Tel Aviv ‘Race Riots’ Reveal Much About Israel

The “race riots” in Tel Aviv last week — a mass demonstration that turned into a pogrom against about 60,000 asylum seekers, an overwhelming majority of them from Eritrea, the rest mostly from Sudan (Darfur and South Sudan) and a few other African countries — gives a revealing glimpse into Israeli realities under the current fascist government.

The predominant speakers at the demonstration in the poor southern part of Tel Aviv, where most of the asylum seekers and migrant workers are concentrated, were two Knesset members: Michael Ben-Ari (of the far-right National Union), who urged the Jewish rabble to take law into its own hands (“the time for words is over”), and Miri Regev (Likud), who described the “Sudanese” (contrary to the facts, many ignorant Israelis subsume all Africans under “Sudanese”) as “cancer.”

Obviously, fascism always deflects public discontent by turning it against helpless minorities. But the alliance between the two Knesset members is revealing: whereas Regev is a coalition member, Ben-Ari is officially part of the opposition. Israel’s fascist coalition is in fact even wider than the 94 (out of 120) Knesset members it now includes, as it can rely on the support of the far-right opposition to carry out its policies. Netanyahu uses this quite often. When regulations or tradition stipulate the appointment of an opposition member to some official function, Netanyahu appoints someone from the far right, marginalizing the small liberal opposition even further.

Ben-Ari is a former (?) member of the Orthodox, fascist-racist Kach movement, which is outlawed in Israel and considered a terrorist organization in the United States. Miri Regev, on the other hand, was the spokesperson of the Israeli army during the Second Lebanon War (2006). Trained and experienced in lying and inciting against the “enemy from without,” she now turns her talents against the “enemy from within.” Just a few years ago, the far-right former Col. Effi Eitam defined  Israeli Arab citizens as a “cancer,” now Regev is using — without any apology even in hindsight — the same image (quite popular among neo-Nazis against Jews, by the way) against asylum seekers.

The Palestinian Model

Indeed, the asylum seekers are neatly placed into the square allotted to Palestinians and Arabs. “Cancer” is just one common image. The “demographic threat” is evoked against the Africans too: Netanyahu has warned that the 60,000 (about 0.8% of Israel’s total population) “might become 600,000 and destroy Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” On the backdrop of this blatant incitement, Netanyahu’s condemnation of violence after the riots is nothing but lip service.

Even the U.S. government “viewed negatively [Israeli] government officials’ use of the term ‘infiltrators’ to refer to asylum seekers, as well as officials who directly associated asylum seekers with the rise in crime, disease and terrorism. Interior Minister Eli Yishai was specifically flagged as an instigator.” The Hebrew term mistanenim (“infiltrators”) was coined to refer to the Palestinian refugees who tried to return to their homes and fields inside Israel, from which they had fled or been expelled during the 1948 war. Though predominantly unarmed, about 5,000 of them were ruthlessly killed by Israeli soldiers during the 1950s. The routine was repeated after the 1967 war; Israeli historian Shlomo Sand has just revealed how as a young soldier he witnessed the abuse of an elderly Palestinian “infiltrator” who was unlucky enough to be arrested in daylight (those caught at night were killed summarily): “The detainee was sitting tied to a chair while my good friends were beating him all over his body, occasionally putting out burning cigarettes on his arms. … Later, a vehicle left carrying the corpse of the old man. My friends told me they were going to the Jordan River to get rid of it.” Compared to this organized state violence against “infiltrators,” the incited Israeli demonstrators of last week — whose life has indeed become impossible due to the presence of thousands of mostly unemployed immigrants in their already impoverished neighborhoods — treated the African “infiltrators” rather kindly.

Indeed, even the “solution” used for the “problem” of asylum seekers is similar to the one implemented on the Palestinians. Showing some civil courage — a very rare trait in Israel — the chief of police hit the nail on the head last week when he urged the government to let asylum seekers work. Imagine: the Africans are arrested upon crossing the border from Egypt, kept in detention for weeks or months, and then dumped at the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. They are not given any work permit as long as their request is “processed” by Israel — and regarding this “processing” we have the evidence of the American 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: “of 4,603 new asylum applications, 3,692 were rejected. Only one was approved.”

