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.
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.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.