Black Migrants in White Israel


by BAR editor and columnist Jemima Pierre

The race riots in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem pointed up the virulently anti-Black nature of Israeli prejudice. Carrying sticks and stones, the crowds shouted “Blacks Out!” and “Infiltrators get out of our homes.” A veteran reporter said only a strong police presence prevented lynchings. Some of the hate speech sounded quite “American” – such as the Interior Minister’s statement that Israel belongs to “the white man.”


Black Migrants in White Israel

by BAR editor and columnist Jemima Pierre

Male and female protesters variously shouted: ‘A Sudanese man will rape you in the ass;’ ‘May your daughter be raped.’”

In the early morning hours of April 27, 2012 a spate of racist violence began against African asylum seekers in Israel. Witnesses in Tel Aviv described a coordinated progrom (see photostream here). Using Molotov cocktails, attackers firebombed four apartments – one of which housed a mother and her four children – and a kindergarten.

The attacks were followed by several anti-African rallies and even more attacks. On May 23rd, a rally in Tel Aviv of about 1000 people quickly turned into a mob rampage through areas populated by Africans. Carrying sticks and stones, the crowds shouted “Blacks Out!” and “Infiltrators get out of our homes.” In one video of the protests, an Israeli woman proudly wears a “Death to Sudanese” t-shirt. An 11th grader whose father is from Eritrea and mother from Ethiopia, expressed shock at seeing these same words graffitied on store windows. “The last thing you’d expect,” she said, “is that it would happen at the hands of someone who went through it himself, in Europe.” And just two days ago, on June 4, arsonists set fire to an apartment building housing Eritrean refuges – this time in Jerusalem. Ten people were trapped inside and four sustained injuries from smoke and burns. Graffiti found at the scene read “leave the neighborhood.”

Hareetz journalist, Ilan Lior, described his narrow escape from one of these protests in these words:

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.”

Indeed “lynching” is a significant description of the brute verbal force of mobs, violence, and coordinated attacks aimed at the vulnerable African population. It also points to the specificity of anti-Black racism in Israel, for even Ethiopian-Israeli Jews are caught up in the dragnet. And while anti-Black racism is not new to Israel, its current iteration is especially vitriolic.

If it weren’t for the police presence, it would have ended in lynching. I have no doubt.”

In this many have accused prominent Israeli officials for legitimizing and inciting this racist rage against African asylum seekers. The most vocal of these have been the Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, who consistently argue that the country must solve the “problem of the infiltrators.” He has, like many protesters, accused African asylum seekers of spreading disease and raping Israeli women. In fact, the May 23rd rally in Tel Aviv was addressed by several leading Israeli politicians, many from the ruling Likud party headed by Benjamin Netanyahu. Likud Member of Parliament, Miri Regev, told the crowd that “The infiltrators are a cancer in our body. The infiltrators must be expelled from Israel! Expulsion now!” In addition, parliamentarian Ben-Ari (who used to be a member of the Meir Kahane Movement, which was banned in Isreal and placed on the US State Department’s Terror List) demanded that all “African infiltrators” be deported. Meanwhile, Knesset member Aryeh Eldad of the National Union said, “anyone that penetrates Israel’s border should be shot.”

Isreali Prime Minister Netanyahu has argued that Africans threaten “the social fabric of society” and the “Jewish and democratic character of the country.” While claiming to denounce the recent anti-African violence, his official response was to order the swift deportation of 25,000 African asylum seekers, as well as the acceleration of the building of a large detention facility, and a border fence between Israel and Egypt. Moreover, a new law went into effect a few days ago that allows the Israeli government to hold African asylum seekers – including women and children – for up to 3 years without charge.

Likud Member of Parliament, Miri Regev, told the crowd that ‘The infiltrators are a cancer in our body.’”

African asylum seekers in Israel number between 50,000 and 60,000, most of them from Sudan and Eritrea. While this makes them less than 1% of Israel’s total population, their status as “illegal” as well as their Blackness has triggered backlash. Many of the protesters – and politicians – also blamed Africans for benefitting from Israeli social services, or for taking away opportunities from Jews, especially the working class communities in south Tel Aviv. It is important to note, however, that because Israel refuses to grant asylum status, the majority of African refugees are not allowed to work, and hundreds find themselves in political and economic limbo, and often homeless. This is significant for Israel, itself a nation of refugees. It supported the founding of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, becoming a signatory to the Convention in 1954, and actively participated in the development of the international refugee system. Yet UNHCR reported that during the year 2011 Israel approved only 1 out of 4,603 asylum applications. In addition, a recent US human rights report castigated the Israeli government for negatively referring to “asylum seekers as 'infiltrators' and periodically characteriz[ing] asylum seekers as directly associated with rises in crime, disease, and terrorism."
 Even the Anti-Defamation League has cautioned that some of the “inflammatory public statements made by certain Israeli officials,” have “veered into racism.”

To be sure, many Israelis have spoken out against this physical and verbal attack against Africans. But it seems that many of these voices are getting increasingly drowned out, while others have been attacked. In fact, we can get a better sense of the vitriolic nature of anti-Blackness by seeing the responses of Israelis to other Israelis who protest against anti-African violence. For example, in this video shot right after an Anti-African rally, a lone Israeli woman who disagreed with the racism and xenophobia of the protestors is brusquely insulted and threatened by the crowd. In front of children, male and female protesters variously shouted: A Sudanese man will rape you in the ass;” “May your daughter be raped;” “May your mother be raped;” “She wants some nigger dick.” Similarly, Israeli human rights organizations assisting migrants have received threats of arson and rape.

During the year 2011 Israel approved only 1 out of 4,603 asylum applications.”

Those who defend the anti-African progroms or the Isreali government’s increasing verbal and draconian legal attacks on this vulnerable population often assert that immigration is a global phenomenon, and that Isreal is acting in similar ways to other western states. And it is true that European and US immigration have their own racist variants. However, as Hareetz journalist Gideon Levy asserts, the best way to understand how this anti-Africanness is also about a claim to whiteness is to look at Israeli government’s handling of Russian asylum seekers: “Israel had absorbed one million immigrants from Russia. Half of them were not Jewish. But they were white.”

Thus, as we see the marshaling of the typical anti-Black stereotypes of hypersexuality, criminality, and disease, we also see the implicit and explicit claims that the weight of Jewish identity lies in a presumed white racial superiority – and purity. As Eli Yishai recently told reporters: “This country belongs to us, to the white man.”

Black people in Israel, along with Palestinians, know only too well what that means.

Jemima Pierre can be reached at [email protected].