Taking the mask off: Asylum seekers in Israel

‘In this land, rights are determined by being part of an ethnic tribe, not the human tribe’. In interview with Zina Smith, activist David Sheen argues that recent protests by African asylum seekers hold a mirror up to Israel.

Asylum seekers protest before Ministry of Interior. Laura Chiesa.

Tel Aviv, 2nd February 2014. Over a thousand people gather to protest against the continued inaction of the Israeli government towards the claims of asylum seekers in Israel. The gathering continues a month and half of unprecedented activism, initiated by asylum seekers following the increasingly harsh approach of the Israeli government. It now only offers two options: ‘go back home or go to prison’. 

The first of these protests, aptly named #MarchForFreedom, took place on 16th December 2013.150 Sudanese asylum seekers walked out of Holot ‘open’ detention centre for 6 hours until they reached the Knesset (Hebrew word for Parliament) in Jerusalem to make their claim. They demanded their rights be recognised under the 1951 Refugee Convention, rather than under the recent ‘December 10th 2013’.

The December 10th amendment has made it possible to jail asylum seekers for one year without trial, followed by additional indefinite detention. It was the government’s reaction to a ruling by the Supreme Court of Justice on 16th September 2013, which found that the ‘Prevention of Infiltration Law (2012)’, permitting the detention of asylum seekers without trial for a three-year period’, was unconstitutional and fundamentally contravened Article 5 of the Basic Law: human dignity and liberty, as well as being contrary to International Law.

A week after the initial march, protests held in Tel Aviv attracted some 20,000 asylum seekers alongside Israeli activists. Kinde Yitzhak, one of the Eritrean organizers of the protest explained why he was there: "We are refugees seeking recognition, rights and freedom. We are asking for treatment that is in line with Israel's democratic values and our basic human rights." Despite the significant scale of the protests, including a 3-day strike by asylum seekers who have been working ‘illegally', and support from Israeli human rights organisations, this call to action seems to have made little difference. 

As of January 2014, the government continued to implement its plan to summon asylum seekers to ‘check-in’ twice a day to an open detention centre, making any semblance of normal life impossible. In a public statement, a UNHCR representative announced: “I am particularly disquieted about the purpose of the so-called 'open' residence facility in Holot which, in its current form and despite its designation as 'open,' would appear to operate as a detention center from where there is no release.

According to Israel’s official Population and Immigration Authority figures from October 2013, 53,636 Asylum seekers are in Israel. Of these, 35,000 originate from Eritrea, while the majority of others are from Sudan, with a handful from other African states. Residing in limbo, many for more than 7 years, they have become a ‘formally unrecognised’ group, demonised by the government and popular media as ‘infiltrators’. Only two Eritrean asylum seekers have been recognised as official refugees, despite their high global refugee recognition rate. In comparison, there are approximately 93,000 tourist ‘over-stayers’ in Israel, 51,000 of whom are Russian. However this fact seems to have received very little attention.

This provokes the wider question as to why African asylum seekers have been so stigmatised and shunned, not only in comparison to these other groups, but also given Israel’s historic involvement in the drafting of the 1951 Refugee Convention, history of the Holocaust, and sophisticated immigrant absorbing infrastructure.

David Sheen has filmed the day-to-day street level interactions between asylum seekers and the Israeli public as well as politicians. In an interview we discussed developments in Israel since 2007 and the underlying racialised discourse.

ZS: Can you describe what has happened in recent years in relation to the refugee issue in Israel?

DS: Under the Olmert Government between 2006 and 2009 there was no refugee status determination process to speak of, but the government did allow African refugees to stay in the country on the basis of “Group Protection". At that time they could also work. It did not say on their visas they couldn’t work, as it did later. Although it was not as positive, it was not nearly as negative as it could or did get.

Once Netanyahu came into office in 2009, this is when things started getting worse. Under his brand of sectarian politics the debate became more racialised.

In 2010, Rabbi Obadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the Shas party (who at the time were in coalition with Netenyahu’s Likud government), was published saying the reason why non-Jewish people were created was “to serve Jewish people”. There was no attempt by Members of the Shas party to rebuke this statement. At his funeral 800,000 people attended. This showed the kind of support and recognition he had.

Another example of Shas supported activity was that of Rabbi Babayoff, who sat on the Tel Aviv municipal council. He initiated the ‘Rabbis’ Letter’, getting the signatures of dozens of rabbis proclaiming “it is forbidden to sell or rent apartments to African asylum seekers and specifically, in general to non-Jewish people”. This was reproduced on a national scale; hundreds of rabbis in other cities signed a letter reading the same. In any other country this would be scandalous, namely the fact that people who are on the public payroll can advocate discrimination on the basis of race or religion.

African asylum seekers protest in Tel Aviv. Mario Bottellini.

By end of 2010 we already had large scale rallies. Not only large-scale anti-African rallies but you also had rallies to protest against inter-racial relationships between Jews and non-Jews, specifically against Arab men dating Jewish women. They are different but related. At these rallies people exclaimed: “Jewish women for Jewish men”.

In May 2012, on the evening after Israeli Independence Day, several young Israelis were angered by rumours that a sexual attack had occurred against an Israeli woman and the perpetrator was an African man. On the basis of the rumour, someone firebombed seven homes of African families and one of those was a nursery. The person was caught. They were given a few months of community service but will not spend a day in jail. This was a clear sign from the government that this type of behaviour is acceptable and ‘we have no problem if you repeat it’.

