Does Israel refuse to grant equal rights to Palestinian citizens of the state because it is based on an ideology of racism towards people who are not Jewish? Or does Israel refuse to grant equal rights to Palestinian citizens because, since some of them are opposed to the Jewish sectarian nature of the state, it prioritizes state security over racial equality?
While this debate has raged for decades, new evidence has come to light which would seem to suggest that the former is more true. Because if Jewish Israelis are only antagonistic to Palestinian citizens because they supposedly represent security risks, then why do they also despise sub-Saharan Africans, with whom they have never had any conflict?
Approximately 60,000 people from sub-Saharan African countries have migrated to Israelin recent years, fleeing persecution and requesting asylum. Instead of providing them with aid or permitting them to support themselves, the Israeli government refuses to grant them any rights, forces them into abject poverty, and seeks to deport the lot of them.
Although Israel is a regional superpower, it has the second-highest poverty rate among developed countries. After last year’s Arab uprisings, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets, demanding a higher standard of living. In response, public officials scapegoated the Africans for Israel’s economic problems and launched a racist campaign to expel them.
If there is to be justice, these leaders must be brought to trial to answer for their crimes. Maybe Israelis will come to their senses, cancel all the laws that discriminate against African asylum-seekers and call for a truth and reconciliation commission. Sadly, that is unlikely to happen in the near future, because the hatred of African asylum-seekers has become so widespread in Israel.
Until that day comes — if it ever does — it is important to document evidence of the wrongdoing. In fact, this is an easy task. Since these officials are not ashamed of theirracism, it is all a matter of public record. Of those most responsible, these are the top twelve, Israel’s dirty dozen, its axis of racism:
12. Chaim Avitan
In July 2007, there was only a smattering of African asylum-seekers in the country. At that time, a group of approximately 20 genocide survivors from Darfur in western Sudan were legally living and working in an orchard belonging to a moshav, a small agricultural settlement, near the city limits of Hadera.
A proposal to Hadera city council to open the city’s absorption center to these migrants was defeated by the mayor Chaim Avitan. Avitan then forged an eviction order and sent a security team in the middle of the night to rough up the Darfuris, destroy their documents, shove them onto buses and kick them out of town (“Complaint filed against Hadera mayor for expelling refugees,” Ynet, 7 August 2007).
Avitan announced that the city was not “the country’s garbage can,” called upon the government not to grant refugee status to anyone who is not Jewish and stressed that “Hadera will not permit a single Sudanese to enter.”
11. Benjamin Babayof
In July 2010, dozens of rabbis in Tel Aviv issued a religious edict forbidding Jews from renting apartments to African asylum-seekers. The language of the letter included warnings against inter-racial marriages and references to Biblical passages calling for ethnic cleansing of all non-Jewish people from the “land of Israel.”
This initiative was such a hit that before the year was out, hundreds of leading rabbis from throughout Israel (who also draw their salaries from the public coffers) issued a similar edict applying to the entire country.
The brainchild behind the edict, the man who went from rabbi to rabbi collecting signatures, calling the African presence in Israel an “abomination,” was the Tel Aviv city councilor representing the Shas party, Benjamin Babayof (“South Tel Aviv realtors: we won’t rent to ‘infiltrators,’” The Jerusalem Post, 4 August 2010).
That same year, travel guide publishers Lonely Planet called Tel Aviv the third best city in the world.
Babayof continued his anti-African crusade in February 2012, calling upon the transportation ministry to run segregated bus lines for Africans, or at the very least to prevent them from riding the regular bus lines during rush hour, because “they smell bad.”
10. Yaakov Asher
Weeks after the original rabbis’ edict was issued, the holy war against African asylum-seekers expanded from Tel Aviv to its environs.
In August 2010, Rabbi Yaakov Asher, the mayor of Tel Aviv satellite city Bnei Brak, met with the minister of public security and the police regional commander to discuss the expulsion of the African population.
When they explained to Asher that there was no legal basis for physically preventing African asylum-seekers from moving to Bnei Brak, Asher’s spokesperson announced that the municipality would use building code infractions by their landlords as an excuse to run the Africans out of town.
