Israeli Knesset member Danny Danon of the ruling Likud Party, who is chairperson of an organisation called Deportation Now, spoke at a rally inciting the recent xenophobic riots in Tel Aviv. He said of foreigners, mainly African migrants and refugees: “The infiltrators are a national plague and we must deport them immediately before it’s too late.”
I was reminded of a support group for African asylum seekers and foreign workers I met a few months ago in Tel Aviv. Hearing I was South African, two women came to me afterwards. Both were South African and had children born in Israel. One had been living and working in Israel for 13 years, doing the sort of work most Israelis will not. She proudly informed me that her 10-year-old son, who speaks Hebrew fluently and regards Israel as his home, would one day serve in the Israeli army. I did not have the heart to point out that Israel was attempting to deny citizenship to children like her son, despite their right to it under international law.
Last week’s xenophobic and racist violence ostensibly targeted Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers, but xenophobia and racism do not make such fine distinctions – as South Africans know. Any non-Jewish black African in the wrong place would feel the anger of a society that has neglected its own: Ethiopian, Russian and Mizrahi Jews, as well as Palestinians, Bedouins and Druze who, not being Jewish, are denied numerous rights and often excluded from discussions on citizenship.
The government’s neglect and neo-liberal policies have hit these communities hard. The obsessive attempt to maintain the state’s Jewish character led to the riots. Poverty fuelled by ethnocratic nationalism is a potent combination. And when racist, anti-democratic ideologies become legislated, well, we South Africans know that route painfully well.
The eruption of hatred horrified many Israelis. Journalist Yuval Ben-Ami recalled the “atrocities committed against Jews in Europe”. Yet the links between the treatment of Israel’s own Palestinian citizens and the xenophobic attacks are stark. Israeli Palestinians, despite being heralded as proof of Israel being a democracy, contend with about 40 discriminatory laws. A classic case is the attempt to enforce a loyalty oath that will force citizens to swear allegiance to a “Jewish democratic state”. The irony of forcing people to swear loyalty to a democracy and the undemocratic, exclusionary nature of the oath has been lost on many Israelis. As some Palestinians argue, without their presence Israel would probably not deem it necessary to define itself as Jewish.
The biggest crime of the African community, like the Palestinians, is simply that they are not Jewish. The riots erupted only days after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the Cabinet: “Illegal infiltrators … are threatening the fabric of Israeli society, its national security and its national identity.” The word “infiltrators” was first used against Palestinian refugees in 1954 to legitimise their expulsion.
International law obliges Israel to offer asylum and attendant rights to those who can claim refugee status. The Prevention of Infiltration Bill stipulates lengthy prison terms, without trial, for refugees. The original Bill of 1954 criminalised Palestinians who tried to return to their homes. It has now been expanded to target all non-Jews entering Israel illegally through Egypt.
Among the targets of the violence were African workers, who form part of many foreign workers “imported” after the Oslo accords in an attempt to end Israel’s dependence on Palestinian workers. It was assumed the foreign workers would eventually return home, leaving Israel Jewish. But many stayed and brought their families and had children in Israel. There are now 200000 to 300 000 foreign workers in Israel, a significant number in an Israeli population of less than eight million.
Their continued presence and non-Jewishness is not good, as Netanyahu so succinctly put it, for Israel’s “national identity”. He was obviously thinking of a “democratic” national identity that wants to rid itself of “infiltrators”, based on race. As a Jewish South African who grew up under apartheid, this shames me, as it should shame all Jews and all South Africans.
Heidi-Jane Esakov works at the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg