Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A year in review: Anti-African racism and asylum seekers in Israel | +972 Magazine

A year in review: Anti-African racism and asylum seekers in Israel


While most Israelis were focused on the latest war on Gaza or the last election, verbal incitement, physical attacks, incarceration without trial and forced deportation of Africans continued unabated. A timeline of Israel's war on African asylum-seekers between November 2012 and May 2013.

By David Sheen

An African refugee holds a sign reading: "We are all refugees", during a demonstration in Tel Aviv against racism and the government's policy against African refugees, July 28, 2012. (photo: Activestills)

Last Thursday, May 23, 2013, marked exactly one year to the day when a thousand Jewish Israelis ran rampant through the streets of Tel Aviv, smashing and looting African-operated businesses and physically assaulting any dark-skinned person they came across. Sadly, the Israeli economic, political and religious establishment – who were in large measure responsible for the pogrom – did not respond by working to quash the racism, but rather ramped up their efforts to expel all non-Jewish African people from the country.

In previous articles and videos, I chronicled in detail the incitement that precipitated the anti-African race riot, and the persecution that came in its wake. The first details the month preceding the riot, the second describes the day of the riot, the third details the two months that followed, while the last one details the next three months, chronologically. This article is a timeline of Israel's war on African asylum seekers over the next seven months, between November 2012 and May 2013.

In November and December 2012, most Israelis were focused on the army's assault on Gaza, and in January 2013, they were mainly occupied with national elections. In February and March, the formation of a new government and a visit by U.S. President Obama commanded the news headlines, and in April and May, internal tensions over the respective rights and responsibilities of different groups of Jews were the most pressing issues discussed in the Israeli media.

During these seven months, the issue of what to do about non-Jewish African asylum seekers did not generate as much media attention as it did in the days that followed the May 23, 2012 pogrom. But throughout, the verbal incitement against Africans continued, the physical attacks on Africans continued, the incarceration without trial of Africans continued and the forced deportation of Africans continued. The new Netanyahu government continued the same racist policies as the old one.

State persecution of asylum seekers

Inspectors from Oz Unit (the immigration authority) arrest a mother moments after she brought her daughter to the kindergarten in "Hatikva" neighborhood in Tel Aviv. After her arrest they went to the kindergarten and arrested the girl as well. The mother and her child did not have the option to go and fetch their belongings or to say goodbye to friends and family. (photo by: Oren Ziv/

In the beginning of November, two Israeli NGOs released a report documenting the devastating conditions under which the Israeli government holds African asylum seekers against their will. At the Saharonim detention facility, where thousands of men, women and children are cramped into crowded conditions and exposed to the harsh desert, there is a shortage of medical care, there are no education or recreation facilities, and they are allowed no privacy or visitors.

For African asylum seekers who haven't been swept off the streets into incarceration, humiliation and exploitation are the norm. Public buildings refuse them admittance and force them to wait for service outside in the cold or in dismal underground parking lots. Many Africans are afraid to even jaywalk across the street, petrified of being picked up for even the slightest infraction and being sent to jail indefinitely without trial. Israeli citizens know full well that African asylum seekers' rights and freedoms are precarious and subject to summary revocation. As a result, Israelis often take advantage of Africans and extort them for large sums of money.

As most African asylum seekers are denied work permits, some choose to purchase forgeries, so they can eke out a living. If they are caught engaging in this deception, the government brands them a "threat to public safety" and incarcerates them indefinitely. In late December, the government announced that it would refrain from conducting arrests during the Christian holiday season, between Christmas and New Years. But it was just a ruse: when Africans emerged from their homes to do their holiday shopping, the authorities pounced on them and dragged them off to jail. Immigration police continued to ambush Africans outside the few health clinics that agree to serve asylum seekers.

On Christmas Eve itself, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that the construction of a border fence had been completed and that it was effectively preventing any more African asylum seekers from entering the country. He then said that the government would now focus on driving out all of the 60,000 or so African asylum seekers who are already in the country.