In a Times of Israel article, Interior Minister Eli Yishai is reported having said on radio: “Most of the African refugees in Israel engage in crime and should be rounded up in prisons or holding facilities and then deported from the country”. Following this event, every other night, there were Anti-African rallies in South Tel Aviv. These culminated in a mass rally on May 23rd 2012 in which several Members of Knesset (Parliament) spoke, including Likud MK Miri Regev who infamously called African asylum seekers a “cancer” in the body Israel, indicating that the rapid growth of asylum seekers was dangerous for the State of Israel. Indeed she was quoted as saying: “We will not let them thwart our attempt to protect ourselves, our children, our women and our work places, we will continue to protest every day until the last of the Sudanese infiltrators returns to his country".

ZS: Public opinion generally was hardening.

DS: The Israel Democracy Institute survey relating to public attitudes towards asylum seekers (2012) found that 52% of Israeli Jews agreed with the statement ‘Africans are a cancer’. In addition, 33.5% polled said they could “identity with the use of violence” against Africans, with an overwhelming 83% of Israeli Jews expressing support for these demonstrations.

Following this, a new phase started between 2012 and 2013. The government realised the gravity of the situation and had to respond. It should be said that the government had already been laying down the foundations. The Anti-Infiltration Law was voted in January 2012 by a wide margin supported by members of Kadima, but it was not implemented until June of that year. After that, any asylum seeker that arrived was immediately put in jail and never stepped foot in an Israeli city. The construction of the fence (along the border with Egypt) was also fast-tracked.

ZS: However, many thought that the Supreme Court Justice’s ruling in September 2013, which found the Anti-Infiltration Law (2012) to be unconstitutional and contrary to Israel’s Basic Laws, was an achievement at the time. 

DS: Yes, in a sense. All nine Supreme Court Justices over-ruled it, so that should have sent a message to the government. However the government is incapable of self-reflection. After the September 2013 amendment was made, the government made no effort to implement it and just brought into place a new law that incarcerates people into a ‘half-way house’. In my eyes it doesn’t matter what you call it, it's a jail for people whose only crime is not being Jewish. Of course, internationally, traversing an international border is not considered a crime if you have done so in order to actualise your rights as a refugee, according to the Refugee Convention.

A boy at the Tel Aviv protest. Laura Chiesa.

ZS: Do you think any of these latest protests by asylum seekers have made any difference to their circumstances?

DS: To me, it’s a matter of “pulling the mask off”. Israelis are for the large part white, or to be more specific, they have been racialised as white. Their identity is contrasted to that of black Africans who are seen as a threat. This has gone far beyond the general discourse of ‘criminalising the migrant’, it’s about interracial relations. People say: “I don’t want ‘them’ marrying my daughter. I don’t want ‘them’ establishing families. I don’t want mixed marriage.” It's part of the fear of inter-racial relations, the fear that 'they' will out populate the Jewish people. Many people here desire ethnocracy. In this land, rights are determined by being part of an ethnic tribe, not the human tribe.

At the level of politics, Netanyahu’s response has basically been to say that he doesn't care how many strikes there are: asylum seekers are still considered infiltrators and economic migrants and are to be kicked out of Israel. 

ZS: How do Ethiopian Jews feature then in the discussion? 

DS: There was a story last year, when an entire neighbourhood made an agreement that they would not rent or sell any apartment to any Ethiopian. Once it was discovered, it was scandalous. Ethiopians conducted rallies and protests. However, a larger percentage of society was embarrassed by it. The Ethiopian leaders themselves have refused to come out in support of asylum seekers.

The contrast is that the racism towards black Jews is something to be quiet about. With non-Jews, there is no need to keep it secret.

ZS: And what of other discourses involved in this debate, for example the economy, security?

DS: Israel absorbed half a million Russians, and although they may not be super-rich, for the most part they have got houses, they have got cars, television, newspapers, clubs, they are doing well. For the most part they have integrated. Israel has a long history of absorbing immigrants. Clearly it is capable of doing so, and clearly it is not an economic problem. Israel prides itself on being an economic power-house. When it comes to security, there is not a single example of an African asylum seeker who has posed a security threat. It’s all about demographics. People in America may say they only want white people in the country but they will never broadcast it. People here will say it outright, there is no political correctness. Even politicians will say it outright. They do not have to use coded language.

This is where we are “taking off the mask” and shining a mirror on Israel. It's racism in the case of Palestinians and it's racism in the case of African asylum seekers. You don't want your gene code to intermix with another gene code. In Israel there has never been a reckoning.  

Asylum seekers protest in Tel Aviz. Mario Bottellini

About the author

Zina Smith is a graduate student in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at the University of Oxford, completing her thesis on asylum seekers in Israel. She also works as the Funding and Campaigns Officer for The Disability Foundation

David Sheen, is a journalist, activist, documentarian and designer, orginally from Canada, and currently living in Israel. Alongside actively blogging online and making documentaries, Sheen regularly contributes articles for a wide array of publications. He is currently on a month-long speaking tour in the USA, to raise awareness of the plight of asylum seekers in Israel