Israel’s Other Silent War: State-sponsored Discrimination against African Migrants

African immigrants face harassment and deportation in Israel. (Photo: Tamar Dressler/IRIN/file)

By Belen Fernandez

A recent Jerusalem Post op-ed on “South Africa’s obsession with Israel” resurrects complaints regarding the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, which during its 2011 session in Cape Town concluded that “Israel’s rule over the Palestinian people, wherever they reside, collectively amounts to a single integrated regime of apartheid.”

The op-ed author reasons that, “[i]f… supporters of the tribunal were honestly concerned with the lives of Palestinians, why then was there not a single word mentioned about the abuse of Palestinians by Arab regimes such as Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Kuwait, who keep them stateless, refuse them access to higher education and do not allow them the vote?”

This critique conveniently ignores the fact that Palestinian statelessness is a direct result of the establishment of Israel, whose initial crime of ethnic cleansing granted Arab regimes the opportunity to engage in such abuses.

Furthermore, none of these regimes is portrayed by the US political class and media as a highly ethical democracy meriting multibillion-dollar annual donations.

As it turns out, South Africa’s alleged “obsession” with Israel extends beyond the treatment of Palestinians. In 2012, a resolution was passed “abhor[ring] the recent Israeli state-sponsored xenophobic attacks and deportation of Africans”.

One could argue that, because Africans are also treated like excrement in other places around the globe, Israel is being unfairly singled out for criticism.

However, this debate is generally averted thanks to the relative silence surrounding the plight of Africans in Israel.

Battling the ‘Cancer’

Among the diminutive ranks of the vocal minority is Israeli-Canadian journalist David Sheen, who reports relentlessly on the hazards to African existence in the Jewish state.

These range from verbal and physical abuse – including, for example, the pelting of African women and children with bottles, cassette players, and other impromptu projectiles and the firebombing of homes and daycares – to long-term incarceration in inhumane conditions without trial, to the mass secret forcible repatriation of Sudanese asylum seekers in violation of the UN convention on the status of refugees.

In a May blog post for +972 Magazine, Sheen marked the one-year anniversary of the “anti-African pogrom” in Tel Aviv, when “a thousand Jewish Israelis ran rampant through the streets… smashing and looting African-operated businesses and physically assaulting any dark-skinned person they came across.”

The rioters were encouraged by the likes of lawmaker Miri Regev, who announced that African migrants are “a cancer in the body” of the nation – terminology generally reserved for Palestinians.

As Sheen notes, Regev “apologized after the violence, not to African asylum seekers, but to Israeli cancer victims, for comparing them to Africans – [and] was appointed by [PM Benjamin] Netanyahu to head the Knesset Interior Committee, the very body that decides the fate of those asylum seekers”.

Sheen’s fundraising campaign to write a book on the plight of African refugees in Israel has been met with widespread vitriol, including from Amir Mizroch, editor-in-chief of Israel Hayom English.

In an email, Sheen shared his response to Mizroch’s allegation that writing a book about racism against Africans in Israel without also discussing racism against Africans in Arab countries constitutes racism against Israelis: “When I mocked his logic, asking him if it was necessary, in order to put the reports in their proper context, for me to also be locked up in an underground jail and tortured – sadly, the fate of many of these African refugees before they arrive in Israel – Mizroch tweeted: “now THAT I’d pay to see ;)”.

It’s worth reiterating that the mistreatment of Africans in non-Israeli locales often occurs in the countries from which they have fled and to which Israel has no qualms about illegally deporting them. Netanyahu has pledged to rid the country of its “tens of thousands of infiltrators” from Africa.

Monochrome Judaism

The deployment of the term “infiltrators” to denote Africans in general, who are caricaturised as animalistic criminals responsible for many of Israel’s ills, is disturbingly reminiscent of other historical periods involving the scapegoating of ethnic minorities.

Sheen remarks: “When Israel rounds up and deports African refugees, it makes a mockery of the millions of Jews who died during World War II because no one would grant them shelter.”