Netanyahu's Christmas Eve call to cleanse the country of non-Jewish Africans conclusively put to rest any hope that his government would stop hounding the asylum seekers once the border fence was complete. It also dispelled the argument that Israel's war on Africans was only the pet project of its then-Interior Minister Eli Yishai, and it validated my report published two weeks earlier by The Electronic Intifada, The Dirty Dozen, which identified Netanyahu as the country's top racist.

In February, United Nations officials in Israel accused Israel of secretly coercing asylum seekers languishing in its detention facilities to return to the country they fled from, Eritrea, which the UN called a "totalitarian state" that "tortures dissenters." Forcing them to choose between deportation or rotting in jail indefinitely, the editors of Haaretz called Israel's offer to Eritrean asylum seekers a "'voluntary' death penalty."

A week later, Haaretz revealed that the Israeli government had also been secretly sending asylum seekers back to Sudan. Confronted with the evidence, the government admitted to secretly smuggling out over 2,000 Sudanese asylum seekers. The act even contravened a ruling of Israel's Supreme Court, due to the danger the asylum seekers face upon their repatriation. The United Nations representative in Israel called this act "the gravest violation possible of the convention that Israel has signed – a crime never before committed."

Caught in the act, Israel's attorney-general ordered an end to the secret deportations of asylum seekers from Eritrea. But a month later, in April, the deputy attorney general clarified that the order does not apply to asylum seekers from Sudan. Another month later, in May, the attorney-general announced that he had instructed his office to formulate guidelines which would streamline the deportation of all African asylum seekers living in Israel.

Israel's election results, and their impact on the state's asylum regime

In the run-up to the Israeli elections, most major political parties campaigned on platforms which included advocating the expulsion of all African asylum seekers. The ruling Likud Beiteinu party publicly spoke of the war on Africans as one of the government's "accomplishments" and a good reason for it to be re-elected. The Strong Israel party continued its tradition of organizing anti-African rallies in the Tel Aviv neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of asylum seekers.

When the final tally was taken, the National Union party, as a faction of the Jewish Home party, received a strong showing and entered the government as a key coalition partner, with 12 seats. The two members of Knesset who left the National Union party to form Strong Israel were not reelected to parliament, but only just barely. From outside the Knesset, they continue to drum up anti-African sentiment.

Eli Yishai's Shas party won 11 seats in the new Knesset, but rival religious party Jewish Home forged an alliance with new secular Yesh Atid Party to keep Shas out of the coalition. Yishai grudgingly relinquished his hold on the all-important Interior Ministry, which wields immense power over the lives of African asylum seekers. But before he completed his tenure, he published an official government report on African asylum seekers to perpetuate his racist legacy.

Named for the Israeli academic who authored it, the Sofer Report is a blueprint for ethnically cleansing the country of Africans. It calls for toughening the rules of engagement on Israel's borders to send smugglers a message – a euphemism for possibly instructing soldiers to shoot asylum seekers, a position of some of Israel's most racist lawmakers. It labels Israeli citizens and others who advocate for the rights of African asylum seekers as "anti-Semitic" and possibly terrorists, and calls for them to be arrested.

The Sofer Report minces no words concerning the 60,000 African asylum seekers already in Israel. "There's no room for another ethno-national group in Israel," the report says, "they must be expelled." The report dispenses with the whitewashed term "detention" that the government once used to describe its prison for asylum seekers, and now shamelessly adopts the word "concentration" to describe the camp it decrees the Africans must be rounded into.

In the new Netanyahu government, Yishai was replaced at his post in the Interior Ministry by Likud-Beiteinu lawmaker Gideon Sa'ar. Upon taking office, Saar publicly confirmed that Israel's policy remains unchanged, that it was still committed to expelling all African asylum seekers from the country. Touring Tel Aviv neighborhoods with large African populations, he stopped to listen to veteran Israelis' concerns, but refused to speak to any Africans that approached him.

Meanwhile, Likud Beiteinu lawmaker Miri Regev, who riled up the May 23 pogromists by telling them that non-Jewish African asylum seekers are "a cancer in the body" of the nation – and later apologized after the violence, not to African asylum seekers, but to Israeli cancer victims, for comparing them to Africans – was appointed by Netanyahu to head the Knesset Interior Committee, the very body that decides the fate of those asylum seekers.

