Thursday, May 23, 2013, marked exactly one year to the day when a thousand Jewish Israelis ran rampant through the streets of Tel Aviv, smashing and looting African-operated businesses and physically assaulting any dark-skinned person they came across. Sadly, the Israeli economic, political and religious establishment – who were in large measure responsible for the pogrom – did not respond by working to quash the racism, but rather ramped up their efforts to expel all non-Jewish African people from the country.” David Sheen
The article below was originally published in Ceasefire Magazine last year. @Ceasefire_Mag is a quarterly cultural and political publication, concerned with producing high-quality journalism, review and analysis.
A mob sets fire to garbage while singing “The people want the Africans to be burned” after a protest against African refugees and asylum seekers in Tel Aviv’s southern Hatikva neighborhood on May 23, 2012. (Photo: Activestills)
On the night of Wednesday 23rd May 2012, South Tel Aviv erupted, becoming the epicentre of an attack by an angry, violent mob against members of the city’s African migrant population, deliberately targeted because of no other reason than their ethnicity.
African-owned businesses and homes were destroyed and looted. There were no fatalities but many were injured. Social media was alive with images and information regarding the attacks, pointing out the absolute apathy, even complicity, of the authorities.
This attack on the African minority in Tel Aviv is not an isolated event. Wednesday night’s violence was the culmination of a series of racist attacks, including the firebombing of homes and a kindergarten in south Tel Aviv neighbourhoods. In fact, these attacks illustrate the prevalent high level of racial tension within the city and in Israel as a whole.
One cannot fully understand the events of Wednesday without an understanding of the various contexts at play, historical, political and ideological. Steven Salaita writes in The Electronic Intifada that Zionism is ‘an ideology that can accommodate liberal and humanistic discourses, (but) cannot be practised without a concomitant abrogation of the rights of those who are not Jewish.’
Zionism, in other words, dictates racial and religious supremacy. Israel, a state built on ethnically cleansed land, thus operates under the veil of a democracy in which the Jewish population is the exclusive beneficiary of the democratic process.
However, Israel’s Jewish population is itself stratified within an ethnic hierarchy, where the prosperous Ashkenazi (white Jews of European descent) dominate the economy, media and politics. In comparison, the Mizrahi and Sephardi (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) suffer socio-economic hardship.
Ethnic and religious minorities are uniformly oppressed, from Palestinian Muslims and Christians to African migrants. The disparity is well-documented. Human Rights Watch states that in Israel’s segregated school system ‘Palestinian Arab children get an education inferior to that of Jewish children, and their relatively poor performance in school reflects this.’
Discrimination continues into higher education, employment, healthcare and housing. If we consider the core principle of Zionism, the construction of a Jewish homeland in order to preserve Jewish identity and ensure Jewish security, this oppression is inevitable. However, it is the treatment of black Jews that reveals most about the racism ingrained in Israeli society.
Hanan Chehata writes, in the Race and Class journal, that ‘the Falasha, Ethiopian Jews … brought to Israel in mass transfer operations, have found themselves relegated to an underclass.’ Chehata argues that black Jews are not only racially discriminated against but are also used to bolster the populations of illegal settlements.
In 2010, the Israel lobby group FLAME (Facts and Logic About the Middle East) ran an advertisement in Jewish American newspapers in an attempt to refute claims that Israel is an apartheid state. The advertisement argued that ‘Israel has brought in about 70,000 black Ethiopian Jews, who despite their backwardness have become fully integrated citizens of Israel.’ The advertisement perpetuates the image of the uncivilised savage; we might expect to find such language in nineteenth century European colonial texts.
Jonathan Cook wrote an extensive piece for The National, an English language newspaper, published daily in Abu Dhabi, that examines Israel’s treatment of Ethiopians. Cook writes that ‘Health officials in Israel are subjecting many female Ethiopian immigrants to a controversial long-term birth control drug.’ He further states that ’57 per cent of Depo Provera users in Israel are Ethiopian, even though the community accounts for less than two per cent of the total population.’
