Being black is their only crime
Thousands of Israelis are attempting to stop the deportation of African refugees, reports Tony Greenstein
Although Israel was an early signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it has never welcomed refugees who are not Jewish. It has admitted in total about 200 such refugees since its foundation,1 the most publicised incident being Menachem Begin’s acceptance of 66 Vietnamese in 1977, who had been rescued by an Israeli ship.
In 2007, prime minister Ehud Olmert granted temporary residence permits to 498 Sudanese asylum-seekers.2 However they were not given the right to reside and, as the number of African migrants increased to over 60,000 by 2013, the refugees were confronted with an organised and systematic campaign to drive them out. The vast majority were fleeing authoritarian regimes in Eritrea and Sudan.
As Lia Tarachansky explained when the refugees first arrived, they were welcomed by the Israeli public: “But when the government of Netanyahu decided to take a 90-degree turn on the treatment of the African refugees, what resulted was a full-out war against them.”3 Many had chosen Israel because they believed its propaganda that it was a democracy and also because it was easier to reach than Europe.
Most refugees have been living in poor and overcrowded neighbourhoods in southern Tel Aviv. Dozens squatted in a park across the street from the city’s main bus station for weeks on end. A handful of high-profile incidents, including an alleged rape of an 83-year-old woman by an Eritrean asylum-seeker in 2012, were blown up by Israel’s media into an attack on all asylum-seekers.
Israel has one of the highest rates of rape and sexual assaults in the world. According to the Association of Rape Crisis Centres in Israel, one in seven Israeli women will suffer rape in her lifetime and one in three will experience a sexual assault.4 This, however, did not stop allegations against the refugees that were similar to those levied in Nazi Germany. Just as individual crimes by German Jews were attributed to the whole Jewish community, so the same is true of asylum-seekers in Israel.
In November 2010, the Israeli government approved a plan to build a massive detention centre, Holot, in the Negev desert to hold thousands of asylum-seekers and their families before deportation. Holot is the biggest prison for refugees in the entire developed world. Israeli police then embarked on mass racial profiling and went down the streets of Tel Aviv asking for IDs from anyone who was brown or black - and packed them off to this prison.
Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu was quite clear as to the reasons for his hostility to the refugees - they were a threat to the Zionist ‘dream’: “We must stop the mass entry of illegal migrant workers because of the very serious threat to the character and future of the state of Israel.”5 The very existence of a ‘Jewish’ state was apparently threatened by the presence of 60,000 refugees. In the racial fantasies of Netanyahu: “If we don’t stop their entry, the problem that currently stands at 60,000 could grow to 600,000, and that threatens our existence as a Jewish and democratic state.”6
As Lia Tarachansky pointed out,
the refugees are less than .001% of the population, and yet they are constantly being talked about as though they are threatening Israel’s Jewish majority - a demographic threat which is something that the state of Israel uses frequently against the Palestinian minorities in Israel.7
When Palestinians were expelled in 1948, this was said to be necessary to create a Jewish majority state. But, incredibly, those who tried to return were called ‘infiltrators’. Only the warped mentality of settler colonialism could label those who were indigenous to the land from which they had been forced out, and whose families had lived there for centuries, in such a way. But Israel is the most racist state in the world - a state where a plurality of Jews - 48% - want to see the deportation of Israeli Arabs. According to a poll published in 2007, 75% do not wish to live with an Arab in their apartment block.8
Nor does Israel comply with the biblical injunction, “You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy10:19). This most certainly does not form part of Zionist values. There are some 50 references in the Old Testament to befriending the stranger (or refugee), but Israel’s ultra-right rabbinical establishment is strangely oblivious to all of them.9 Zionism prefers the book of Joshua, which instructed the Israelites to wipe out the non-Jewish inhabitants of Canaan - every man, woman and child.
Israel is not a fulfilment of biblical prophecy about the return of the Jews to the Promised Land. It is a settler colonial state, the brainchild of evangelical Christians, for whom biblical and imperialist imperatives coincided. Yet Israel is only a Jewish state in that the settler population is racially defined as ethnically Jewish. Being Jewish means having as few non-Jews as possible. Israel’s Arabs are a barely tolerated fifth column, but black African refugees are neither Jewish nor white - hence they must go. This is the logic of Zionism.
