It is hard to put into words what I feel about the events in the South Tel Aviv suburb yesterday with the bitterly ironic name of Hatikvah. That said, putting things into words is what I do. So here goes.
I’ll begin with someone else’s words: Ha’aretz journalist Ilan Lior, who was actually there and watched the whole thing play out. Here is how he described it:
I have been a journalist for ten years. I’ve covered terror attacks, funerals, car accidents, and protests. I’ve seen fury, frustration, despair, and sadness in a variety of places and forms. But I’ve never seen such hatred as it was displayed on Wednesday night in the Hatikva neighborhood. If it weren’t for the police presence, it would have ended in lynching. I have no doubt. Perhaps a migrant worker would have been murdered, perhaps an asylum seeker, or maybe just a passerby in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Israel’s asylum seeker problem
I have written in the past on how Israel provides its African asylum seekers with a safe haven that is unmatched by any other country that side of Europe, but also that they still face difficulties. The situation that they find themselves in is depicted very well in this piece by Daniella Cheslow and I recommend clicking through and reading it, but in essence: Israel has no policy.
Tens of thousands of people have been fleeing for Israel over the past decade, primarily from Sudan and Eritrea. The horrors that they face at home and during the journey do not bear thinking about. Amongst other things, they are hunted for their ethnicity, quite literally shot on sight by Egyptian forces, and often abducted by Sinai Bedoins, held to ransom and then tortured to death when they can’t pay (African refugees do not tend to have a lot of money).
After weeks of travelling through harsh deserts, often on foot, they cross the border into Israel – where they are greeted by the Israeli border guards, given food and medical attention, taken to a detention centre in South Israel so that Israel can figure out who they are, and then given a one-way bus ticket to Tel Aviv.
That is the end of Israel’s plan for them. They arrive in Tel Aviv with absolutely nothing – no working visa, no knowledge of Hebrew, no friends, no family, no support network. There are now 60,000 of them – almost 1% of Israel’s entire population – and the Israeli government has had no policy at all to deal with the issue. For reasons outlined here by Shallya Scher-Ehrlich, this is in breach of international law.
What happens next is quite obvious: they serve the same functions as large groups of illegal migrants anywhere else. They work in below-minimum-wage jobs for people unscrupulous enough to employ them in these conditions, they live in crowded accommodation in the poorest neighbourhoods and, out of desperation and because criminal gangs are one group that do not exclude them for the colour of their skin, they often become involved in crime (although reports of them massively increasing crime rates are highly exaggerated).
The areas that they moved into were previously (and in some cases still are) the ones predominantly inhabited by Israel’s other marginalised groups – Jewish immigrants from Arab countries and from Ethiopia, or ‘Mizrachim‘. How the old residents have reacted was captured quite well in a profile by Ben Hartman on Sophie Menashe, a Mizrachi Jew who found herself to be the last Jew in a building now inhabited by African migrants:
Despite the descriptions of a gilded past, these neighborhoods were never upscale and had a persistent reputation for being crime-infested. However, the influx of Africans has added racial conflict to the already troubled social dynamic and has left many veteran residents feeling foreign and outnumbered. …
The apartment was once a source of pride for Menashe. …
Over the years, her neighbors grew older and died or moved out, and more and more foreigners moved in; first foreign workers, mainly from West Africa and East Asia, and over the past five or six years, East African migrants and asylum- seekers.
The sentiments that Menashe expressed toward the African migrants left little room for nuance: They carry AIDS and other diseases, are violent drunks and might be part of a plot hatched by the Jewish state’s enemies to flood Israel with African Muslims, creating a demographic threat to bring down the country from within.
Although such views would offend a wide swath of polite Israeli society, they come from a place of fear and frustration, and from long days spent cooped up in her apartment, afraid to step out into a world that has shifted beneath her feet – where Menashe now feels like a stranger.
These tensions have recently started coming to a head, and the government is finally reacting as a result – building a fence along the border to Egypt and building a massive detention centre to house the asylum seekers. In many ways, it seems as though they are taking a leaf out of Australia’s book.
Whatever your views on mandatory detention, one particular leaf that Israel has now taken is unambiguously disgusting, hateful and unjustifiable. That “leaf” is the 2005 Cronulla riots, which in many ways were mirrored by yesterday’s events in Tel Aviv.
I began the post with Ilan Lior’s eyewitness report of the incident and another, by Hagai Matar, can be read here. The worst part is undoubtedly the fact that the crowd was fuelled mostly by Members of the Knesset.
Hatikvah was a riot
Let’s be clear though, while some of these were government MKs, the protest was against the government’s policy. The protesters and the speakers were complaining that the government has not been harsh enough on the refugees. What the parliamentarians said, however, was disgraceful. Lior quotes Michael Ben-Ari, a Kahannist, saying, “there are rapists and harassers here. The time for talk is over.”
Wore still was the quote from Likkud MK Miri Regev, which I feel the need to emphasise in bold:
“The Sudanese are a cancer in our body. All the left-wingers that filed petitions in the Supreme court should be embarrassed – they stopped the expulsion.”
As a few have pointed out, this is precisely the kind of abhorrent, racist rhetoric that Iranian leaders use to refer to Israel and Jews, rightly drawing condemnation from most of the world.
Even worse, it is the kind of language that Sudanese President Omar Bashir uses when he’s busy inciting genocide against the black Africans in his Arab-ruled country. This is precisely what these people fled in the first instance, hoping for a haven in Israel, yet they are met with the same revulsion. It’s sickening.
