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.