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African Refugees ‘Occupy’ Tel Aviv

african refugees threat to israel

Yediot headline: “Infiltrators occupied Rabin Square: existential problem.”

Tonight I am proud and ashamed at the same time.  Earlier today, 30,000 African refugees and their Israeli supporters massed in Rabin Square demanding that Israel treat them as human beings and accord them basic rights guaranteed under international law.  They do this in the face of rampant Israeli racism fomented by the ugliest ranting of elected officials who call them a “cancer.”  They do this in the face of fevered pogrom-like nights of violence in the poor neighborhoods of Tel Aviv; despite arbitrary sweeps by Israeli border police who arrest first and ask questions later (or never).  They do this in the face of concentration camps set up to accept prisoners for indeterminate periods and offering no right to legal redress.  They do this in the face of Israeli legal officials who refuse to use the names of the refugees in court documents, referring to them instead by their official numbers.

So I am proud of both the refugees and their supporters inside Israel.  I am proud that despite an overwhelming rush of racist rhetoric from the large majority of Israelis, they haven’t backed down.  They haven’t given up on democracy even if most of their fellow citizens have.  This is a tough row to hoe.

But on the other hand, I am ashamed of headlines like this one from Yediot, which describe the protesters as “infiltrators conquering Rabin Square.”  Two bits of explanation of the Hebrew: “infiltrator” is the name historically given after 1948 to the Arabs who attempted to return to Israel after Nakba.  You could either be an ‘infiltrator’ if you planned a terror attack; or if you were a refugee attempting to reclaim your property.  It is a word replete with furtiveness, fear, and hatred.  The word I translated as “conquered” usually means “occupied.”  In this case occupied would be a more apt translation.  But I wanted to also connote the sense of hostility the word conveys toward the demonstrators.  They are both occupying the square, but also potentially usurping Israeli Jews of their own territory.

israeli skunk trucks

Israeli police skunk trucks ready to take on African refugees, an existential threat to Israel (Ronnie Barkan)

The sub-title adds further to this sense when it calls the refugees an “existential problem.”  Usually, Iran is referred to in common Israeli parlance as an ‘existential threat.’  But in this case, the rising tide of African refugees is such a threat because they aren’t external as Iran is.  They are within Israel and therefore pose even more of a danger.  Imagine a nation most of whose inhabitants believe their state is, and must be Jewish.  Now imagine 65,000 non-Jews streaming into it from the dark, fetid south–from the heart of Africa.  It’s a colonizer’s worst nightmare.  The black hordes.  How can we stop them?

That’s why racist ranters like Miri Regev have become political celebrities with their chants of hate against these displaced people.  If it brings any echo of others who’ve ranted against foreigners in their midst and engaged in acts of mass violence against them–it should.  Let’s leave it at that.

Finally, the picture that really makes my blood boil is the convoy of Israeli police skunk trucks filled with noxious liquids meant to be sprayed at unruly mobs (almost always Palestinian).  I’m sorry that many of you don’t remember the newsreels of Alabama Sheriff Bull Connor siccing his fire hoses and German shepherds on African-Americans demanding their civil rights in 1962.  That’s what a skunk truck means to me.

Here’s how this works: first they treat Palestinians like non-people; then come the African refugees; followed by the unruly Israeli left; and then, after it’s too late, they’ll treat everyone including the Jews as sub-human.  By then, as Pastor Niemoller wrote, it will be too late.

H/t to Mairav Zonszein.

{ 19 comments… add one }
  • Rima Najjar January 6, 2014, 12:38 AM

    I was struck by the following two points made by Banoura Hassan in the Electronic Intifada while writing about the march, because they describe an important change in what we are witnessing. She says that the march against the ongoing inhumane treatment of refugees in the Zionist state sets an important precedent for two reasons:

    1) Unlike many of the pro-refugee protests that take place in Tel Aviv, this march was led and planned by refugees themselves rather than Zionist leftists. Sudanese refugees organized this mass action and were joined by other Sudanese and Eritrean refugees who live in Tel Aviv, Palestinian residents of of al-Araqib (a repeatedly demolished village not recognized by Israel) and Israeli solidarity activists.