The need for Jewish racial purity was what led to the ban on a book from the high school syllabus in Israel - Borderlife portrayed a relationship between an Arab and Jewish teenager. Another of Israel’s taboos is ‘mixed-race’ - ie, Arab-Jewish - relationships. The fascist Lehava group, whose ‘charity’, Hemla, is funded by the Israeli state, uses packs of its activists to hunt down and attack Arab males suspected of wanting to establish relationships with Jewish women.10
In 2013 Israel built a border fence with Egypt and Netanyahu’s government embarked on a series of measures whose purpose was to make life more difficult for asylum-seekers in Israel. It also began secretly pressuring Eritreans and Sudanese to leave for unnamed third countries.
The two countries chosen for deportation were Rwanda and Uganda. Netanyahu reached a corrupt and criminal deal with the dictator of Rwanda, Paul Ngame - although they are denying it now. Once the asylum-seekers reached these countries, they were abandoned and rendered stateless - and subject to deportation back to the country they had escaped from. Most of those who have already been forced out - up to 20,000 - live in a stateless limbo in Kampala or Kigale. Many have now been forced out of Uganda or Rwanda, making them vulnerable to blackmail and physical abuse at the hands of smugglers and security forces. Some have continued north to Sudan or Libya in an effort to reach Europe. A few have been captured and killed by Islamic State fighters or drowned in the Mediterranean.11
Many refugees have settled in the south of Tel Aviv, where they have been subject to pogroms and violent demonstrations by racist Israelis. They are accused of having illegally entered Israel, because most asylum claims in Israel are not recognised.
It is one of the achievements of the Israeli state to have turned Jewish people - the victims of past pogroms - into pogromists themselves, all with the encouragement and support of the Israeli government. Culture minister Miri Regev has called refugees a “cancer” in Israeli society. When criticised for this, she apologised to cancer patients, for having compared them to asylum-seekers.12
Among the measures used to ‘encourage’ such asylum-seekers to leave is a 2014 law that allows Israel to confiscate - ie, steal - 20% of the income of refugees. These are part of the poorest section of Israeli society - people who have little or no access to medical or health facilities, who get no public housing or benefits.13 The confiscated money is deposited into a special bank account and theoretically the asylum-seekers will be able to access the money upon leaving the country. The Israeli bank, Mizrahi Tefahot, which won the tender to manage these accounts, informed its investors that the policy would improve its liquidity and reserve ratio, because the money will not be accessible to its owners, and the bank could use it to offset loans.14 In essence the African refugees, like Palestinian labourers, have paid taxes to the state of Israel, whilst receiving absolutely no services whatsoever.
The normal excuse for discrimination against the Palestinians is ‘security’, but even that excuse is missing here. People who are innocent of any of the things the Israeli state accuses its enemies of are still being treated as an enemy, simply because they are black and not Jewish.
When Israel’s supreme court ruled against detaining the refugees for longer than a year or forcing them out of the country, the government has simply ignored those rulings - and it has done this with the complicity of the Israeli Labor Party:
There’s a silent consensus about that on the entire spectrum of the Israeli Zionist political leadership. Even so-called centrist politicians like Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid and Yitzhak Herzog are all respecting the status quo of essentially ignoring the ruling of the supreme court.15
However, large numbers of Israel’s holocaust survivors, in whose name the state has committed so many war crimes, have spoken out against all this. Many of them are also kept in abject poverty in Israel.16 If there is one lesson that everyone can draw from the holocaust, it is that, if the west had taken in the Jewish refugees from Hitler, then far fewer would have died. Today the same forces that opposed the immigration of Jewish refugees in the 1930s - the America Firsters, the Daily Mails and the far right - support Zionism and the Israeli state. But many holocaust survivors perceive the contradiction between Zionism and the lessons of the holocaust. Zionism’s desire to create a Jewish state that is as ethnically pure and Jewish as possible is no different from the desire of Hitler and the Nazis to create an ethnically pure German state. But some non-Jews are more unwanted than others. In Israel today there are thousands of non-Jewish Russians who are not being deported. The difference is that they are white.
What is most shameful is the role of the Israeli Labor Party, which abroad tries to present itself as progressive. Under its new, even more rightwing leader, Avi Gabbay, it is fully behind Netanyahu. The refugees from Eritrea are ‘bogus’, the party claims - no matter that every international body and human rights agency says that Eritrea is one of the worst police states in the world.
According to Jill Hoffman of the Jerusalem Post the Zionist Union parliamentary faction of the Labor Party voted 12-11 to back the government’s plan to deport refugees after Gabbay told the members of the Knesset: “This is not an issue of right or left. We would pay a price for arguing with the public.”17 This prompted Tamar Zandberg, a member of the Knesset for the left Zionist Meretz Party, to ask:
What has become of you? Are you the Zionist Union or the expelling union? Have you gone mad? In your tactics for wooing votes, you’ve abandoned your fundamental values and ability to tell right from wrong.18
Now, of course, Tamar is wrong. The ILP never had any anti-racist values. It was first and foremost a party of Zionist colonisation. It was therefore predictable that it would come out in support of Netanyahu’s proposed deportation of black African refugees.
