An Israeli high court decision on 16 September striking down legislation authorizing the indefinite incarceration of asylum-seekers from Africa brought hundreds of residents of Tel Aviv into the streets in protest the following day.
Blocking the intersection at the entrance to the Hatikvah market in south Tel Aviv to traffic for an hour and a half, Jewish Israelis decried the court ruling, which mandates that the 2,000 Africans jailed in Israel on the basis of the invalidated law must be released within ninety days.
In the last several years, south Tel Aviv has become home to approximately 30,000 non-Jewish African nationals, most of whom entered the country by walking across Israel’s desert border with Egypt.
Israelis opposed to their presence accuse them of migrating to Israel solely to earn more money than they could hope to in their home countries, while advocates for the Africans claim that most of them have fled dictatorial regimes and ethnic cleansing campaigns.
Fanning the flames
The overturned amendment represents part of the Israeli government’s unconcealed efforts to dissuade other Africans from arriving and to convince those already in the country to leave quickly. Other anti-African measures implemented by the government include the construction of border fences and the refusal to grant refugee status or even temporary work permits to the vast majority of the asylum-seekers. Without any legal means of sustenance, most of the Africans remain impoverished, living in the only areas they can afford to — neighborhoods which were poor to begin with.
Some Israelis from the political left and center have urged the government to grant residency to the asylum-seekers, which would allow them to contribute to the economy, earn a living and relieve some of the economic burden on poorer neighborhoods like south Tel Aviv. But the political and religious ultra-right, which has ruled uninterrupted since 2009, refuses to consider that option, since it vehemently opposes any proposals which would permit a significant number of non-Jewish persons to remain in the country on a long-term basis.
In the last three years, angry residents of south Tel Aviv have repeatedly taken to the streets, marching through neighborhoods now populated by significant numbers of non-Jewish Africans, demanding that they all be expelled from the country. Right-wing lawmakers have sought to score political points by attending the protests and fanning the flames of racial hatred. With municipal elections scheduled for 22 October, several candidates for Tel Aviv-Jaffa city council capitalized on the 17 September rally and filled the crowd with their activists and banners.
The above video, which I shot at the rally, gives the viewer a court-side seat to the one of the most frightening displays of ultra-nationalism to come out of Israel in recent years. The rally’s master of ceremonies characterizes all Africans as slaves, and the crowd cheers him on.
Michael Ben-Ari, a former member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, calls for martial law to prevent “ten million Chinese, five million Indians and twenty million Africans” from entering the country and turning Israel from a “Jewish state” to a “multi-national state.” Little children chant: “The people demand the expulsion of the Sudanese!” to the delight of their adult guardians.
But what stands out for me as the most revealing episode of the evening is my interview with a twenty-year-old Israeli soldier in civilian attire who says that he is afraid of being attacked when he walks around the neighborhood, even when he is armed with an assault rifle. When I asked what had happened to him to have aroused such intense fears, he told me that the anxiety took hold when he observed non-Jewish African people smoking and cooking outdoors on Yom Kippur, a day when these behaviors are forbidden to Jewish people.
It is difficult to imagine that there might be a single Jewish person anywhere in the world outside of Israel who stepped out of a synagogue on Yom Kippur, saw a non-Jewish person taking a drag on a cigarette or flipping a burger on a barbecue grill, and suddenly became afraid for his or her life.
The fact that this is the reported experience of a battle-ready Israeli soldier in Tel Aviv, the largest Jewish-majority city in the history of the world — leads one to surmise that this fear of African asylum-seekers probably has more to do with state-sponsored propaganda demonizing non-white non-Jewish people, than with any supposed demonic qualities that propaganda ascribes to its victims.