Piki Ish-Shalom, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of International Relations at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, reflects on an outbreak of racial hatred and xenophobic violence in Israel. – Jeff
History is a reservoir of teachings. For example, fusing together xenophobia, social unrest, racial stereotyping and sexual hysteria is especially explosive, endangering the marginalized others, the social fabric, and the political system as a whole. Looking at the rise of the xenophobic right in Europe, it sometimes seems that many Europeans have forgotten the lessons they so painfully learned. I fear that Israel, on the other hand, has not learned those fundamental teachings at all.
In the last couple of years Israel faced a steady inflow of Africans, smuggled in through its borders. Their numbers are hard to know accurately, but the estimation is in the tens of thousands. Most of them are from Eritrea and Sudan; countries torn by wars and hunger. Many of them are asylum-seekers, who apply for refugee status. But the state authorities mostly refuse to examine their requests, as is required by the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951), of which Israel is party. On the other hand, they are not deported, and thus remain in a purgatory state in which they are legally banned from work, do not enjoy any social rights, and are pushed into lives of misery and poverty at the margins of society.
Hardly any asylum-seeker is granted the status of a refugee because Israel fails to fulfill its legal responsibility to examine their requests. Hence, they remain as asylum-seekers and are perceived as illegal immigrants. Many of them are crowded in the streets of southern Tel Aviv alongside poor sectors of Israeli society, sectors that themselves suffer from marginalization, alienation, and a host of economic and social problems. Seeing their streets crowded by foreigners, who allegedly steal their jobs and affect their standards of living, alienates those sectors further and flairs their anger at the government. Nothing new in the stratification of racial hate, unfortunately.
Recent weeks have witnessed a worsening of this explosive situation. Some asylum-seekers are reported to be involved in property crimes. Driven to hunger, they seize whatever survival method they possess, including theft. Worse, during May, two gang rapes of Israeli young women by asylum-seekers took place, very cruel and violent ones. And these rapes broke whatever restraints Israel society had. Racial and hate discourse erupted, and with it, violence against the asylum-seekers and those individuals and civil society organizations that help them. Molotov cocktails were thrown at apartments of asylum-seekers, violent attacks were directed at them, and a violent demonstration took place in southern Tel Aviv on May 22nd.
The racial dynamic took an even uglier turn. Politicians rode on the racial wave and participated in the hate discourse. Some of them participated in the demonstration, leading the hate speech that resulted in more violence, lynch-like. Members of Parliament Miri Regev (Likud), Danny Danon (Likud), and Michael Ben-Ari (Eretz Yisrael Shelanu), participated. Regev called the asylum-seekers a “cancer,” and the others blamed them, and those who stand by their rights, as a threat to the national identity of the state of Israel. Ben-Ari accused asylum – seekers of spreading diseases and terrorism. And it is not only back-benchers who participate in this hate carnival. Minister of Interior, Eli Yishai (Shas) has been leading this campaign for a long time, demanding the deportation of all asylum-seekers. Yishai is the minister who is responsible for forming the non-existent policy towards them. Politicians, so it seems, identified the populist wave and decided to ride it to divert the blame for their failure to form a policy, hoping further to gain popularity by being responsive to the plight of society. Rather than restraining public discourse, these politicians decided to ride the dragon spewing hatred.
Well, there is nothing unique to Israel in populist politicians either. But Israel’s history is weaved with that of the Jewish people (and hence also Israel’s special role in the making of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees). That should have made the Israeli authorities more sensitive and responsive to the call of refugees and to the dangers of racial hate speech. Yet, these sensitivities were silenced by the xenophobic hysteria that came to dominate public discourse, a public discourse which has been filled with adjectives echoing a long tragic past, resembling other racial hate discourses. If one would only change the nouns from Africans to Jews, one could easily be reminded of racial propaganda directed toward Jews, resulting in the worst atrocity in human history. From words to deeds: no wonder violence against asylum-seekers has erupted so forcefully.
Following the violent events of May 22nd, the political leadership at long last woke up and started to speak up against racism, violence and those politicians who participated in the carnival. President Shimon Peres condemned them, and he was soon to be followed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Speaker of Parliament Rubi Rivlin, and many others (mute until then). May 22nd might well be a positive turning point to a more responsible Israeli leadership and more sober and sane Israeli public discussion about the question of asylum – seekers. Yet, it might prove as another stepping stone in unearthing a history that ought to remain a warning signal, not a road map. History is a reservoir of teachings. But the lessons must be learned and re-learned.