Deputy Defence Minister Danny Danon’s suggestion that the presence of Africans in Israel constitutes the establishment of “an enemy state of infiltrators” fails to account for the fact that the award for setting up adversarial countries on other people’s land goes to Israel itself.

Although the fundamental reason for restricting African access to Israel is to prevent a tipping of the demographic balance in favour of non-Jews, the circumstances facing Ethiopian Jewish immigrants indicate that religion only gets you so far. Lest the target national color scheme be irreparably disrupted as well, Israel has been known to forcibly inject Ethiopian females with contraceptives.

Other partial exceptions to the goal of monochrome Judaism do, however, exist. Sheen noted in May: “Since Israel took over responsibility for reviewing refugee status requests from UNHCR, out of the 60,000 non-Jewish African asylum seekers living in Israel, Israel has approved only one single solitary application. And that one African woman that the State of Israel… has deigned to bequeath refugee status upon – is an albino”.

As for the hyper-paranoid ruckus concerning the allegedly inherent criminality of Africans, such allegations don’t jibe with the statistics. As Sheen has documented, criminal behavior is more prevalent among “veteran Israelis” than asylum seekers, but, while instances in which Africans accused of raping Jews produce calls for the indiscriminate deportation of refugees, no such hysteria is generated when the rapist is Jewish.

The hypocrisy is rendered even more acute by Israel’s institutionalized rape culture, of which Sheen provides a few contemporary examples:

“The Jerusalem chief of police was indicted for sex crimes involving nine female officers. An Israeli mayor charged with ‘repeatedly raping a female subordinate over a lengthy period of time was given no jail time, and [was] instead invited to attend an event organized by the municipality marking ‘International Women’s Day’.”

A new video produced by Sheen and bestselling author Max Blumenthal features footage of Israeli defenders of African rights being serenaded by other members of the public with shouts like “May you be raped!”

‘Landscape of Denial’

Originally solicited and then rejected by the New York Times, the video also includes an interview with former Knesset member Michael Ben-Ari, who declares: “We are waging a war against the phenomenon of assimilation.”

Given such candidness with regards to politically incorrect designs, the international media’s complicity in censoring reality is no doubt partly to thank for the upkeep of Israel’s image.

So, obviously, is Israel’s PR machine, which as Sheen points out is “[w]ell-oiled from decades of distributing disinformation about Palestinians”, and thus in a position to magically convert the horrendous treatment of Africans into a narrative of incomparable magnanimity.

The perpetuation of this narrative entails the attempted silencing of persons like Sheen, subject not only to verbal intimidation but also physical harassment.

The fabrications upon which the state of Israel teeters are meanwhile explored in a new documentary by Israeli journalist Lia Tarachansky, On the Side of the Road, which tells the story “of those who fought to erase Palestine and created an Israeli landscape of denial”.

Parliamentarian David Rotem appears in Knesset footage in the film informing his detractors: “You want to convert this state into a state for all its citizens, and you will not succeed. We will stop you.”

So much for democracy.

Cast as existential threats to the Jewish state, Palestinians and Africans have served as targets for Israel’s Prevention of Infiltration Law, devised to thwart Palestinian homecoming, and updated in 2012 to provide for the instantaneous imprisonment without trial of Africans.

It seems, however, that a neurotic nation that depends upon the forgery of ubiquitous enemies to justify the wanton trampling of rights and dehumanizing subjugation of the “Other” might indeed be its own worst adversary.

After all, as Israeli historian Avi Shlaim has warned: “A history which is no longer credible serves neither to legitimate the State nor to inspire… its citizenry.”

– Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @MariaBelen_Fdez. (This article was originally published in Al Jazeera)

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1 Comment

  1. ” writing a book about racism against Africans in Israel without also discussing racism against Africans in Arab countries constitutes racism against Israelis”

    This fallacious reasoning is used in many arguments – it is similar to the line I hear frequently from the Christian Zionists who counter arguments about violence towards Palestinians by saying we are all capable of doing that. And even while that is an arguable statement, if indeed we are all capable of violence against others, that does not excuse it for those being accused.

    The same with this racism statement – charges of racism against someone cannot be excused just because others are not at that time similarly accused.

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