When winter came, the municipality followed through on its promise, informing asylum-seekers that they would have to vacate their apartments immediately. When an African man took his legal rental contract down to the city hall and asked to know on what basis he was being evicted, he was told that it was because he was not Jewish.
Many African asylum-seekers did not even receive the courtesy of an eviction notice before their water and electricity were summarily cut off. Without any way to stay warm, the asylum-seekers were frozen out of their flats and sent into the streets in the middle of the winter (“Eritreans say Bnei Brak waging campaign to run them out,” The Jerusalem Post, 1 December 2010).
While he still serves as Bnei Brak mayor, Asher also holds the number seven spot on the United Torah Judaism party list for upcoming elections to Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. The party has five seats in the current Knesset.
9. Meir Yitzhak Halevy
In 2007, African asylum-seekers began to move to Eilat at the invitation of the local hospitality industry. They found work washing dishes and performing other menial tasks for low wages.
Since hoteliers expressed satisfaction with this new arrangement, and since tourism is the only significant industry in Eilat, many more African asylum-seekers have since moved to town. They now number about 10,000 residents, approximately 12 percent of the population of Eilat.
In January 2011, Meir Yitzhak Halevi, the mayor of Eilat, said that African asylum-seekers were coming to conquer Eilat and announced that the city was at war with them. The municipality paid for anti-African posters to be plastered across the city and for red flags to be hung throughout the town (“Eilat demands gov’t action against migrant workers,” The Jerusalem Post,” 13 January 2011). In April 2012, Halevi said that all the Africans will be gone within two years’ time.
For years, Halevi refused to allow the children of African asylum-seekers to attend local schools, so they languished in a makeshift activity center run by sympathetic volunteers. It was only after the Israeli high court intervened and declared Eilat’s segregation policy illegal that children of asylum-seekers were permitted to enroll in September 2012.
Eilat is twinned with Los Angeles, California (10 percent African American).
8. Amnon Yitzhak
An immensely popular preacher, Amnon Yitzhak travels all across Israel turning secular and traditional Jews on to fundamentalist Judaism. Eilat is considered to be a secular stronghold, but Yitzhak crossed its cultural divide by infusing his religious message with rabid anti-African racism.
In February 2012 he told an Eilat audience that the dark skin of Sudanese people is a punishment from Yahweh, the god of Judaism. He further compared them to monkeys, saying that if a Jewish woman goes out with a Sudanese man, she will end up in Africa, “climbing trees and eating bananas” (“‘Cancer in our body’: On racial incitement, discrimination and hate crimes against African asylum-seekers in Israel,” Hotline for Migrant Workers, January-June 2012 [PDF]).
Over the past few weeks, Yitzhak founded a new political party, Power To Influence, that is now running for the Knesset. It is too early to estimate how many seats he might garner, but whether from within the Knesset or without, he wields tremendous clout.
7. Ben-Dror Yemini
Instead of using a neutral lexicon to describe African asylum-seekers, most of the Israeli media have uncritically adopted the pejorative language that government officials who are hostile to their presence use to describe them.
But the mainstream journalist who has spread the most lies about African asylum-seekers in order to stoke fears and incite hatred of them is the opinion page editor of the popular daily paper Maariv, Ben-Dror Yemini.
Some Western countries grant refugee status to between 80 percent and 90 percent of East African asylum-seekers. But in December 2011, just before the right-wing-dominated Knesset voted to criminalize asylum-seekers, Yemini provided them with the ideological ammunition to do so by printing the vicious lie that none of them are refugees, only work migrants.
An official Knesset report from May 2012 stated that the proportion of asylum-seekers out of the entire population of Israel is low compared to Western countries. But only days later Yemini published a column saying that Israel would soon have the largest proportion of asylum-seekers of any country in the world.
Tzipi Livni, Israel’s former foreign minister, recently offered Yemini a prominent spot on her Movement Party list for the Knesset elections. Whether he accepts her offer or not, the mere fact that he was invited is a testament to his widespread influence.