No salvation for African asylum seekers will come from Yesh Atid, the first-term secular party that surprised pundits by garnering the second-largest amount of seats in the governing coalition. The day after the May 23, 2012 anti-African pogrom, its leader Yair Lapid said that he supported deporting the whole lot. Since entering the Knesset, he personally torpedoed an attempt to freeze a cruel new law that would strip asylum seekers of their hard-earned wages, according to Haaretz reporter Jonathan Lis.

Popular racism in Israeli society

Wounded Eritrean man after knife attack in South Tel Aviv Internet cafe July 31, 2012 (OrenZiv/Activestills)

In March, an Israeli NGO released a report documenting racist statements by Members of Knesset and other public figures in Israel. The report found that espousing racism had become so commonplace in Israel that incidences of it had nearly doubled during the 2012 calendar year. As this toxic discourse trickles down to the Israeli public, the daily dehumanization of non-Jewish African asylum seekers passes almost without comment.

When a kindergarten for the children of veteran Israelis planned a one-day outing to visit another kindergarten for the children of African asylum seekers, Israeli parents flew into a rage. Israeli expecting mothers openly discussed strategies for avoiding having to share a delivery room with pregnant African women. The director of a Tel Aviv hospital complained to the Knesset that the African birthrate is too high.

Africans are so hated in Israel that the word "Sudanese" has turned into a general curse word that can be applied to anyone, as can be seen in this graffiti, photographed on the streets of Tel Aviv: "Oz [Israeli man's name], you [damned] Sudanese". Racism is so widespread that Israeli civics teachers are actually afraid to even bring up the topic of human rights in the classroom, fearful of the hateful responses they receive from students. My friend and colleague Lia Tarachansky documented this phenomenon in her recent video, Israel's New Generation of Racists.

During this time period, between November 2012 and May 2013, there was at least one march through the African neighborhoods of Tel Aviv calling for the immediate deportation of all non-Jewish African asylum seekers every single month. Racist assaults on Africans are a regular occurrence in Israel at all times, but they are especially prevalent right after these racist rallies.

Violent physical attacks on non-Jewish African asylum seekers are so socially acceptable in Israel that they can easily occur in the middle of a city street in broad daylight. On occasion, Jewish Africans – more commonly referred to as Ethiopian-Israelis – are misidentified as non-Jewish Africans and targeted for attack. Women and children get no reprieve from the onslaught: those who seek protection at a Tel Aviv shelter for African women and children are also assaulted, continually.

In its annual report issued at the end of 2012, an Israeli NGO noted that incidences of violence directed at African asylum seekers reached a record high in the last year. But the increasing attacks on African asylum seekers should come as no surprise, given the government's response to earlier incidences of racist violence. After an Jewish Israeli man firebombed eight African homes back in April, including one which housed a kindergarten for African children, the state let him go without any jail time, only requiring that he perform a few months of community service. Meanwhile, it deported the African man who ran the kindergarten.

Smear Attacks and demonization 

Israelis who advocate the immediate deportation of all African asylum seekers are able to generate the most amount of sympathy for their cause when reports emerge of a violent crime committed by an asylum seeker. Although the crime rate among asylum seekers remains lower than the crime rate for veteran Israelis, racists capitalize on any negative incident to tar all asylum seekers as violent criminals.

In the closing days of 2012, an African asylum seeker was accused of viciously raping an 80-year-old Israeli woman outside her home in Tel Aviv. The Strong Israel party quickly organized a rally demanding that all African asylum seekers be deported immediately. As my video of the event makes plain, on their way home from the rally, Strong Israel party activists accost every dark-skinned person they pass. The Africans hang their heads, powerless to reply.

Just two weeks later, another 80-year-old Israeli woman was raped, also in the Tel Aviv area. No public furor ensued and no angry marches were organized in response, because the alleged perpetrator was, like the victim, a Jewish Israeli. When Israel's rape culture is considered, exploiting the victims of sex attacks to advance the agenda of cleansing the country of non-Jewish Africans is revealed to be especially grotesque.

