Yesterday Tel Aviv rioters, incited by leading MKs in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition, attacked Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers and refugees from famine and genocide. The violence followed a rally of 1,000 Tel Aviv residents chanting hate slogans and calling for detention and deportation. Seventeen rioters were arrested after attacking with clubs and pepper spray women holding babies, businesses that service Africans, and even cars with African drivers. A journalist was spirited away under police protection after residents chased him down. How quickly Israeli Jews forgot.
It seems many Israelis have forgotten. Israel is supposedly the “center” of Jewish life, to where Diaspora leaders point as the place where knowledge of Jewish historical persecution is part of the public’s awareness. The UN’s covenant on refugee asylum was one of Israel’s first contributions to the international community: the country’s first government championed, campaigned and signed the voluntary law. Just like the Israelites enshrined the lessons of slavery in the Torah, early Israelis enshrined the lessons of the Holocaust in international law. Both are Jewish contributions to global morality.
It thus seems inconceivable that the home of last summer’s sweeping social protests would be home to crowds burning refuse, singing “The people want the Africans to be burned.” This is the same haven hailed as the most gay-friendly city in the world. Which Israel is the real one?
There are approximately 60,000 asylum seekers in Israel, an estimated 85% of whom are from Eritrea and the Sudan. Israel lacks a clear policy: immigration is closed to non-Jews, leaving the debate over how temporary is temporary asylum: zero to short. The lack of policy means that under varying regimes, Africans fleeing through Egypt are either shot at the border, driven back into Egypt, placed in prison, or just dropped off in Tel Aviv. Refugees lack permanent status and work permits, leading to a belief that they breed crime, which is refuted by official statistics and police declarations. Maya Paley, a New Israel Fund Social Justice Fellow placed with asylum rights NGOs, reports in the LA Jewish Journal,
There have been numerous claims that the asylum seekers are raping and burglarizing the Israelis, but the statistics of the police department prove otherwise. The crime rates among the African asylum seekers are much lower than that of the general Israeli population. While I do not excuse or condone any crime whatsoever, I do believe that it is unacceptable to exaggerate and make erroneous claims about an entire population of people.
At the rally, Likud MK Miri Regev called Africans a “cancer in our body,” while Likud MK Danny Danon declared on Facebook that “Israel is at war.” National Union MK Michael Ben Ari and Kadim MK Ronit Tirosh also invoked immediate expulsion. Tel Aviv city counselors spoke at the rally and the city’s mayor was joined by calls for expulsion by the mayors of Ashkelon, Eilat and three others.
It is telling that even while Yair Lapid, a new political figure opposed to the right-wing, decried the incitement, he too blamed human rights defenders with his anti-African sentiment: “I support the arrest and deportation of infiltrators, the completion of the [border] fence and preventing their entry into Israel, and I think that human rights organizations should think about the rights of the neighborhood residents first, because charity begins at home.”
I know that not all Israelis have completely forgotten. Some residents escorted African children home to safety. The Israelis who founded and staff the eight Israeli NGOs that comprise the Refugees Rights Center, such as the Hotline for Migrant Workers, the African Refugee Development Center, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and others under the support of New Israel Fund haven’t forgotten.
Likud Knesset Speaker Ruby Rivlin, Police Minister Aharonovitz and Prime Minister Netanyahu offered more measured chastisements. Rivlin immediately denounced the violence, “It’s OK to protest and demand a solution from the government but once [sic] cannot be dragged into incitement and use words the anti-Semites use against us.”
In the Tel Aviv offices of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, a Birthright-Taglit tour organized by New Israel Fund and the Union of Progressive Zionists (now J Street U), met with those Israelis to learn about the condition of asylum seekers in Israel. Together, all 40 of us walked the few trash-strewn blocks to a Sudanese refugee shelter. I can understand the sense of physical intimidation when our gaggle of Americans and Israelis, average height 5 feet, met the few dozen Sudanese men, average height seven feet. But any fears quickly bled away as their shy spokesman told the stories of the survivors in the shelter lying mattress-to-mattress on the floor. Their belongings were small piles of clothes and the bathrooms offered the center’s only privacy.
“Why aren’t there more women in this shelter? Do they sleep elsewhere?” asked a participant. An awkward silence passed before our host could answer with eerie matter-of-fact, “They don’t survive the walk.”
P.S. Half the links in this post are thanks to the excellent first-hand reportage of the crew at +972 Mag and the slideshow is also their crew through Activestills. Kol hakavod on empowering independent journalism and ground floor activism.