The past year saw some of the most ruthless Israeli attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza since the territories were occupied in 1967. Israeli political leaders incited violence against Palestinians and soldiers and civilians carried out these commands, while the government’s parallel war on African refugees raged on.
What follows is the third annuallist of racist ringleaders who have championed Israel’s efforts to drive all non-Jewish African asylum-seekers — a community of 50,000 men, women and children — out of the country and back to the tortures from which they fled in sub-Saharan Africa.
10. Charlie Biton
The year 2014 began with massive protests by asylum-seekers in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, demanding an end to the government’s war on Africans. Tens of thousands of Africans went on strike, hobbling many of the Tel Aviv restaurants that profit off of cheap and easy to exploit African labor.
The diverse asylum-seeker communities united and mobilized and marched in the streets, demonstrating in front of Tel Aviv City Hall, the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) in Jerusalem, the prime minister’s office, and various international embassies. For the first time, the voices of African asylum-seekers in Israel were being heard.
Tens of thousands of African asylum-seekers rally in Tel Aviv for the release of refugees imprisoned by Israel on 5 January 2014.
Activists opposed to the presence of Africans did not wait for the end of the short-lived protest movement to register their response. While protests were ongoing, right-wingers rallied in central Tel Aviv on 15 January to demand that the government take an even harsher tack with the asylum-seekers, which I documented on video.
Predictably, figures like Shimon Ohayon, the far-right Member of Knesset from the Yisrael Beiteinu party, and Matan Peleg, the leader of the hardline Zionist group Im Tirtzu, riled up the crowd of demonstrators. But another speaker at the rally surprised some, due to his former leftist credentials: Charlie Biton, ex-Member of Knesset for the communist Hadash Party.
Biton is famous for being one of the founding members of the Israeli Black Panthers, a group who took inspiration from the American group of the same name and fought for the rights of Jews from Arab lands who were treated unequally by the Zionist leadership, which was mainly composed of Jews of European origin. The group was established in the 1970s and is credited with being among the first to challenge intra-ethnic inequalities amongst Israel’s Jewish population.
On 7 January 2014, another founder of the Black Panthers, Reuven Abergel, publicly spoke out in support of the asylum-seekers’ struggle, but a week later Biton took to the stage and traded on his former glory to attack Africans.
Right-wing Israelis rally against a protest against asylum-seekers organized by Im Tirtzu in Tel Aviv, 15 January. The sign in yellow reads: “Central, yellow sign: An Israeli is attacked by Africans about every 7 minutes!!! The lives of the residents have become hell, and everyone is silent. Where are the human rights organizations?”
To the delight of the audience, Biton, using the popular right-wing slur used against Africans, accused the Israeli media of being biased in favor of the asylum-seekers: “They have a single clear objective: to bring as many infiltrators as possible. Everyone that hates Jews will help them and work with them. They will do everything they can to destroy this country from the inside.”
It is disappointing when Mizrahi Jews, who are themselves often the victims of racism in Israel, make the African asylum-seekers their convenient scapegoats and demand that they be expelled from the country. When a veteran leader of the community who ought to know better does so as well, it is devastating.
9. Yityish Aynaw
As the international media began — at least in some small measure — to take note of the plight of African asylum-seekers in Israel, the state’s professional publicists sought to smother this interest with public relations campaigns that would advertise Israel as the exact opposite of what it is: a haven for black people.
In 2013, a black Jewish woman, Yityish Aynaw, was crowned Miss Israel. Curiously, her win reflected a trend in pop culture contests. In the months that preceded the beauty pageant, the winners of the country’s most popular reality show contests, Kochav Nolad (the Israeli version of the television show American Idol) and Ha’ach HaGadol (the Israeli version of reality game show Big Brother), were also black Jewish women.
Black people make up approximately two percent of Israel’s population, and no black person had ever won any of these Israeli contests prior to this string of victories. The fact that these occurred one right after the other — at the exact moment that the government was conducting a campaign to drive Africans out of the country — is more than a little suspect.