Consider what has occurred in the last seven months alone: The Jerusalem chief of police was indicted for sex crimes involving nine female officers. An Israeli mayor charged with "repeatedly raping a female subordinate over a lengthy period of time" was given no jail time, and instead invited to attend an event organized by the municipality marking "International Women's Day." And to Israel's "number one pimp," who trafficked and severely beat literally hundreds of women into sexual slavery, no punishment was meted out whatsoever.

Consider the numbers: In 2011, the last year for which there are statistics, 3,795 serious sexual crimes were committed in Israel. A study published in December found that a full 20 percent of Israeli men admit to having sexually assaulted at least one woman. Another study published in January found that more than 60 percent of Israeli men do not consider forcing a woman they are acquainted with to have sex against her will – to be rape.

Sexual violence is a huge, huge problem in Israel and anyone who has committed a sex crime – white or black, Israeli or otherwise – must face justice. But any calls to deport or otherwise punish non-Jewish African asylum seekers based on the actions of criminals who share their ethnicity are the very definition of racial discrimination. This would be plainly understood as such if the same accusations were made against Jewish people living anywhere else in the world.

As I have previously documented, one of the main reasons for so much of the Israeli hatred for Africans is the widespread opposition to consensual inter-racial romantic relationships between Israelis and Africans. In March, two leading Israeli rabbis decreed that under Jewish law, it is even permissible to break the Sabbath - number four of the Ten Commandments – when trying to break up mixed couples. In April, an Israeli NGO released a report comparing Israeli anti-miscegenation sentiment to the public demand for racial purity in Nazi Germany.

Legal reprieve for asylum seekers

There have been small legal victories for African asylum seekers in the Israeli court system in recent months, achieved through the hard work of committed anti-racism activists. Though these court victories do not even come close to making up for all of the suffering Israel continues to heap on non-Jewish African asylum seekers, they do deserve mentioning.

In April, Israel's High Court overturned a lower court ruling that torture suffered by asylum seekers could not qualify as a humanitarian reason justifying their release from detention. In May, a district court judge ruled that it is inhumane to hold children in a detention center indefinitely, and as a result, a handful of children and their mothers were released from holding. Also in May, Israel's High Court overturned a lower court ruling that increased criminal punishments meted out to African asylum seekers solely because they are African asylum seekers.

Most significantly, in March, Israel's High Court ordered the government to justify its draconian Law for the Prevention of Infiltration, amended in January 2012. The law has provided the legal basis for Israel's incarceration without trial of thousands of African asylum seekers. In an extraordinary move, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees applied to the court and called upon it to render the law unconstitutional. The state has yet to reply.

A Sudanese woman shows her UNHCR Refugee card from Egypt during a refugee protest in front of the government's offices in center Tel Aviv October 14, 2012. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills)

On the Winter Solstice of 2012, the ruling party in South Africa, the African National Congress, voted to boycott, divest from, and slap sanctions on Israel. The text adopted by the ANC cites Israel's treatment of Palestinians as the impetus for the resolution, but another resolution passed at the same conference specifically states: "The ANC abhors the recent Israeli state-sponsored xenophobic attacks and deportation of Africans and requests that this matter should be escalated to the African Union."

In April, even the U.S. State Department issued a public criticism of the Israeli government's treatment of non-Jewish African asylum seekers. Mondoweiss's Annie Robbins notes that the State Department's condemnation seems to mirror the language of the report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on non-Jewish African asylum seekers, which I co-authored in January 2012.

Disinformation and propaganda campaigns

As word began to spread of its abominable treatment of African asylum seekers, Israel's propaganda machine kicked in. Well-oiled from decades of distributing disinformation about Palestinians, Israel's hasbara agents set themselves to the task of refurbishing Israel's international image. Not only did they deny that the government's treatment of Africa asylum seekers was racist; they actually had the audacity to claim that it was better than any other country in the world.

