Ellie Yishai's Zionist-Religious War on African Asylum Seekers
|Interior Racist Interior Minister Eli Yishai|
Integral to the Zionist dream is the idea of an ethnically pure Jewish state. Its attitudes to African immigrants are no different to those of Palestinians and in fact the ‘infiltration’ laws designed to keep Palestinian refugees from returning are now being used against asylum seekers except that new laws are being introduced under the Emergency Powers that Israel inherited from Britain (which when they were used against them were termed ‘Nazi’ laws by Israel’s Minister of Justice Pinhas Rosenbluth.
African migrants in south Tel Aviv's Levinski Part. Photo by Daniel Tchetchik
But even in the worst European country for racism - Lithuania, Croatia or the Ukraine – suggesting Black people were less than human, by the country’s Interior Minister no less, would at least raise questions if not lead to the dismissal of the said Minister. In Israel such sentiments are normal and accepted as part of the national sentiment.
Israel is now setting a new trend in the pogroms that have been taking place in Tel Aviv, Israel’s so-called liberal city.
Whilst Britain rejects a majority of asylum requests, in Israel it accepts virtually none – one last year according to the US State Department, hardly an anti-Zionist body.
It is little wonder that the British National Party has been so effusive in its support of Eli Yeshai's remarks. See
Until now, migrants caught by IDF have been transferred to the Saharonim detention facility in the south; Interior Minister says migrants do not recognize that Israel 'belongs to the white man.'By Dana Weiler-Polak | Jun.03, 2012
A law granting Israeli authorities the power to detain illegal migrants for up to three years came into effect on Sunday, in the wake of widening public controversy over the influx of African migrants who cross into Israel along its border with Egypt.
The law makes illegal migrants and asylum seekers liable to jail, without trial or deportation, if caught staying in Israel for long periods. In addition, anyone helping migrants or providing them with shelter could face prison sentences of between five and 15 years.
The law amended the Prevention of Infiltration Law of 1954, passed to prevent the entry of Palestinians as part of emergency legislation. The law is expanded to address migrant workers or asylum seekers who enter Israel without posing a threat to Israel's security.
According to the law, migrant workers already here could be jailed for the most minor offense such as spraying graffiti or stealing a bicycle - infractions for which they would not have been detained before.
So far, all migrants who have been caught by the Israel Defense Forces on the Israel-Egypt border have been transferred to the Saharonim detention facility which holds 2,000 spaces.
The facility is currently being expanded to 5,400. The Interior Ministry has reported that they are implementing the amendment and will fill up Saharonim, where they will be held until the ministry "finds other solutions."
According to the Interior Ministry, the Saharonim detention center will run out of space within a month.
All those detained go through an identification process and a medical examination. Those who file for asylum receive a temporary visa to remain in Israel. Sudanese and Eritreans, however, are not allowed to file for asylum, although they are automatically eligible for temporary shelter and a one-way ticket to Tel Aviv. Some migrants continue independently to Arad or Eilat where they often have acquaintances.
According to the ministry, up to 60,000 African migrant currently live in Israel, with 2,031 entering in the month of May alone.
Human rights organizations see the amendment as a harsh step which contradicts the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (CRSR). According to the Hotline for Migrant Workers, the law was "born in sin" and is a "dark moment for Israel."
"Instead of acting like all civilized countries and verifying requests for asylum and granting refugee status to those who are eligible, which Israel is obligated to do under the UN convention, the state sees mass imprisonment of thousands of people, women and children, whose only offense was seeking escape from murderous regimes, as a solution to the problem. This solution will not solve a thing as it is neither humane nor effective.
In a statement, the Israel Prison Services said that it was ready to "take in as many illegal residents as come to its facilities, with the required detainment authority and according to time of detention."
"For this purpose, several wards outside Saharonim have been converted, and we will prepare according to need," the statement added.
Meanwhile on Sunday, Israeli daily Maariv published an interview with Interior Minister Eli Yishai, in which he stated that most of the "Muslims that arrive here do not even believe that this country belongs to us, to the white man."
"I will continue the struggle until the end of my term, with no compramises," Yishai continued, stating that he would use "all the tools to expel the foreigners, until not one infiltrator remains."
A week ago, on the night of Wednesday 23rd May, 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:
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 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.’
‘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:
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.‘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.’
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.
Robert Kazandjian is a London-based freelance journalist and researcher. He has previously been published by The Independent and The Guardian, and writes on class, gender, race and international affairs. He's on Twitter at @RKazandjian.
Ali Hocine Dimerdji
Ali Hocine Dimerdji is a French Studies PhD student at the University of Nottingham, and an Algerian citizen who has lived both in Algeria and Lebanon. Follow him on Twitter @hocinedim.
Samantha Asumadu is a British film director, producer and journalist. She has worked mainly in the Great Lakes region of Africa doing news features and documentaries, and also campaigns on democracy and safety issues. She's on Twitter @honestlyAbroad.
Report states that 3,692 asylum requests were rejected and an additional 6,412 remained pending at year’s end.
Quoting figures compiled by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the report states that 3,692 asylum requests were rejected and an additional 6,412 remained pending at year’s end.
Compiled by the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, the Israel/Palestine country report on Human Rights Practices for 2011 mentions controversy over the terminology used to refer to African migrants, mentioning how government officials routinely refer to asylum-seekers as “infiltrators” and quoting statements made by Interior Minister Eli Yishai, including one made to Army Radio last December in which he vowed to safeguard Israel as a Jewish state and deport “all of the infiltrators to their countries.”
That said, the report does credit the government for having “provided some protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom could be threatened,” in particular the suspension in March 2011 of “hot returns” of African migrants caught crossing the border into Israel from Egypt.
The report also mentions that while those recognized as refugees receive renewable work visas, most asylumseekers receive documents that don’t allow them to work legally, although the government allows them to work by not enforcing employment laws.