    2) A second reason why this march set a precedent is that it represented an inspiring act of civil disobedience by the refugees. Despite knowing that they would ultimately be arrested and taken back to Saharonim prison once they reached Jerusalem, they did not try to run away — even though they could easily have done so.


    • Rima Najjar January 6, 2014, 1:34 AM

      Correction: I meant to say, Budour Hassan, not “Banoura” Hassan!

    • Touvia January 7, 2014, 9:32 PM

      Fact check:

      The demonstration did not take place in Jerusalem,but Tel Aviv where Rabin Square is located.

      The Israelis don’t even detain 5,000 people a night much less 30,000.
      Additionally the detention is only at night and they can leave during the day.

      According to Budour Hassan exactly how many people were arrested that day at the demonstration?

      All in all not a very risky demonstration.

      • Richard Silverstein January 7, 2014, 10:57 PM

        @ Touvia:

        they can leave during the day

        Unless they are sent to a detention facility, aka concentration camp, where they have no rights and may not be released ever.

  • Major Scoop January 6, 2014, 6:39 AM

    From reading your blog it is apparent that you think that big parts of Israel’s society are vile and racist.
    Why would you encourage anyone to come across the desert a distance of 2600 km, pay thousands of dollars to Bedouin human traffickers , just to be a part of such community ? that makes no sense.
    Maybe the situation here is not as bad as you present it ?
    Just FYI, everyone presenting the number of those who are illegally in Israel to be around 60,000 the real number including those who over stayed their different visa’s is about 170,000 that is a huge number that bares a huge burden on the Israeli society, most of them live in southern TA.

    • Richard Silverstein January 6, 2014, 2:50 PM

      @ Major Scoop: I haven’t “encouraged” anyone to do anything. Do you think future refugees throughout northern and central Africa are reading my blog as if it’s an Israeli tourist brochure??! Refugees make their decisions based on their personal situation and what they know and hear about alternative places to which they might flee. Their desperation drives them away from their homelands and to Israel and places like it.

      Whether I think Israel is racist or not has nothing to do with anything. It’s what the refugees think that matters. So if you want them to stop, you might consider wholesale roundups, full-on concentration camp treatment, possibly an Israeli version of Kristallnacht, maybe a Final African Solution?? I’m sorry to be so gruesome, but you’ve brought this on yourself I’m afraid by overstating my own connection to this matter.

      What “burden” are these refugees placing on Israel? What social service is Israel providing them? The opposite is the case. Refugees over the long term benefit their societies as long as they are allowed to assimilate and not treated as “infiltrators” and the enemy. They produce jobs, earn money and spend it domestically, they create wealth. They contribute.

      • Major Scoop January 6, 2014, 4:03 PM

        @ Richard
        1. I didn’t mean that you personally encourage anyone – it was a figure of speech.
        2. What burden ? Financial one , you are welcome to check the bills paid for by the public health system on account on those illegals, it’s in the 50 mil ball park only in Eichilov medical center. As they don’t have a legal right to work they can’t buy medical insurance, can’t see a doctor or get treatment but at the hospital. Israeli Tax payers are given the bill.
        3. Create wealth ? No those type of illegals.

        • Richard Silverstein January 6, 2014, 7:22 PM

          @ Major Scoop: It is a proven fact that immigrants generate far more positive economic activity than they drain funds from the system. You’re saying the African refugees generated 50-million (what? Shekels? Dollars?–big difference) in costs to the public health system? Why do you neglect the jobs, purchasing power, rents, taxes that are generated from their presence? Not to mention that when their children grow up they will willingly enlist in the IDF and serve their country–if it will have them. That counts for nothing?

          Create wealth ? No those type of illegals.

          Not only an out & out racist statement (thanks for illustrating Israeli racism for us), but the very premise is absolutely false. ALL immigrants generate economic activity and that equates to wealth. It’s not oligarch wealth, but it is jobs, taxes, purchases. All things that spur economic activity. Do you have any idea the beneficial impact of Hispanic immigrants on this country in the past 30-40 yrs?? There are millions of right wing Republicans like you who falsely believe these immigrants don’t have jobs, don’t pay taxes, don’t buy anything, & essentially lay at home in front of their TVs all day. False. False. False.