We should be calling out those in Britain like the Jewish Labour Movement who are helping to drive the anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism witch-hunt in the Labour Party, but who refuse to condemn the behaviour of what the JLM describes as its “sister party” in Israel. 19 I have sent messages to both Jeremy Newmark, chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, and Rhea Wolfson, who is a member of Labour’s national executive committee, as well as the JLM itself, asking them to condemn the ILP’s support for Netanyahu. But I have been met with silence. It is the JLM who has subjected Jackie Walker, a black Jewish anti-racist and former vice-chair of Momentum, to a scurrilous political lynching.
Rhea Wolfson is politically close to the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. She spoke at the Labour Party fringe meeting of the AWL front group, Stop the Purge,and she is on the editorial board of the AWL’s The Clarion magazine. Perhaps the AWL can persuade Wolfson to dissociate herself from the JLM’s support for the ILP and its stance on Israel’s refugees - and to do this in the most public way by resigning from the JLM. Wolfson should be congratulating those like the holocaust survivors who condemn the deportations, not keeping company with racists.
But holocaust survivors are not the only ones. On January 22, David Sheen, a Canadian-Israeli who has campaigned tirelessly in support of Israel’s refugees, wrote in Electronic Intifada that Israel was set to win its war on African refugees20 and Netanyahu would be able to deport them. Yet in the space of a week it was claimed that Netanyahu’s plans were now in ruins.21
There has been considerable embarrassment among Israel’s more liberal middle classes against what has become an international scandal. Even Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, has warned that this affair is making Israel even more of an international pariah. “It is particularly welcome that hundreds of Israeli academics have spoken out,” wrote professor Rachel Giora of Tel Aviv University in a message to me:
It’s really rare that I can feel proud of Israelis. Indeed recently there are many demonstrations and lots of published petitions against governmental policies. But today language turned into acts. Today Israeli pilots and crews announced their refusal to cooperate with the government on the deportation of African asylum-seekers to Africa. They won’t fly the refugees to their death! And they call on other airlines to join in.
Israel’s refugees can breathe a little more easily due to this refusal. And the signatures of several hundred professors and intellectuals to a letter calling on the prime minister to put a halt to the expulsion of asylum-seekers from Eritrea and Sudan are also a breath of fresh air.
B Michael, a contributor to the Ha’aretz newspaper, has compared the policy of Adolf Eichmann towards the Jews of Vienna with Israel’s policy of forcing out black African asylum-seekers.22 Eichmann’s policy of impoverishing, terrorising and stripping Jews of their rights was considered a massive success at the time in forcing the Jews out of Austria. Israel is only just learning how to accomplish the same feat. Israel’s refugee population of 60,000 has already been reduced by 10,000-15,000 through a combination of tactics, such as imprisonment in Holot, depriving them of the right to work, pogroms and racist attacks. Israel has learnt well, as B Michael said, from the Jews’ traditional enemies.
Although only a few weeks ago activists such as David Sheen were conceding defeat on deportation, according to Anshel Pfeffer, the wheels had been coming off the hastily drawn expulsion plan for months.23 One of Netanyahu’s proudest achievements had been the border fence with Egypt. He described it in 2013 as “one of the greatest engineering feats ever achieved in Israel.”
Netanyahu and the far-right Zionists have used the poverty of south Tel Aviv’s existing Jewish working class residents as a rallying point for far-right activists - including members of the outlawed Kahanist groups. It was in May 2012, after ‘culture’ minister Miri Regev had made her “cancer” speech, that a mob of one thousand Israelis ran amok, attacking any refugee they could find. With record low unemployment rates and a growing demand for foreign workers, a plan to legalise the asylum-seekers and resettle them across Israel would have been sensible, but Netanyahu and the coalition government, with the support of the ILP, preferred incitement against the “infiltrators”.
A few thousand asylum-seekers were prevailed upon to leave “voluntarily”. Dozens of planes were to be chartered - the refugees given the stark choice of leaving voluntarily with $3,500 in cash or facing indefinite detention. But news of how they were mistreated upon arrival soon filtered back - and then no-one was prepared to volunteer any more.