In November, the spokesperson of the Israeli embassy to the United States took to the pages of The Washington Post to defend the government's record on African asylum seekers. Amazingly, Aaron Sagui's letter to the editor whitewashing Israel's attacks on Africans contains nearly as many lies as it does sentences. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Sagui has the chutzpah to claim that Israel provides "full health services and free education" for the asylum seekers, and that it "not only meets UN requisites… but exceeds them."

The campaign to cover up Israel's persecution of African asylum seekers is not only fought by the Israeli government itself. The cause is also eagerly taken up by Zionist celebrities, such as British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who had the gall to claim in February that Israel "leads the world" in accepting asylum seekers. In December, a group of Zionist intellectuals went one step further, demanding in a public petition that the rest of the world shoulder responsibility for Israel's non-Jewish African asylum seekers and take them in.

At the same time, Israel sought to prevent the publication of any more factual information about African asylum seekers that might portray them in a positive light. In January, the Knesset Research and Information Center fired Dr. Gilad Natan, who at the request of Members of Knesset, had compiled multiple reports documenting crime rates among asylum seekers and a report comparing Israel's treatment of asylum seekers to their treatment in other countries.

Natan cited official police statistics that showed asylum seekers commit far fewer crimes than native Israelis, not more. His final report found that in other countries, the vast majority of Sudanese and Eritreans are granted refugee status. It found that the number of asylum seekers in Israel is small compared to those other countries, even in proportion to Israel's small population. And it found that Israel's financial contribution to refugee settlement is infinitesimal compared to other developed nations.

Border police patrolling south Tel Aviv, Israel. (photo: Activestills)

These had become inconvenient truths for the Israeli government, which had come under increasing pressure to justify its cruel policies. After he was axed, Natan's official report comparing and contrasting the treatment of asylum seekers in different countries was deleted from the Knesset website altogether, as though it never existed. Out of sight, out of mind – see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

So while the truth is out of sight and mind, it remains evil, to the very core. Since Israel took over responsibility for reviewing refugee status requests from UNHCR, out of the 60,000 non-Jewish African asylum seekers living in Israel, Israel has approved only one single solitary application. And that one African woman that the State of Israel, in all of its magnanimity, has deigned to bequeath refugee status upon - is an albino. Of the 1,400-plus refugee status requests made by asylum seekers held in Israeli detention centers, the state has not even processed even a single one.

Diaspora Jewry's hypocritical silence

During the 12 months from June 2012 to May 2013, not one single mainstream American Jewish organization publicly criticized Israel's war on African asylum seekers. It wasn't that they refrained from criticizing Israel altogether, for they did not shy away from doing so over issues they felt strongly about. For example, in May, U.S. Jewish leaders publicly called upon the Israeli government to cancel a proposed tourist tax. It's that they just don't care about Israel's African asylum seekers.

Just before Passover, all major American Jewish organizations signed off on a letter urging President Obama and Congress to make it easier for asylum-seekers and undocumented migrants to become U.S. citizens. "American Jews know too well the impact of restrictive immigration policies, and we have seen how… the failure of national leaders to fix the broken immigration system has fueled racist, nativist, and extremist groups who blame immigrants for our country's problems," they wrote.

If American Jews know too well the impact of restrictive immigration policies, it is because they remember that the United States and most other Western nations refused to accept Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi Holocaust. And yet, as two Israeli immigration lawyers point out in +972 Magazine, those same Jewish refugees would be sent back to the crematoria today if they were judged by Israel's racist standards for accepting African asylum seekers.

A tiny minority of Jewish anti-racism activists have issued passionate appeals to Jews around the world, pleading with them to urge Israel to accept its African asylum seekers. They couch their calls for mercy in the softest language possible, fearful of offending community leaders, who have near-zero tolerance for any criticism of Israel's actions, no matter how immoral. And yet their cries fall on deaf ears. A whole year after Israel's anti-African pogrom, big-box American Jewry maintains total silence over Israel's persecution of African asylum seekers.

And so the persecution continues unabated.

David Sheen is a writer and filmmaker born in Canada and based in Israel. His website is and he tweets at @davidsheen.

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