          • Major Scoop January 6, 2014, 8:37 PM

            1. Since most of the illegal do not get W2 they do not pay taxes.
            2. Those illegal who arrive with no financial means (according to your claim they are refugees who fled war zone) – do not generate a dime and receive more in welfare and budgets then their respective contribution to the economy, they do not start companies, they don’t create jobs. We are not talking about the US.
            3. The estimated bill for medical services rendered is 50 million shekels that mounts to about 10% of the total debt of the Israeli hospital system – it is a huge number considering the illegals percentage in the general population (and i refer to only Eritrean and Sudanese) is approximately 0.675% (54,000 illegals originating in Africa, 8 million people is the number of the general populous in Israel) http://www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART2/463/462.html
            This has nothing to do with racism.

          • Richard Silverstein January 6, 2014, 9:21 PM

            @ Major Scoop: In America illegals manage to work and taxes are withheld from their paychecks. I’d imagine the same thing holds true in Israel whether they get a W2 or not. Even those who work in the cash economy still generate economic activity. Being more receptive to them & allowing them to participate more freely & openly would redound all the more to Israel’s economic benefit.

            Those illegal who arrive with no financial means (according to your claim they are refugees who fled war zone) – do not generate a dime

            Here is a Haaretz story about Eritrean workers beloved by their Israeli Jewish employers. Clearly, they’re drawing a paycheck & generating economic benefit to you and your fellow Israeli citizens, whether you like it or not.

            Do you know any illegals? Do you know anything about their lives or choices? No you don’t. So don’t go around pontificating from your high perch about whether they generate economic activity. You’re clearly also not an economist. If you were you would know that your claim is abjectly false & made both from ignorance and racism.

            they do not start companies, they don’t create jobs

            That too is false. The history of illegal immigrants to the U.S. has proven this wrong. If Israel doesn’t expel these people wholesale as it threatens to do it will find in 10 yrs that what you are saying is a lie.

            BTW, are you claiming that all those waves of immigrants who came to Israel without a penny to their name have continued as wards of the state, generate no economic activity, have not started companies and created jobs? You know this too is a lie. Unless you believe that Africans are different than all the previous waves who came to Israel. And please don’t give me any further racism about the fact that previous waves were Jewish and Africans aren’t.

            Holy Smokes! You allege that 170,000 African refugees have generated only $10-million in public healt care services??! I’d say that after crossing thousands of miles of desert and the conditions they endured that they’re a bargain to Israel. That’s a pitiably small amount. It’s the cost of 3 Arrow missiles fer chrissakes! As for it being a “huge number”–gimme a break!

            And it has EVERYTHING to do with racism. It’s precisely the same argument Republican anti-immigrant racists use here. So mazel tov, consider yourself an honorary member of the Israeli auxiliary of the Tea Party!

  • Major Scoop January 6, 2014, 6:53 AM

    And the data regarding the number of illegals in Israel, is available on page 3 here

  • Hasbarist January 6, 2014, 11:55 AM

    Large numbers of refugees seeking political asylum is a totally new thing for Israeli democracy. I should admit that we cope with this badly so far. But to have things in a perspective I googled “african refugees” to find out how much more experienced democracies of the Western Europe deal with this complicated issue. (I do not even want to look what happens in the Arab world – we know what they have done to Palestinians and to recent Syrian, Iraqi and other refugee groups). So this is what I find from the simple minded Goole search

    Just some short quotes for those who would not read the link.

    They come seeking refuge, but when asylum seekers cross into the European Union, they often find little compassion. In Greece, they are held in squalid detention camps, while in Italy they often end up on the street. Here is what they face at entry points across the EU.
    Many must struggle through long asylum application processes or fight against ingrained local prejudice. In some countries, they endure appalling living conditions in refugee camps; in others, they end up on the streets.

    So – when you demonize us remember this and to be fair (hard to expect though) demonize them too.

    • Richard Silverstein January 6, 2014, 7:27 PM

      @fnlevit: First, I am only approving this comment because you published it before I told you the rules (which you should’ve read in the comment rules before you began commenting here). I will not publish further comments under this nickname for reasons I explained earlier.

