“Garbage”. “Poison”. “Cancer”. These are some of the words used by Israeli politicians to describe African migrants in the last month, which has seen racist riots, assaults and firebombings in working-class neighbourhoods of south Tel Aviv, encouraged and partly orchestrated by the “mainstream” right.
The real cancer in Israeli society is racism, running riot as Israel entrenches its domination over the Palestinians, Israeli society is further militarised and brutalised, and Israeli politics shifts further and further to the right.
To give a flavour of the kind of things being said about migrants and refugees, one Knesset member (MK, like MP), Aryeh Eldad has argued that “Anyone that penetrates Israel's border should be shot— a Swedish tourist, Sudanese from Eritrea, Eritreans from Sudan, Asians from Sinai. Whoever touches Israel's border — shot.” He describes people who oppose such a policy as “bleeding hearts”.
Eldad is a member of a small nationalist party. But politicians from the government party Likud were instrumental in sparking the riots. Meanwhile the government has refused to condemn attacks on Africans and instead used them as an excuse to step up its anti-migrant agenda. This includes
• a new law allowing refugees to be jailed for three years, and those who help them illegally to be jailed for up to 15 years;
• seeking to immediately deport all refugees from South Sudan, with raids across Israel since the start of June, on the spurious pretext that now it has separated from Sudan it is safe (ironically for the Israeli right, this will hardly lessen the number of refugees in Israel, since the vast majority come from Sudan and Eritrea, to which they cannot legally be returned);
• building a 150-mile fence along the border with Egypt;
• building a giant detention centre, with accommodation made out of cargo crates, in the Negev desert.
Naturally such measures will — in addition to directly producing a lot of death and suffering — boost racism and lead to further attacks on those who remain in the cities (and probably black Jewish Israelis — this has already happened in at least one case).
There are 60,000 African migrants in Israel, out of a population of almost 8 million. But anti-African racism is even more widespread than anti-Arab racism, and seems to be rapidly becoming a new cutting edge for political reaction in Israel. Likud MK Miri Regev described African migrants as “a cancer in our body” — and one poll suggests just over half of Jewish Israelis agree with her. One third sympathise with the recent attacks. Even among Arab Israelis, 23 percent sympathise with the attacks, though “only” 19 percent agree with the “cancer” description.
Left-leaning and secular Israelis are much less likely to hold anti-African views. But no large political organisation has spoken out in defence of migrants. The Israeli Labor Party is typically speaking out of both sides of its mouth, condemning (in the words of its leader Shelly Yachimovich) “inflammatory and shocking racial incitement against foreigners” but also saying that “the government has failed... and let the slums be flooded by migrant workers and refugees, thereby helping to kindle wild passions” and asserting the need to “protect the country from facing a huge mass of migrant workers”. It has set up a “panel of experts” on the issue, headed by a former head of the Israeli national police's serious crime department. The Histadrut union federation seems to have remained quiet.
There are organisations in Israel attempting to stand up for migrants' rights, a number of which we met when Workers' Liberty members visited Israel and Palestine in 2010 (see here). The Workers' Advice Centre is a smaller, radical trade union which puts a strong emphasis on organising Jewish, Arab and migrant workers together. Tel Aviv has an African Refugee Development Centre, organised by both Israelis and African migrants. The ARDC is fighting hard on these issues, as are many in the Israeli peace movement. But they are swimming against the tide. The ARDC, for instance, recently lost the lease for a new office due to racism.
African migrants and left-wing/human rights activists in Israel need solidarity. Part of that solidarity is trying to understand what is happening in Israel, as the militarised regime of occupation, settlements and institutionalised discrimination sinks reactionary poison deeper and deeper into the whole of politics and society.