demographic majority and requires discrimination against and exclusion of those citizens, immigrants, and refugees who are not Jewish. For U.S. white supremacists, the illiberal and racist policies that maintain Israel’s Jewish majority and identity are a model to be followed.
Just as Israel has done for seventy years, the United States has begun banning people from entering the country on the basis of their identity and origin. Given the centrality of Steve Bannon and his “alt-right” ideology in Trump’s White House, the resemblance between the United States and Israel will likely strengthen.