Racism in Zion

Stephen Scheinberg

These are difficult times to be a liberal Zionist Jew. Time has forced many to come to terms with the realities of the nationalist, right-wing domination of Israeli politics and the lack of any progress in peacemaking. Yes, there is the occasional bright spot in this darkness, such as the fact that, last week, the Israeli government agreed for the first time to put a female reform rabbi on the state payroll, breaking the monopoly of the orthodox rabbinate. But the darkness is more pervasive than the light, it seems, and any satisfaction one could take from that bit of liberalization was swept away by the recognition that right-wing nationalism, Israeli style, is racist to the core.

In the last few years, tens of thousands of people have fled to Israel to escape violence and poverty in Northeast Africa. Recent days in Israel have witnessed the rise of an overt racism directed towards these African migrants. Every nation has its racists, but Israel’s racism has usually been masked as a response to Palestinian terrorists. The country’s occupation and rule over another people gives rise to the usual kind of colonial arrogance and sense of superiority, which students of empire will recognize. Now, however, a new – but likely related – brand of racism finds its target in African migrants, many of them clustering in Tel Aviv.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led off the racist rhetoric a few weeks ago with warnings that there was a tide of Africans ready to sweep into Israel, and that, “illegal infiltrators [were] flooding the country.” He predicted that this flow could grow from the current 60,000 to 600,000, and would imperil Israel’s “existence as a Jewish and democratic state.” Clearly, there is no way of substantiating his hysteria-inducing contention, but Netanyahu took no degree in demography and, as far as I am aware, Israel’s security service, Mossad, has not taken up the study of migration. There are, to be sure, Africans, now resident in Israel, who arrived as refugee claimants from Sudan, Eritrea, and elsewhere. Some of them are probably would-be economic immigrants, rather than legitimate refugees. But the prime minister and his confreres are not interested in initiating a humane and rational discussion about the refugee issue.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai fanned the flames of the prime minister’s tinder. His rhetoric, in this manufactured crisis, has been over the top. He has called for all the migrants to be jailed before deportation so that Israelis can “walk the streets without fear or trepidation.” Thus, this minister with easy access to crime statistics fingered the African migrants as a major source of crime. Police statistics in fact show that the rate of arrest among foreigners in Israel is far below that of Israel’s citizenry, but Yishai brushed this off by claiming that victims of rape by African men were afraid to report such crimes because they might be tainted and presumed disease carriers due to the contact. In a recent interview, Yishai declared that the migrants do not recognize that “Israel belongs to the white man.”

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Given that this level of discourse is emanating from the highest political ranks, it is not surprising that it has had such wide-reaching effects. On May 23, three well-known members of the Knesset addressed a mob of hundreds of Israelis in South Tel Aviv. One of them, the former spokesperson for the Israeli military, referred to the Sudanese as “a cancer in our body.” Another referred to them as a “plague.” Following such exhortations, “the crowd proceeded to smash windows and loot stores; they beat up Sudanese people they encountered … and chased activists and journalists.”

Although the prime minister dutifully denounced such excesses, these obscene race baiters still sit in his cabinet and his caucus. Can you imagine if a Canadian prime minister had to respond to such racist or anti-Semitic provocations and allowed the perpetrators to retain their positions? It would be incomprehensible and unpardonable. But such is the context of Israeli politics today.

On the same day that it was reported that unknown arsonists had set fire to an apartment occupied by 10 Eritrean migrants, the prime minister ordered accelerated deportations, and the Knesset passed an amendment to a previously enacted anti-infiltration law. The new amendment provides that all African migrants infiltrating into Israel can be held without trial for up to three years, and that anyone aiding them would be subject to severe penalties. Border fences are being finished, and prisons expanded, to deal with the hapless migrants.

Characterizing this new law as “mass imprisonment,” Israel’s liberal daily Haaretz called it “a cruel, benighted policy,” as “Israel is throwing the migrants in jail without giving any of them, and especially the refugees among them, a reasonable chance of gaining asylum.”

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Of course, any nation has the right to secure its borders. But Israel, of all nations, also has the moral responsibility to sort out and process legitimate refugee claimants. This it has not done. Since 2008, the Interior Ministry has only granted refugee status to 17 people. “It’s unacceptable,” according to professor Yuval Livnat of Tel Aviv University’s legal clinic, “that the rates of refugee recognition in most other countries are much higher. Is it possible that all the liars have arrived in Israel?”

American liberals were brought up to respect the words inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, which were penned by the American Jew Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The terrible stories of European Jews, often unsuccessfully seeking asylum before the Holocaust, are also part of that heritage that instilled in us a responsibility toward refugees of all colours and creeds. The gulf between liberal North American Jews and the nationalist right wing of Israel becomes wider every day.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.