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Racism in Israel

Reports of anti-African race riots in Tel Aviv in May finally broke western media silence over one of the most contentious issues facing the state of Israel in recent years: the arrival of tens of thousands of asylum-seekers from sub-Saharan Africa.

According to accepted wisdom - or more accurately, received wisdom from Israeli public relations officials - most Jewish Israelis don't abhor non-Jewish Arabs for racial reasons, they only resent them for violently resisting Jewish mass immigration to Palestine. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often portrayed in the American media as a contest over land and other precious resources, but not so often as a battle to defend the Jewish genome. 

But reports of anti-African race riots in Tel Aviv in May finally broke western media silence over one of the most contentious issues facing the state of Israel in recent years: the arrival of tens of thousands of asylum-seekers from sub-Saharan Africa. Foreign observers who long thought that the conflicts in this country take place only over resources, not race, are being forced to reconsider their assumptions in the face of overtly racist Israeli discourse about Africans.

Zionist analysts have been at pains to explain away the physical attacks on non-Jewish people of colour, which have become an almost daily occurrence since May. Even harder for hasbarists to excuse is the widespread popular support for the anti-gentile vigilante violence. An Israel Democracy Institute survey revealed that in the days following the May 23 attack on Africans, over half of Jewish Israelis agreed with a ruling party lawmaker's statement that they are "a cancer", and a third supported the pogrom.

Why all the anti-African hatred? Why did a thousand Israelis swarm the streets of Tel Aviv, attacking any dark-skinned person in sight, including women and children? Some Israelis oppose the presence of the asylum-seekers because they compete with working-class Israelis for the same blue-collar jobs. Others are upset that many of them are not gainfully employed, and are a drain on local resources, resulting in a reduction in the quality of life for the already-impoverished neighbourhoods where they find shelter. 

But these are hardly the core reasons of the conflict. Both of these grievances could be easily addressed if Israel simply abided by its own obligations to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and issued work permits to the asylum-seekers. If employers had to pay Africans equal wages, they would have no comparative advantage over Israeli workers and the labour field would level out. And if all Africans were allowed to work legally, most would, and become contributing members of Israeli society.

Although mainstream media pundits wouldn't know it, since most of them only just discovered the African issue, it isn't the economics of immigration that arouses the ire of most Israelis - it's their race. The Tel Aviv neighbourhoods that have seen the largest influx of asylum-seekers in recent years were demanding the expulsion of all Africans half a decade ago, when their numbers were only a trickle and their economic impact on these communities was next to nil.

From the start, Israeli antagonism to non-Jewish Africans has had a racial basis: specifically, the fierce opposition to inter-racial relationships between Jewish Israeli women and non-Jewish African men. As anti-African activists raise the supposed spectre of mixed marriages and bi-racial children, several Tel Aviv satellite cities have held anti-miscegenation rallies in the last couple of years. In one of these towns, Ashkelon, the racist rally was organized in front of the city hall by the Deputy Mayor. 

Do Israelis who oppose race-mixing realize the irony of their actions? At one of these Tel Aviv-area demonstrations against mixed-race romances in December 2010 in Bat Yam, Jewish National Front party leader Baruch Marzel told Israel's Channel 7 video news: "If this is racism, then the Jewish state is racism, the Sochnut [Jewish Agency] that works against assimilation is also racism, the Torah is racism, and the Keren Kayemet LeYisrael [Jewish National Fund] that sells land only to Jews is racism, and everything is racism."

Marzel is correct to point out that in Israel, racial separation is state-sponsored. The State of Israel has no facility for civil marriage, it only recognizes weddings conducted by clergy. These religious authorities will only marry two people of the opposite sex who are officially registered as belonging to the same faith. The government grudgingly honours the marriage certificates of other countries, but the requirement to wed abroad in order to receive the benefits of state-sanctioned marriage is effectively a tax on miscegenation.

If a non-Jewish person, African or otherwise, finds a Jewish life partner in Israel and wishes to convert to Judaism so that they can legally marry, they are prevented from doing so. African asylum-seekers in Israel who wish to convert to Judaism must request permission from the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Office. In June, it was reported that every non-Jewish person that had made such a request in the previous year had been categorically turned down.

More than this, the government invites Jewish anti-miscegenation groups to its committee meetings, so that they can influence legislation. One of these, Yad L'Achim, physically abducts Jewish women from their homes if they are known to be living with non-Jewish partners, and is continuously cited in US State Department religious freedom reports. The work of both Yad L'Achim and another such group, Lehava - an acronym for "For the Prevention of Assimilation in the Holy Land" - is supported by government funding, via various NGOs. 

Last month, a lynch mob dozens deep killed a Palestinian pedestrian in downtown Jerusalem, in full view of Israeli police; he was beaten to death, then painstakingly revived by paramedics, to the chagrin of the perpetrators who stood on and watched. Hours later, the group Lehava published an Arabic-language leaflet and distributed it in on the streets of East Jerusalem, warning non-Jews that they would suffer the same fate if they tried to flirt with any Jewish women.

When the mere mention of inter-religious romance is insufficient to incite murderous racial hatred, these groups loudly announce that Arabs, Africans and other non-Jews are abducting and raping Jewish women in droves. At a Knesset committee meeting called to discuss this supposed wave of kidnappings, the security services commander in charge of that criminal category specifically stated that the police "do not know of any such phenomenon of abductions" of Jewish women by non-Jewish men. 

Perusing the headlines of Israeli tabloids in recent years reveals that while there most certainly is a wave of rapes and sexual assaults being committed against Jewish women in Israel, the perpetrators of this misogynist violence are themselves Jewish Israelis, politicians and police commanders. The long list of convicted felons and officials currently under investigation for sex crimes includes a former chief of police, a mayor, a minister, and the president of the country. Official police reports further vindicate the African asylum-seekers, stating that on average, they commit far fewer crimes than native Israelis.

Israel receives more foreign aid that any other country in the world, from the American government and from American private citizens, both Jewish and Christian. One of the major reasons for this transfer of wealth is the belief that the governments and the peoples of Israel and the United States of America share many core values. Is one of these core values, as Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai stated in June, that Israel must incarcerate and expel all non-Jewish African asylum-seekers in the country, because Israel "belongs to the white man"? 

Clearly, the United States has yet to fully redress its own abominable treatment of non-white peoples. But ever since the 1967 SCOTUS Loving v. Virginia case, the US government has refused to countenance any religion- or race-based restrictions on intimate relationships. So why does a world superpower with a mixed-race African-American head of state continue to voice support for Israel's self-definition as a "Jewish State", when that definition is translated into a public policy of racial purity intended to keep out all African asylum-seekers and other non-Jews?

About the author

David Sheen writes articles and makes films about the economy, ecology and equality. Originally from Toronto, Canada, Sheen now lives in Jaffa, Israel.

 


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