6. Michael Ben-Ari
Although he lives in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, Michael Ben-Ari opened up a parliamentary office in south Tel Aviv, where more than half the Africans in Israel live, in order to mobilize residents opposed to their presence.
While other politicians draw complaints for only visiting the area and surrounding themselves with bodyguards when they finally arrive, the charismatic Ben-Ari confidently leads the community in anti-African street marches. He has also established an anti-African neighborhood watch posse there, earning the admiration of locals.
Ben-Ari has also called for Israeli soldiers to kill in cold blood any African person approaching the border to request political asylum. Ironically, when I interviewed him in the summer of 2010, he admitted that Israel was responsible for mass slaughter in Africa because it exported killing machines to Africa for profit.
Ben-Ari was refused admission to the United States in February 2012 because he was a member of Rabbi Meir Kahane’s now-defunct Kach organization, considered to be a Jewish terrorist group by the State Department.
In the current Knesset, he belongs to National Union, the only party that was too right-wing for the governing coalition. For the upcoming elections, he started a new party called Strength For Israel that is expected to pass the minimum threshold for Knesset representation. Ben-Ari may be an outlier, but he is pulling the entire political spectrum to the right.
5. Miri Regev
On 23 May 2012, a thousand Jewish Israelis ran rampant throughout Tel Aviv for hours, attacking any dark-skinned person — or property of dark-skinned people — they could find. They set off on their campaign of terror after being whipped into a frenzy by members of Knesset.
One of those parliamentarians whose comments were most incendiary was Miri Regev, a lawmaker with the main government party, Likud. She told the assembled crowd that African asylum-seekers were “a cancer in the body” of the nation.
After news of her racist comments and the pogrom that followed it was published the following day, she took to YouTube to make a public apology — but not to Africans for comparing them to cancer, but rather to Israeli cancer victims, for minimizing their suffering by comparing it to Africans (“Israeli MK: I didn’t mean to shame Holocaust by calling African migrants a ‘cancer,” Haaretz, 27 May 2012).
A professional survey conducted just days after the pogrom confirmed that 52 percent of Jewish Israelis identified with Regev’s contention that Africans are akin to cancer, and 33 percent of Jewish Israelis identified with the vigilante violence perpetrated against them.
Although Likud’s list for the forthcoming election must still be combined with that of its coalition partner Yisrael Beiteinu, Regev has already surged into its upper ranks, moving from number 26 to number 13 on the strength of these and other racist statements.
4. Ron Huldai
The day after the pogrom, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai initiated an anti-African “mayors’ letter,” gathering their pledges of support — just as Babayof, the city councilor, had initiated the anti-African “rabbis’ letter” and collected rabbis’ signatures.
The letter, supported by the mayors of Ashdod, Bnei Brak, Ashkelon, Petach Tikvah and Eilat, called for African asylum-seekers to be either imprisoned or deported (“Day after violent anti-African protest, Likud MK calls to ‘distance infiltrators’ immediately,” Haaretz, 24 May 2012).
If there are approximately 25,000 to 30,000 African asylum-seekers in Tel Aviv, then Huldai’s call to round up and remove African asylum-seekers amounts to ethnic cleansing between 6 percent and 8 percent of the city’s population.
Huldai is surely not the only mayor in the world that has called for the ethnic cleansing of a portion of its residents. But he is probably the only mayor to do so the same year that a corporate-sponsored gay organization crowned his town the “best gay city” in the world.
Tel Aviv is twinned with New York City (25 percent African American).
3. Yossi Edelstein
Edelstein’s official title is director of the interior ministry’s Population Administration’s Foreign Workers’ Enforcement Unit, established in 2009. Simply put, he is directly in charge of the Oz unit, the security agents who are tasked with physically harassing and arresting African asylum-seekers.
One would hope that agents of the state given a monopoly on the use of violence would exercise that power very carefully and with as little prejudice as possible. Sadly, it would seem that Oz agents are not instructed to treat African people with the respect that they deserve, but rather, exactly the opposite.
