Guest Post By Talya Swissa*
A bloody-nosed Binyamin Netanyahu has won a third term as Israel’s prime minister in this week’s election. In the run-up to the vote, many column inches were devoted to the demise of the Israeli left and explanations for the impending lurch to the right. Those predictions look to have been (slightly) overcooked, but as the above video footage shot in Tel Aviv last month shows, right wing extremism is alive and well in Israel, and more and more the target is not just Palestinians, but Africans too. (In September, Olufemi Terry wrote on the Israeli interior minister’s claim that the country “belongs to the white man,” and earlier Ashley Cunningham wrote about the home of Eritrean assylum seekers being firebombed.)
The video above shows the extent to which Israeli politicians have succeeded in criminalizing African asylum seekers. The demonstration took place in Levinsky Park, Tel-Aviv, home to many homeless refugees and was led by Michael Ben-Ari along with another ultra-right wing Knesset member, Aryeh Eldad of Otzma LeYisrael. Both are known for inciting xenophobia among the already vulnerable population by grafting resentful anti-African, anti-Arab and anti-leftists sentiments onto one another.
The residents of the poorer neighborhoods of south Tel-Aviv have been neglected long before the arrival of Eritreans and Sudanese to these neighborhoods. Yet years of government and municipal negligence can now be overlooked due to the mobilization of anti-African sentiment and the shifting of blame on African asylum seekers. Israel is systematically worsening the situation in the southern neighborhoods of Tel Aviv by denying asylum seekers a minimum standard of living. The lack of sufficient mechanisms for processing asylum claims leaves a growing number of asylum seekers undocumented, workless, and in many cases homeless in the already impoverished parts of Tel Aviv. Their lack of legal status leaves both the residents of south Tel Aviv and asylum seekers in a state of limbo and sparks tensions among these populations that could have otherwise been avoided with proper government intervention.
But it took more than just denying Africans an asylum mechanism to get to this point. Michael Ben Ari and Aryeh Eldad are far from being the only politicians shouting racist rants and calling for the deportation of Sudanese and Eritreans. Last July, Miri Regev, Knesset member of the Likud party, compared Sudanese people to “cancer” and called for their deportation, and Knesset member Yulia Shamalov Berkovitich of the centrist-liberal Kadima party called for the imprisonment of human rights activists assisting asylum seekers. “These phonies,” she said, “first of all I would jail them all for incitement of Jews against Jews. This is Solution Number One: to jail all human rights [activists]. We can transport them afterwards to those same places that we’re building, the camps. Let them work there.”
I used to work with refugees and asylum seekers in Israel, before coming to the United States in 2010 to pursue my studies. I feel deeply saddened by every visit home since then: Asylum seekers are scared, Israelis develop hyper-nationalist Jewish sentiments encouraged by politicians and grow less and less tolerant as the country’s immigration policies shift further to the right. There have always been extreme right-wing groups in Israel, what is different today is that they have managed to infiltrate mainstream political discourse and mobilize latent racism among the population. With every visit I feel the normalization of racism in all levels of discourse. Today, the term “Sudanese” refers to all Africans in Israel, regardless of their origin, and is also used as a synonym for criminal, infiltrator, but never a refugee.
Israel abandoned any formal and clear process of defining asylum seekers and granting them status. Instead, politicians choose to manipulate public opinion and stoke xenophobic fears, labeling all asylum seekers “infiltrators” for electoral gain. The combination of denying asylum seekers accommodating measures, their high concentration in the poorer neighborhoods of south Tel-Aviv, along with political incitement and ethno-nationalist claims, generates considerable tensions and heightens the anxiety of Israelis.
Since 2006 Israel has seen an influx of African asylum seekers crossing into the country via the Israel-Egypt border, the vast majority reside in Tel-Aviv, Eilat, Ashdod and other major cities in the country. The number of asylum seekers is estimated to be roughly about 60,000. The majority of individuals originate from Sudan and Eritrea, two countries to which Israel, subject to international legal principles, cannot return asylum seekers, despite false claims made by politicians such as Michael Ben Ari of the ultra right-wing party Otzma LeYisrael in an attempt to gain public support. Although Sudanese and Eritreans have high refugee recognition rates globally, they are denied an asylum process in Israel and are instead given group-based protection. Yet this group-protection does not provide them a stable legal status. Their rights are severely limited and their wellbeing is threatened by the country’s changing immigration policies.
The situation severely deteriorated in the last few years. While a few rape cases committed by asylum seekers have been reported, they caused media waves quite unlike rapes committed by Israelis, fueling the misconception that most rapes are committed by Africans.
The media manipulation, alongside racist statements by politicians, sparked waves of violent attacks on Africans. 2012 saw a high number of violent incidents against Africans, including molotov cocktails thrown into houses of asylum seekers as well as an Eritrean kindergarten in the Shapira neighborhood of south Tel-Aviv.
“Ismail”, one of the first Sudanese refugees to arrive in Israel in 2006 and reside in south Tel Aviv, describes the change of atmosphere he has witnessed in his neighborhood. “I feel unwelcomed, we feel unwelcomed.” Ismail, a father of four says that he is “not certain of what is happening, people demonstrate against Sudanese, like we’ve all committed crimes, when the demonstrations take place in the neighborhood I don’t send my children to school, it is too dangerous.” Ismail, who left Egypt due to the deterioration of conditions for asylum seekers, is saddened to be reminded of the reasons that made him leave Egypt and seek asylum in Israel in the first place.
The manipulation has worked. Politicians have successfully managed to create a state of hysteria, demonising anyone who tries to defend the rights of asylum seekers in the country as a “traitor”. In today’s political atmosphere, it is not only Africans who are criminalized, it is anyone who dares to stand up for their rights. In one of the race riots in May 2012, human rights activists as well as journalists were threatened and attacked by demonstrators.
African refugees are the latest populist cause mobilized by politicians to score electoral points. The high concentration of asylum seekers in the poor neighborhoods of Tel Aviv provides fertile ground for further political incitement against these populations. Instead of decreasing the burden on the poorer neighborhoods by adopting asylum legislation, politicians label asylum seekers infiltrators, deny them a minimum standard of living and increase racist fanaticism among Israelis.
* Talya Swissa is a student at Columbia University.