The drug has a wide range of damaging side effects and was used by the South African apartheid government to limit the fertility of black women. Yali Hashash, a researcher at Haifa University said similar practices were used against Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews in the 1950s and 1960s because ‘Israel’s leading gynaecologists regarded Arab Jews as ‘primitive’ and incapable of acting ‘responsibly’.’ The evidence is difficult to refute and presents a compelling conclusion: the preservation of Jewish identity in the eyes of the state appears only to encompass white Europeans.
Although oppression takes on many guises, the language of oppression is universal. From the top down, prominent Israeli parliamentarians have fanned the flames of racial hatred and undoubtedly incited violence. In a cabinet meeting last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described African migrants in Israel as ‘illegal infiltrators flooding the country … threatening our existence as a Jewish and democratic state … our national security and our national identity.’
A familiar tune: in 1915, the CUP described the Armenian minority in Ottoman Turkey as a threat to Turkish security and identity. The Ottomans’ chief propagandist, Ziya Gokalp, insisted Turkey could only be revitalised if it rid itself of its non-Muslim minorities, arguing that Armenians were ‘a foreign body in the national Turkish state.’ A few years later, Nazi propagandists Goebbels and Rosenberg propounded the central notion that Germany needed to be Judenfrei (free of Jewish presence) in order to revitalise itself. In both instances, these fabrications created the cultural space for racial hatred and were the pretext for genocide.
Indeed, the Israeli interior minister Eli Yishai has played a vocal role in the vitriolic rhetoric. On Wednesday May 16th, he warned, in an interview on Israeli Army Radio, that the majority of African migrants in Israel are “criminals” and must be detained, stating:
‘I would do something harsh, but simple, put all of them, without exception, in prisons or detention centres, or divide them up and put the ones who don’t commit crimes in detention centres.’
In an attempt to sugar coat his racism, Yishai invoked a distinction between “asylum seekers” and “genuine refugees”, arguing that only an extremely small number of African migrants are genuine refugees. He also tried to temper his original claim by further adding:
‘I believe that most of them don’t (engage in criminal activity), but perhaps I’ll be criticized for that too, and the ones who commit even the smallest crime: to jail. From there, they will get a departing grant, or a deportation grant, call it whatever you want, and sent back to the countries they came from. We are losing the country. These incidents everyone is talking about now, I heard about them three years ago when I toured south Tel Aviv.’
In the same interview, Yishai warned that ‘the migrants are giving birth to hundreds of thousands, and the Zionist dream is dying.’ As mentioned earlier, the Israeli state appears to be taking direct action to preserve the ‘Zionist dream’ that Yishai refers to.
This was not the first time Yishai publicly aired anti-African racist sentiments. Speaking at a conference in Ramle on April 15, 2012, he reiterated his belief that African migrants should refrain from having children. He recounted the story of a disabled Jewish Israeli woman who employed an African migrant caregiver. According to Yishai, ‘The (disabled Israeli) woman had a foreign worker taking care of her, that foreign worker got pregnant.’
Indeed, the African woman did become pregnant and requested maternity leave. Yishai found her request, and the subsequent ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court that affirmed it, scandalous. In response, he said ‘[He] would have ordered her to be sent back to her country of origin,’ arguing that:
‘Foreign workers may enter the country… But if a woman decides to stay here, build a home here, and get pregnant here – that was not our intention. Therefore if she decides to get pregnant, I feel that it’s only right for her to return to her country of origin.’
If it is not the state’s intention for foreign migrants to assimilate themselves into the very fabric of Israeli society then we can only assume their sole collective purpose is to be exploited, to have their labour power extracted before being removed.
In a democratic system, the words of politicians are expected to influence our own actions and attitudes. The racist mistruths and scaremongering perpetuated by Israel’s high-ranking parliamentarians have undoubtedly ignited anger and hate towards the African migrant community, inciting the pogrom in south Tel Aviv.