      But this comment is off topic. The subject is not the treatment of refugees by the EU or any country than Israel. If you want to debate how much better Israel treats refugees than other countries you’ll do that elsewhere. The subject here is ISRAEL.

      Not to mention that all those countries do NOT have a national or religious tradition which portrays THEM as having been vulnerable immigrants throughout history. Nor do they have religious or national holidays which remind them of this vulnerable state. Nor do they have national or sacred religious texts which remind them to help the stranger and do all in their power to be generous to the stranger. Your case is weak–exceedingly weak.

      • fnlevit January 7, 2014, 2:41 AM

        [Comment deleted as off-topic. When I tell you a comment is off-topic this does not mean you should try to explain why it wasn’t. Accept it, & move on to something else–as long as it is on topic]

  • Rima Najjar January 7, 2014, 1:39 AM

    Israel is absolutely a racist as well as an apartheid society. African refugees in Israel are protesting Jewish privelege in the Zionist state just as Palestinians are doing. Richard points out that African refugees are regarded by many Jewish Israelis as “usurping Israeli Jews of their own territory.” Totally ignored, of course, is the past and ongoing Jewish usurpation of Palestinian territory! Both African refugees and Palestinian Arabs are “existential problems’ [as the headline in the Hebrew newspaper says] for Israel – i.e., a threat to the forced Jewish majority amassed in historic Palestine to create a Jewish state there against the will of the indigenous population. Today, the Zionist Jewish state totally ignores and deceives the world about its past and ongoing Jewish usurpation of Palestinian territory and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population everywhere in historic Palestine. It is now deceiving the world and itself about its African immigrants.

  • fnlevit January 7, 2014, 2:56 AM

    [comment deleted–off-topic; the subject of this post was African refugees, not Israel’s “success” in acculturating Israeli Arabs. Stay on topic.]

    • hasbarist January 8, 2014, 5:48 AM

      [Ed., Oh dear, we do have a serious case of spite, don’t we? You’ve been banned. Your email address indicates you either teach or study at the Weizmann Institue. I hope you are a better scientist than pro-Israel propagandist.]

  • Touvia January 7, 2014, 10:42 PM

    As a former employer in Israel it is illegal to employ anyone who does not have the proper documentation.
    No employment taxes be it income or social welfare will be paid by anyone in the country without them have the proper documentation. Jew,Christian,Muslim all are the same in this respect.

    If people are working, it is for cash off the books.
    Being paid off the books generally means the workers are being exploited and are being paid less than a persons with the legal right to work. In this case it also affects the wages an employer is willing to pay.

    As to taxes. In Israel tenants are generally required to pay property taxes directly to the municipality.
    Almost everything purchased in Israel has a value added tax (VAT) except for most foods and medication.
    The tax has recently been increased to I believe 18%.

    Nine years ago my wife grossed $2,000 a month as a public school English teacher and netted approximately $1,000/month.israelis tax system is extremely regressive.

    Although we use the term refugee to refer to the people under relevant international law the vast majority of these folks do not meet the test for being granted refugee status as per UNHCR. Unfortunatly useing the correct American legal terminology they are illegal aliens. http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.pdf

    • Richard Silverstein January 7, 2014, 10:56 PM

      @ Touvia: IF you were a former Israeli employer as you claim, you clearly never employed African refugees, Palestinians or illegal immigrants. Hundreds of thousands work inside Israel every day and earn income. In the U.S. illegal immigrants work and are paid and taxes are withheld through Social Security withholding. I presume Israeli employees, even illegals can get similar documentation. Otherwise, the employment would be totally off the books. That’s another reason to decriminalize such immigrants so that Israel’s economy can benefit even more from the incomes they earn. It would also, as you note, raise the wages of the immigrants and anyone working at similar jobs. So why don’t you advocate for that??

      As for the definition of refugee, we’ve been over that ground here myriad times. These are refugees according to the UNHCR and have been designated as such by that body. So you’re either ignorant or lying. But as I said, the subject is closed and not open for further discussion.

      Try not to post two separate comments right after each other in the same thread, when you can post one.

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