Even this was not quite the evening’s the low point.
Ben-Ari, Regev and Major Karnage favourite Danny Danon managed to rile the crowd enough that they transformed into a mob and began attacking the journalists mentioned above for being “traitors” and allegedly “throwing rocks at checkpoints” (which, needless to say, both of them deny ever doing).
The mob started chanting “Sudanese to Sudan!” and making their way towards the largely African neighbourhoods. What ensued was beyond harrowing. The mob went around South Tel Aviv, smashing the windows of African-owned businesses, looting African-run shops and attacking passers-by who happened to be black.
I cannot think of any epithets that even approach how repulsive this is. Jews Sans Frontiers, a group with whom I do not often agree, compared it — not unjustifiably — to Kristallnacht. Watching some of the footage, this is exactly what comes to mind:
Danon’s response? Well, he figured that he’d pen an op-ed. This was published in the Jerusalem Post the morning after the riot:
We are at a critical crossroads with a strategic demographic threat developing within our borders that may upend our country’s very character as a Jewish and democratic state. It is nonsensical that such large numbers of illegal infiltrators from Africa are settling permanently in our country and so little is being done to rectify this problem. This is especially highlighted when taking into account that the crime rate among the infiltrators is almost double the rate of that in the general population. The desperately necessary solution is a three-pronged program to end this dangerous phenomenon: stop, arrest and deport.
A threat to Israel’s “character as a Jewish and democratic state”.
The rhetoric that Danon was supporting and that pogrom he incited is exactly the sort of persecution that Israel was created to prevent. The Zionist dream was formed when Jews had to regularly endure this kind of treatment and longed for a place where they would be away from it, where they would be able to live without fear — not a place to import the violent prejudice that plagued the countries from which they fled.
The concept of a “Jewish state” may be difficult to define, but it was definitely not meant in the same way that the Nazis spoke of a “German state”. Whatever some anti-Zionists may choose to believe, Israel was never intended to be a land “cleansed” of non-Jews. It is supposed to be a homeland for the Jewish people, that to some extent embodies Jewish values.
This riot was about as far from Jewish values as anyone can possibly stray. Where is the “light unto the nations” now? Who is “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you?”
It is not the African migrants that are eroding Israel’s Jewish character, it is Danon, Regev and Ben-Ari. They are the cancer that is eating away at Israeli society, propagating this vile racism — not to mention trying to unravel the Constitutional basis for Israel’s democracy.
If there is some hope left to find in Hatikvah, it is in the fact that these MKs did manage to unite the Jewish people — against them. Jewish organisations around the world condemned what happened. Similar for everyone in Israel beyond a handful of extremists.
Even someone like Neil Lazarus — who has literally made his career out of defending everything Israel does — has come out strongly against Israeli racism as a result.
Moreover, the critical voices include members of the Government who are much more important than Danon:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commented on Wednesday’s violent protests in southern Tel Aviv and made it clear that “there is no room for the actions and expressions witnessed (in Tel Aviv). I’m saying these things to the general population and the residents of southern Tel Aviv, whose pain I understand.”
[Knesset Speaker Reuben Rivlin said that t]he people “may demonstrate and protest and demand the government formulate a solution, but there should be no incitement – and it is forbidden to use the same tactics anti-Semites used against us [in the Exile].”
“We suffered greatly from incitement and harassment,” Rivlin said. “We must be committed to sensitivity and finding just solutions. The main problem is not the infiltrators and refugees, but the lack of a clear policy from the government of Israel.”
It is important to maintain perspective. As Michael Koplow pointed out, there were only about 1,000 people who attended the rally, and fewer still who actually rioted.
Also, while I did use the word “pogrom”, this is not like the state-sanctioned pogroms that the Jews of Eastern Europe were subjected to. Happily, no one was killed or seriously injured on the night – thanks in no small part to the heroic actions of the Israeli police. Israeli society has overwhelmingly condemned what went on and it has been made clear by the Prime Minister and the President that this kind of thing has no place in Israel.
In that spirit, I strongly believe that the Members of Knesset who were involved in the affair should be forced to resign. What they said and did is absolutely unacceptable and their parties should not countenance that behaviour.
Also, I will be donating money to the African Refugee Development Centre in Tel Aviv, I suggest that you do the same.
I will leave you with some words from Adam Ibrahim, a leader of Israel’s African migrant community:
If you don’t want us here, don’t turn your rage at us, because we have no choice. I have nowhere to go. I just want to live in safety. I agree to be deported to any African country, other than Sudan. I just want to live with dignity, without people talking about the color of my skin, and I want to stop feeling hostility on the streets.
It is important for me to say that we are not a burden on society. We work for less than minimum wage in jobs that Israelis wouldn’t want to do themselves anyway. We pay rent, and make do with organizations that we established ourselves. It is hard for me to hear Eli Yishai’s statements in the media. Their impact on Israelis is tremendous, since in Israel everyone listens to the news.
The state is spreading negative propaganda against us – they say it is unsafe here because of us. I feel that the Jews are doing to us the exact same thing the Germans did to them. Don’t talk nonsense – we are in the 21st century. Don’t talk about skin color, don’t talk about slaves and don’t say that I stink. We want to see a real democracy – not only words.
I know that I will never have equal rights here. I just want to receive the few rights that I do deserve as a refugee.