Open Zion

06.06.12

Where the Racism Comes From

The ugly reports keep rolling in. A rally against African migrants turns violent and a race riot ensues; the whole thing is repeated a week later. A Jewish-Israeli of Ethiopian descent is “mistaken” for a migrant and assaulted in Tel Aviv. A group of teenagers in Tel Aviv is arrested for a series of brutal, racially-motivated robberies and assaults targeting Africans.  A Sudanese man is viciously beaten in Tel Aviv. A Sudanese hotel worker is nearly lynched in Eilat. An apartment in Jerusalem is torched with 10 Eritreans trapped inside. 

It’s easy to tell ourselves that this paroxysm of racism is an aberrant phenomenon, linked to the socially and politically fraught challenges posed by illegal immigration. But that’s too easy. What’s happening is in no small measure a natural outgrowth of the intolerance that is an inevitable result of an occupation that this week enters its 46th year. 

Two generations of Israelis have now been born into an Israel that must constantly justify the denial of rights and freedoms to Palestinians and the ever-growing settlement enterprise. Those justifications ring ever more hollow with each passing year, juxtaposed against Israeli policies that only perpetuate and deepen the occupation. They ring especially hollow at times like this past weekend, when Prime Minister Netanyahu declared that his government’s policy is to “defend and strengthen settlement” and laid out his audacious plan to reward settlers for breaking the law.    

As criticism of Israeli policies has mounted, it has given rise not to Israeli self-examination and a course-correction, but to a tribalist, circle-the-wagons mentality that is more pronounced than at any time in Israel's history. The ongoing assault against African refugees and migrants in Israel is just the latest symptom of this phenomenon. 

Previously, we have seen how anyone who challenges the occupation is attacked and dehumanized. Palestinian non-violent protest in all forms is branded a form of terrorism. Israelis working for peace, civil rights and human rights are incited against and terrorized. IDF officers who try to carry out the law against settlers are attacked. Israeli politicians who defend the rule of law and democracy are threatened.

The convergence of right-wing nationalist zeal and racial intolerance is self-evident in what is happening today: The Israeli politicians who are leading the anti-African campaign are the same ones who are the loudest defenders of the settlers and the greatest aggressors against democratic values like free speech. They also hail, for the most part, from Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.

They include Likud MK Miri Regev, who called African migrants "a cancer in our body" and Likud MK Danny Danon, who declared, "Without delay and without mercy, all the infiltrators should be taken out of Israel" and "Some call it expulsion, I call it defending the homeland."

There is also National Union MK Michael Ben-Ari, who has called for Africans to be deported "for their own safety” and suggested that African children should not be allowed to sit in the same class with Israelis because “you don’t know what diseases they are carrying.” His colleague, National Union MK Arieh Eldad, suggested this past weekend that anyone crossing Israel’s borders illegally “should be shot” (he also noted that this wouldn’t be possible because “bleeding hearts groups will immediately begin to shriek and turn to the courts”). 

They also include Minister of Interior Eli Yishai (Shas), who said that “many women in Tel Aviv were raped and are now afraid to report so they won’t be seen as AIDS carriers.” He also said “Most of those people arriving here are Muslims who think the country doesn’t belong to us, the white man.” 

Most troublingly, they include Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has stated that the Africans are “threatening the fabric of Israeli society, its national security and its national identity” and that they could “lead to the eradication of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”  As violence against them has worsened, Netanyahu has made clear that he understands “the pain” of Israelis who are lashing out and has promised to swiftly deport or imprison the objects of their anger. 

These politicians have a clear and compelling message: these people are diseased and unclean; they will attack us and rape our women; they are an existential threat to our people and our way of life; they are an enemy that must be shown no mercy, and anyone who helps or defends them is likewise an enemy (one Kadima MK suggested that Israeli human rights activists who are aiding the migrants “should be imprisoned and transported to [prison] camps we are building”). This message is disturbingly reminiscent of the smears used against Jews in pre-Holocaust Europe and against black people in America's pre-civil rights era.  

The good news is that the emergence of the anti-African mob in Israel is not truly a sign of Israeli racism (which exists, as it does everywhere). The bad news is that it is evidence of the poisonous, zero-sum atmosphere in Israel today and the brutalization and coarsening of growing segments of Israeli society within it. Failure to recognize this painful reality is self-delusion and denial, and will only result in Israel sliding deeper down the slippery slope toward authoritarianism.