A Tragic Irony

May 24, 2012 § 8 Comments

Tel Aviv saw an ugly scene yesterday when an anti-immigrant protest turned violent and demonstrators went hunting for African migrants to attack. The background to this is that Israel has a growing problem of illegal immigrants, many of whom are Sudanese refugees, crossing the border from Egypt, which has stirred up a hornets nest of problems both real and perceived. The Interior Ministry estimates that there are 60,000 African illegal immigrants in the country, and Israel does not quite know how to deal with them given that this is a relatively new phenomenon. Yesterday’s demonstration featured a number of speeches by rightwing MKs, including Danny Danon (who always seems to be in the thick of things whenever there is controversy) and Miri Regev, who called the Sudanese immigrants a cancer on the Israeli host.

I think that precision in language is vitally important, since throwing around terms with reckless abandon strips them of any type of meaningful power. You will not find me calling people fascists, resorting to Holocaust analogies, or playing the anti-Semitism card at the drop of a hat. Yesterday a mob marched through the Hatikva section of Tel Aviv pulling people out of cars to check their ethnicity, smashing windows of African-owned businesses, and chanting for “infiltrators” to leave. Israeli Army Radio called this a pogrom, and I don’t know of any other noun that is a better descriptor.

This hardly needs to be noted because it is so glaringly obvious, but there is a terrible irony in Israelis, whose state was founded as a beacon for immigrants and refugees fleeing persecution, creating a climate of fear for immigrants and refugees fleeing persecution. If anything, Israel should be proud that Africans are seeking sanctuary within its borders, as it speaks volumes about Israeli state and society in comparison to all of its neighbors. Stop and reflect for a moment on the fact that non-Jewish black Africans are coming in droves to settle in a Jewish largely white state that has no cultural or historical significance for them. Isn’t this something that Israelis should be proud of? For all of the constant talk from Foreign Ministry spokesmen about Israeli democracy and respect for human rights, this simple fact is the best hasbarah that exists, as it demonstrates that Israel genuinely is a free and tolerant place no matter how many outsiders seek to demonize it. Unlike in Egypt, Israeli police have never massacred unarmed refugees fleeing persecution and Israel provides immigrants with plenty of economic opportunities. Undoubtedly illegal immigration presents an enormous problem, but Israel’s history, democratic status, and Jewish identity should point the way toward compassion rather than scorn. While Ovadia Yosef may think that saving lives on the Sabbath only applies to Jewish ones, even he would have a difficult time parsing the biblical injunction of ger lo tilhatz…ki geirim heyitem b’eretz Mitzraim (don’t oppress the stranger…for you were yourselves strangers in the land of Egypt). I am pretty confident that this clashes with calls to “expedite the construction of temporary detention facilities and remove Africans from population centers.”

The other point to make here is that those who are looking to use yesterday’s violence to indict Israel as a bastion of racist intolerance are missing the bigger picture entirely. The demonstration yesterday was comprised of only 1000 people, and ginning up far larger crowds for racist or illiberal causes is easily done in any liberal democracy on the planet, ours included. Furthermore, the presence of a number of Likud MKs yesterday is deceiving; they were not there speaking in support of the government, but rather were opposing the government for not taking more forceful action. In fact, the reason the government’s promises to deport illegal immigrants have not yet been fulfilled is because it is complying with standard international law on asylum seekers and refugees and ensuring that it does not deport any of them back to their home countries if their lives will be endangered. Yesterday’s race riot was precipitated by a group of people angry that the state is not taking a harder line against illegal immigration, and the preceding demonstration was comparably small as far as these things go. It is vital to call out the criminals who rioted in the streets and the thuggish politicians who whipped them up into a frenzy, but Israel is generally trying to develop an illegal immigration policy that balances the legitimate right of the state to control population inflows against humanitarian concerns. Let’s confine the criticism here to those who deserve it rather than tarring all of Israel with the same brush.

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§ 8 Responses to A Tragic Irony

  • Jon K says:

    Great piece and I completely agree but how how are Jews supposed to expect that the rest of the world remembers and learns from some of the terrible atrocities that have been committed against them as a result of racial and ethnic persecutions, predominantly resulting from economic dissatisfaction, if even a small number of Jewish Israelis and even worse, government officials, engage in such horrifying and unenlightened activities?

    The government, and by this I specifically mean Netanyahu, Shimon Peres, Eli Yishai and Sofa Landver, need to speak out against this forcefully and make it abundantly clear that this in no way reflects the position of the government or key ministries and departments that are most closely associated with this issue. The problem of course is that Yishai (given his history) and Landver (as a member of Yisrael Beitenu) would never speak out publicly against this and may even agree with the protesters in principle. Furthermore, Netanyahu has practically green lighted this type of behavior by allowing Yisrael Beitenu to gain control of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Immigrant Absorption and Internal Security. Thankfully (hopefully?!?) the thorn that is Yisrael Beitenu will soon be removed as a result of the new coalition but the damage Avigdor Lieberman and his minions have caused through their rhetoric over the past few years may continue to have damaging effects for years to come.

    If the more rational and level headed leaders in Israel want to ensure that Israel is viewed as the last defense against persecution and genocide, as was the partial intent of its creation, they can not treat these ministries and their positions of leadership as bargaining chips as part of the political process.

    • For what it’s worth, Netanyahu just strongly condemned it.

      • Jon K says:

        I’m not surprised by that. Despite how many less informed individuals throughout the world perceive him, he is rational and strategic and, I believe, less ideological driven than the perception tends to reflect.

        The greater problem though are the other individuals (not Peres) and parties I mentioned and the posts they currently occupy. Netanyahu has frequently said the right things after the fact but has often been unable to prevent these black eyes. In some cases he has even seemed to be blindsided altogether (and here I am specifically thinking of the ill timed approval and announcement of new housing in East Jerusalem that coincided by a visit from VP Biden back in 2010).

  • [...] and called “infiltrators”; their cars and businesses had their windows smashed. As several have noted, the word for this is “pogrom.” 17 were arrested, and Prime Minister Netanyahu condemned the [...]

  • [...] we need to keep perspective. At Ottomans and Zionists, Michael Koplow reminds us that it was a small number of people at the demonstration-turned-riot, and that the MKs who spoke [...]

  • [...] is important to maintain perspective. As Michael Koplow pointed out, there were only about 1,000 people who attended the rally, and fewer still who actually [...]

  • [...] even currently an MK – in 15th. Regular O&Z readers will recognize all of these names, as their exploits make regular appearances on this blog, but in case you need a refresher, Noam Sheizaf has a rundown [...]

  • [...] has ever existed. For instance, among the returning Likud MKs in the new Knesset will be the inciters of May’s anti-immigrant race riot, a mass of supporters for annexing the West Bank, and new MK Moshe Feiglin who wants to be the [...]

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