When, and Where, Does History Begin? Collective Memory, Selective Amnesia, and the Treatment of Asylum Seekers in Israel

31 Pages Posted: 24 Jun 2016 Last revised: 22 Aug 2019

See all articles by Margit Cohn

Margit Cohn

Hebrew University of Jerusalem - Faculty of Law

Date Written: June 23, 2016


In this paper I consider the strategic use of constitutional history, as reflected in national collective memories, and analyze, as a case-study, the treatment of the State of Israel of the recent surge of illegal entrants into Israel. The rise of entry of asylum seekers/infiltrators (the ambiguity is central to Israel’s policies on the matter) from Africa into Israel via Egypt, which began around 2006, led the government to design stricter rules of treatment of entrants. The treatment of tens of thousands of entrants from Sudan and Eritrea, who could not be returned to their country under international law, remains the most pressing aspect. To tighten the policy, the government transformed a 1954 statute, which was originally enacted to answer the challenges of Arab infiltrators (Fedayeen) into Israel in the mid-1950s. I discuss a series of four legislative amendments, enacted between 2012 and 2016 in response to three Supreme Court decisions that found the first three amendments unconstitutional, and place this recent history in the context of lawmakers’ reliance on the State’s collective memory of the Holocaust and other mnemonic narratives of oppression. Collective memory, a central socio-cultural aspect of the ways histories are rendered and used to shape national identity, is addressed in this article as a construct that can be implemented strategically to promote policy and law making. A quantitative analysis of oral presentations by members of Israel’s parliament in the process of the legislation of those four amendments, compared with some presentations in the context of the removal of international sanctions against Iran, offers proof of the claim that collective memories are used strategically by policy- and law-makers, and that, more generally, history, as translated by state officials, is highly malleable.

Keywords: Collective memory, constitutional history, refugees, Israel, Holocaust memory, asylum seekers

Suggested Citation

Cohn, Margit, When, and Where, Does History Begin? Collective Memory, Selective Amnesia, and the Treatment of Asylum Seekers in Israel (June 23, 2016). University of Illinois Law Review, Vol. 2, p. 563, 2017, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2799630

Margit Cohn (Contact Author)

Hebrew University of Jerusalem - Faculty of Law ( email )

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