Tel Aviv is known as Israel’s liberal capital. But it’s not that liberal, though parts of it are wildly left-wing compared to the rest of the country. Thousands of people marched in Tel Aviv demanding that Africans return to Africa, and their views are being echoed at the highest levels. Here you’ll see gay couples walking hand in hand, beaches where no one even attempts modesty and a proliferation of non-kosher restaurants. Strolling along the city’s Red Sea promenade, it’s easy to forget that all those big issues that would define modern Israel: Palestine, Zionism, religion, the Holocaust.
But, perhaps befitting a city that prides itself on its European rather than Middle Eastern feel, Tel Aviv is experiencing a distinctly European phenomenon: A vicious, visceral backlash against immigrants and immigration, aimed squarely at the black Africans who once found refuge in Israel.
On Wednesday, thousands of people attended a rally with a simple message: Immigrants, get out. Haaretz journalist David Sheen reported that demonstrators chanted “The people demand the expulsion of the infiltrators”, “We have come to expunge the darkness”, and “Tel Aviv is for Jews. Sudan is for Sudanese.”
Sudanese immigrants came in for particular abuse. Mostly from southern Sudan, tens of thousands of Sudanese fled to Israel to escape the long and brutal civil war in their own country. But now their place of refuge is turning against them, and against the Eritreans and Ethiopians who together make up the bulk of African immigration into Israel.
Almost inevitably given the potent mix of fear and hate, the demonstration turned violent, and at least 12 black men and women were attacked by the crowd. A grocery store servicing migrants was trashed, and one white, Jewish woman, who bravely disagreed with the demonstration’s sentiments, was told she deserved to be raped.
This kind of response to immigration is not unique to Israel. As Kevin Bloom pointed out in the Daily Maverick on Wednesday, xenophobia and anti-immigrant feeling is rife across Europe, North America and here in South Africa. But Israel, he argues, gets into more trouble because established media tends to view everything Israel does with suspicion. He has a point; the rhetoric about immigrants stealing jobs, bringing down property prices and in general being a drain on society is familiar no matter where the problem arises.
But there is a subtle difference to Israeli complaints about immigrants, one that is enunciated even at government level. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, warned recently that “illegal infiltrators flooding the country” posed an existential threat to Israel itself: “If we don’t stop their entry, the problem that currently stands at 60,000 could grow to 600,000 and that threatens our existence as a Jewish and democratic state,” he said.
Interior minister Eli Yishai, told an audience in April “There is no place in the world as good for foreign workers as the state of Israel”. This comment is not intended positively; he says foreign workers are treated too well, arguing that they should be denied maternity leave and forced to return to their own country to have babies. Because – obviously – foreign babies jeopardise national security. As he explained in a previous comment from 2009, immigrants’ children are “liable to damage the state’s Jewish identity, constitute a demographic threat and increase the danger of assimilation”.
The underlying theme in all this is a fear that Israel’s identity is being diluted and that the country’s Jewishness – the identity that defines the state itself – will be fatally undermined. There are parallels to this in Israel’s relationship with Palestine and Palestinians. A recent court decision denied Israeli Arabs the right to live in Israel with their spouses from the Palestinian territories, with one of the judges describing the consequences of allowing such cross-border cohabitation as akin to “national suicide”.
Israel’s fear of immigrants, be they Palestinian or African, is intrinsically linked to their fears for the future of Israel. In this it’s not unlike apartheid South Africa, where – according to blogger Ben White, who dug up some old headlines – the ‘national suicide’ line about protecting the purity of the governing race was used. Read the National Party’s 1948 statement justifying apartheid: “…either we must follow the course of equality, which must eventually mean national suicide for the white race, or we must take the course of separation”. If this sounds eerily similar to the phrasing used by Israeli politicians today, it’s because both apartheid South Africa and Israel are countries founded on a specific identity – whiteness in South Africa’s case, and Jewishness for Israel. Any threat to this identity through assimilation, integration and dilution is more than just a cultural or social challenge. Instead, it is an attack on the state, which must respond.
Israel’s response so far has been to up the pace and scope of deportations and to begin construction on the world’s largest detention centre for asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. Some politicians would have the country opt for more extreme measures, such as fencing off all its borders and physically preventing people from entering its territory – a measure already in place on the border between Israel and the Palestinian West Bank. But the experience of countries such as the US, Italy, France and Britain shows there is not much anyone can do to stop a determined immigrant, fleeing poverty or conflict for the dream of a better, safer life.
Instead, Israel should probably work on a solution that doesn’t involve trying to dam the flood or turn back the river. As Steven Klein wrote for Haaretz: “The best way forward is to accept our new burden as a reality and learn from the lessons of Europe’s failed detention facility policies. The sad reality is Israel’s leaders are too xenophobic to see that their policy is the true long-term threat to the effort to manage the migrant issue.” DM