Wednesday night’s violence followed an angry protest-rally, during which high-ranking members of the ruling Likud party delivered racist, vitriolic speeches. MK Miri Regev, echoing pre-genocidal rhetoric, described African migrants as ‘a cancer in our body’, blaming ‘leftists’ for the fact that the government has not pursued a policy of mass expulsion. MK Danny Dannon, also spoke and later posted on Facebook that ‘Israel is at war. An enemy state of infiltrators was established in Israel, and its capital is south Tel Aviv’, referring to African migrants, a significant proportion of whom live in the district.
Upon the conclusion of the rally, a mob of an estimated 1000 Israelis approached the African migrant neighbourhood in south Tel Aviv. Police halted the mob’s progress, stopping them from crossing a bridge that leads into the heart of the residential area and arguably avoiding a massacre.
The mob proceeded to rampage through the Hatikva neighbourhood, attacking African men and women they encountered. An Eritrean woman was assaulted with bottles on Hanoch Street. The baby she was carrying dropped to the floor. A Sudanese man was set upon as he sat in his car and the windows were shattered.
The mob chanted slogans like ‘The people want the Sudanese deported’ and ‘Infiltrators get out of our homes’ as they careered through the streets. The violent rampage continued for several hours through the night, resulting in a surprisingly low amount of arrests, between 11 and 17 depending on sources.
+972 Magazine, an independent, non-profit publication generally regarded as representing leftwing, progressive views did publish eyewitness accounts of the pogrom. However, they also published a vitriolic piece written by Larry Derfner that tows the Likud party line, contributing to the hatred and violence towards African migrants. In his piece, Derfner, who identifies himself as ‘an ultra liberal Zionist’, wrote:
‘…with at least 60,000 here and 2,000 to 3,000 more arriving monthly, all of them crowding into a few neighbourhoods of poor, conservative, frightened Jews, they are a threat to the fabric of this society. Given their numbers, there’s a limit to how much compassion Israel can show them. At this point, we have to worry about our own first.’
Derfner’s comments validate the argument that while Zionism can accommodate liberal and humanistic discourses, it cannot be practised without the abuse and disregard of the rights of those who are not Jewish.
In the aftermath of the rampage, Danny Dannon, speaking to Haaretz, called for the forced expulsion of African migrants from population centres in Israel. He also demanded the acceleration of the building of detention centres where African migrants would be held, stating:
‘the infiltrators must be distanced immediately, … We must expedite the construction of temporary detention facilities and remove Africans from population centres.’
The Israeli media have been quick to emphasise that impoverished, working class Mizrahi Jews have carried out the attacks on African migrant communities. This reinforces the ethnic hierarchy and creates a space in which the Israeli authorities can deflect responsibility for both the violence and the conditions in which the Mizrahi subsist.
Predictably, the old colonial tactic of divide and rule is all too evident here. The ruling class are the cause of the hardship that the Mizrahi and Sephardi suffer. Through rhetoric and vitriol they are able to redirect anger toward African migrant communities who are victims of greater oppression themselves.
If the Israeli authorities continue to downplay and ignore what happened in Tel Aviv last week, there will undoubtedly be a repeat. If the men and women who govern Israel continue to fuel the fires of racial hatred, the severity of the violence will increase and the scale will spread.
A tiny minority of Jewish anti-racism activists have issued passionate appeals to Jews around the world, pleading with them to urge Israel to accept its African asylum seekers. They couch their calls for mercy in the softest language possible, fearful of offending community leaders, who have near-zero tolerance for any criticism of Israel’s actions, no matter how immoral. And yet their cries fall on deaf ears. A whole year after Israel’s anti-African pogrom, big-box American Jewry maintains total silence over Israel’s persecution of African asylum seekers.
And so the persecution continues unabated.” David Sheen
David Sheen is a writer and filmmaker born in Canada and based in Israel. His website is David Sheen and he tweets at @davidsheen.
- Bigotry in Israel: Ethiopian Jews & African Refugees (muftah.org)
- What Next for Israel’s African Migrants? (thejerusalemreview.com)