But the high court refused to let the government incarcerate them for more than 60 days. However, it eventually backed down and approved deportation to “third countries” of any refugee whose asylum request was not pending. The interior ministry has made it almost impossible to request asylum - and of 12,000 requests just 10 have been approved.
Wheels coming off
Only a few weeks ago it seemed all was over. But, even as the first notices were being issued to the refugees, the wheels were coming off. The Israel Prison Service, already suffering from massive overcrowding with Palestinians, had no space for the thousands of expected detainees. The refugees made it clear they would not accept the financial inducements and when the government threatened to deport them by force they ran up against legal obstacles.
No less important, the small circle of activists supporting the refugees had begun to grow rapidly. A series of petitions circulated, with the signatories committing themselves to hiding refugees in their homes if necessary. Thousands have signed the petitions and hundreds of people turned out for meetings on a rain-soaked Wednesday night in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, which were organised by a group called Standing Together (Omdim Beyachad), to oppose the deportations. Thousands of Israelis are supporting the airline workers in their stand and Zazim, a new national organisation founded by university students, is holding protests and setting up information booths across the country.
The government’s backers in the media have derided these groups as anti-Israeli and far-leftists who did not care for the poor residents of south Tel Aviv. But still the protests grew,24 with petitions signed by over 1,000 doctors and medical staff; and, perhaps most damagingly, a personal letter was sent to Netanyahu, signed by 36 holocaust survivors.25
The publicity has already caused Rwanda to announce that it will not accept refugees deported against their will. How much one can trust this is another matter.
The timing could not have been better. The survivors’ letter was the main Holocaust-related news coming out of Israel just in time for International Holocaust Remembrance Day! For once the occasion is being put to good use instead of being employed to justify Israel’s racism.
Then there is the case of Celina Shapil, who spent the winter of 1943 on the run from the Nazis - she crossed the borders of Poland, Slovakia and Hungary on foot through the snow at the age of 17.26 Now 92, she was outraged at the government’s deportation plans and decided it was time to speak out:
I too have lived through a situation where the whole world was apathetic. I know what it feels like to be alone and feel like no one cares. It’s shameful we are the ones now doing this. It should not have to come to this so there needs to be public pressure. The government must change its policy.
As for the 36 survivors, they wrote to Netanyahu:
We - who know what it means to be a refugee, to be without a home or a country that would protect and defend us from violence and suffering - cannot understand how a Jewish government can expel refugees and asylum-seekers to a journey of pain, suffering and death.27
This is why, far from being anti-Semitic, it is essential to compare Israel’s racist actions to those of the Nazis. It is only in this way that sections of Israel’s own Jewish citizens can be confronted with what Zionism means. What is sad is that it is left to those like the holocaust survivors, as young Israelis are overwhelmingly racist.28 However, there are exceptions. Ella Navot, a 24-year-old sociology student at Tel Aviv University and one of the founders of Stop the Expulsion, said:
Deportation is like a red line for many people. Until now we could just sit at home and say, ‘Oh no, this is bad.’ And for the past few years people who care and follow the issue have been outraged, but this is the last straw.29
There are so many aspects to what drew me to this. I could talk about the fact that my grandmother is a holocaust survivor or about my parents, who are leftwing and have always advocated for human rights, but really what brought me to it is when I met the people themselves and started to understand the issue. They became friends and when one hears their stories one cannot ignore them.
The campaign launched last week, which called on Israelis to hide asylum-seekers if it becomes necessary, was inspired, its organisers say, by the story of Anne Frank.30 The massive response to the campaign, now called Miklat Yisrael (Israel Refuge) took its organisers, including American-born rabbi Susan Silverman of Jerusalem, who came up with the idea, by surprise.
As for the 92-year-old Celina Shapil, who continues to mourn her parents and younger brother - all murdered in Auschwitz - she feels lucky to have been able to rebuild her life. But she hopes the African asylum-seekers will find refuge in Israel too. Otherwise, she warns, “We will go down terribly in history”.
14. See interview of Lia Tarachansky by Shir Hever: http://imemc.org/article/israel-begins-to-confiscate-20-of-asylum-seekers-incomes.
18. www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Party-leader-Gabbay-forces-Zionist-Union-to-back-expulsion-of-migrants-514743, Israeli Labor sells out African refugees, as ‘infiltrators’, http://mondoweiss.net/2017/11/israeli-refugees-infiltrators.
28. See ‘Zionism and holocaust abuse’ Weekly Worker November 30 2017.
30. ‘Inspired by Anne Frank, rabbis in Israel plan to hide African asylum-seekers facing deportation’ Ha’aretz January 19 2018.