Even when the African people in question are Jewish, they can be subjected to shocking levels of physical and emotional abuse. In October 2010, the Oz unit brutally beat an entire family of African Americans who had converted to Judaism and were living in the country legally, including a seven-months-pregnant woman, her mother and her one-year-old daughter.
While beating them, the Oz officers yelled, “niggers, we don’t need you here!” (“Interior ministry’s Oz police unit accused of beating US immigrants,” Haaretz, 21 October 2010).
Edelstein made clear his true feelings for African asylum-seekers at a briefing for security officers in July 2012. When asked what to do in the event that an African woman begins to disrobe in protest — a not uncommon form of political protest in Africa — Edelstein suggested that the woman should be engaged sexually. The officers charged with carrying out his orders laughed heartily at his response (hear Edelstein and his audience’s laughter in the video embedded in Israel Channel 10’s report on the briefing).
2. Eli Yishai
The highest-ranking government official to spew the most amount of anti-African invective is without doubt Edelstein’s boss, Eli Yishai. Yishai holds the portfolio of interior minister, an immensely powerful position in Israel. Yishai uses this power to implement the Jewish supremacist ideology of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party that he leads.
This attitude was summarized best by the party’s spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef in October 2010, when he said that the sole reason non-Jewish people exist is to serve Jewish people. Yishai does his level best to ensure that the non-Jewish people who come to Israel — to do the dirty work that Israelis aren’t willing to do — leave the country before they find love and start having kids.
If he wanted to, Yishai could grant work permits to African asylum-seekers, allowing them to be self-sustaining. This would quickly dissolve the homeless African population that is a burden to south Tel Aviv and greatly reduce tensions in those run-down neighborhoods that were economically impoverished to begin with.
But instead of giving work to the non-Jewish Africans already in the country, Yishai prefers to import tens of thousands of Southeast Asians every year, which he expels and exchanges for new ones every few years. This revolving door policy ensures that the non-Jewish population is always vulnerable to abuse. It is also very lucrative for Israeli human resource agencies — a laundered term for glorified slave traders.
Yishai does not mince his words. In June 2012, he lamented that African asylum-seekers didn’t understand that “this country belongs to us, to the white man,” and in August 2012, he said, “until I can deport them I’ll lock them up to make their lives miserable.” That month, he also branded African asylum-seekers a threat as severe as nuclear missiles and fabricated a baseless blood libel against them, accusing them of turning synagogues into toilets (“Israel enacts law allowing authorities to detain illegal migrants for up to 3 years,”Haaretz, 3 June 2012).
1. Benjamin Netanyahu
Ultimately, the person primarily responsible for Israel’s racist war against non-Jewish African asylum-seekers is none other than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Although he has issued tame condemnations of the most egregious examples of anti-African racism, he has also rubber-stamped every draconian measure taken against them.
When hundreds of Israeli rabbis issued a religious edict forbidding Jewish Israelis from renting flats to Africans, Netanyahu criticized the clerics at an insignificant photo-op — a teenage trivia contest — but took no measures against them. Just the opposite: within months, Netanyahu’s government doubled and tripled their salaries.
In December 2011, Netanyahu announced that he would seal Israel’s open border with Egypt — by which Africans cross into Israel — as soon as possible. I contacted his office then to ask if he would balance his efforts to prevent any more African asylum-seekers from reaching Israel with other measures that would improve the lives of those already in the country — like granting them work permits and health benefits, for example.
Netanyahu’s office responded in the negative. He soon followed these words with actions, demonstrating that he does not only want to reduce the amount of Africans entering Israel, but to completely reverse their migration and expel them from the country. Until such time as that is feasible, he has heartily backed all of Yishai’s plans to construct prison camps to hold the African asylum-seekers indefinitely (“Shas’ Deri eyes Arab vote,” Ynet, 6 November 2012).
Netanyahu is likely to win the upcoming national elections and remain prime minister of the country for at least a few more years. There is no hope on the horizon that any political leader capable of forming a majority in the Knesset could see African asylum-seekers as human beings and potential partners — not as existential threats.
David Sheen is an independent writer and filmmaker. Born in Toronto, Canada, Sheen now lives in Jaffa.
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