What’s the sense of keeping thousands of people who cannot be deported to their failed home countries without a work permit, pushing them to hunger, theft, and robbery? Government spokesmen are quite open about that: “If we let them work, more will come.” We see again the “solution” traditionally suggested and implemented toward the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza: do not treat them well; dispossess them, deprive them of land, work opportunities, and human rights; and they’ll go away (or evaporate). And if — surprise surprise — they turn to violence, that’s even better: portray them as terrorists and “Let the Army Win.” After all, there’s no problem the Israeli army cannot solve.

The Economy Behind

But it’s not just ideology that is at stake here. Behind the scenes, economic factors play a huge role. While thousands of asylum seekers are pushed to starvation and crime, Israel opens its gates every year to thousands of foreign workers, mostly from Asia; entire branches of the country’s economy — especially agriculture and construction — depend on this cheap labor, since the Palestinian commuters were pushed out of the labor market to perish behind walls and fences.

The solution seems trivial: instead of importing new workers from the Philippines or China, Israel can give work permits to the asylum seekers already here. Why is this not done? We’ve already seen the official excuse. But the deeper reason is concealed. Take, for example, Miri Regev. Just a few days before railing against “the Sudanese cancer” in Tel Aviv, the very same lady tried to promote an amendment to the law that would reduce government’s regulation of foreign workers and give “manpower contractors” a free hand to import whomever they decide. How come? Well, unlike asylum seekers, who are often robbed and blackmailed by Egyptian smugglers but enter Israel free of charge, every legal migrant worker pays his Israeli “manpower contractor” thousands of dollars just for entering Israel. Asylum seekers come for free, but migrant workers are big money. Regev is a politician, and politicians are always aware of big money.

Remember Eli Yishai, the interior minister “specifically flagged as an instigator” against asylum seekers? During his time as interior minister, work permits for migrant workers have soared. His colleague in the ultra-orthodox Shas Party, former minister Shlomo Benizri, is now in prison, convicted of accepting bribe from a good friend — a “manpower contractor” — in exchange for inside information regarding foreign workers scheduled to arrive in Israel.

Regev could have helped both the poor asylum seekers and the poor Israelis who suffer from them — by urging to let the Africans work. But that would make her unpopular among the “manpower contractors” who import Asian migrant workers. Instead, she incites poor Israelis against poorer Africans and demands benefits for the rich contractors who exploit poor Asians. Social justice, Israeli-style.

Not Just Africans

Modeled on the violence against Palestinians, the incitement and eruption of violence against Africans is just another symptom of the fascist atmosphere in Israel, and it does not end with Africans. Regev specifically aimed her attack also at “the leftists who appealed to courts” (asking not to deport asylum seekers to South Sudan). “Shame on them, they stopped the deportation,” she added, pointing a finger both at the “leftists” and at Israel’s judiciary, despised and hated by the government. The rabble got the message: immediately afterward, Ha’aretz reporter Ilan Lior was attacked when demonstrators claimed to have identified him as “a leftist who throws stones at Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint.” His denials did not help. He was saved thanks to police who pushed him into their car, warning him he might get murdered. The Israeli journalist was almost lynched, then, not for expressing any support for asylum seekers in a heated demonstration against them, but because he was seen as a political opponent in the “only democracy in the Middle East.”

P.S. Regev has apologized for calling the Sudanese “cancer.” However, she directed her apology to cancer patients and Holocaust survivors, not to the Sudanese.

Author: Ran HaCohen

Dr. Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and grew up in Israel. He has a B.A. in computer science, an M.A. in comparative literature, and a Ph.D. in Jewish studies. He is a university teacher in Israel. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English, and Dutch). HaCohen's work has been published widely in Israel. "Letter From Israel" appears occasionally at