In February 2014, Aynaw was ferried around the United States in an attempt to improve Israel’s image. She allowed herself, and her dark skin and Ethiopian origins, to be held up as supposed proof that Israel is a post-racial society. But she was not content to “black-wash” Israel’s image with her token success story; she also used her newfound fame to specifically smear non-Jewish Africans in Israel.
Residents of south Tel Aviv and right-wing nationalists call on the government to force African asylum-seekers out of Israel during a rally on 5 October 2014.
In an interview she gave to Buzzfeed’s right-wing reporter Rosie Gray, Aynaw trotted out the typical baseless Israeli talking points, saying that a lot of the African asylum-seekers “are not refugees of war.”
Even worse, she went on to echo the rhetoric of Israel’s most racist political agitators, characterizing non-Jewish Africans as savage sexual predators: “There’s actually places in Tel Aviv where you can’t walk around because there’s rape and violence,” Aynaw said.
Israeli police statistics show that the crime rate for Africans is considerably lower than that of the Israeli general public.
Aynaw’s tenure as Israeli beauty queen has since elapsed, but her face — and body — continue to be featured prominently in pro-Israel propaganda.
8. Natan Sharansky
In January 2014, when the political struggle of African asylum-seekers briefly made headlines in the Israeli mainstream media, Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky was asked about them in an interview. The former deputy prime minister said that Israel “cannot automatically give everybody the status of a refugee and treat them as political refugees.” Rather, he said, Jews and others who live outside of Israel should donate money to provide a place for the asylum-seekers in Israel.
Sharansky’s proposal to build the Africans a separate community in the Naqab (Negev) desert was never realized, he said, because Israeli leaders did not want to provide the asylum-seekers with any comforts at all, fearing that this would entice additional non-Jewish immigrants from Africa. But his suggestion that others foot the bill for housing the asylum-seekers was especially outrageous, considering that others already were, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars — and his own organization was siphoning these off for its own sectarian purposes.
In September, I received a tip which led me to a shocking disclosure. An obscure item buried in a six hundred-plus page US omnibus bill revealed that the US government was giving Israel tens of millions of dollars every year for the purposes of resettling refugees (see article 480).
Investigative work by my colleague, the Israeli blogger known as Noam R., turned up a startling fact: the US government was giving this money not to the Israeli government itself, but directly to the Jewish Agency, a sectarian organization dedicated to the welfare of Jewish people — not Israeli citizens, regardless of race or religion.
None of these funds — which add up to about $300 million in the last decade alone, asNoam R. has found — were used to ease the burden of non-Jewish African asylum-seekers in Israel, even those few who were grudgingly granted refugee status. The Jewish Agency, which confirmed to Noam R. that the money is only used for Jewish families, contends that it uses the money to resettle Jews who immigrate to Israel from “danger zones.” The US funds constitute about ten percent of the Jewish Agency’s total budget.
For the Jewish Agency, profiting from African immigration to Israel did not begin with the non-Jewish asylum-seekers from Eritrea and Sudan. Israeli social anthropologist Professor Esther Herzog has documented how the Jewish Agency kept Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia in a cycle of poverty, and how the organization financially benefited from this arrangement.
7. Muli Jeselsohn
When Israel is accused of state-sponsored racism for giving preferential treatment to Jews, some Zionists will acknowledge that this is true. Of these, some believe that this inequality should be the natural order of things, while others justify it as a strange form of global “affirmative action” in which Palestinians must pay for Europe’s history of anti-Semitism.
Some Zionists, however, deny altogether that giving preferential treatment to Jews is racist, because, they say, anyone can convert to the Jewish religion, and thereby become eligible for that preferential treatment. Putting aside the highly problematic second half of this statement — adopting a spiritual practice should never be a condition for equal treatment under the law — the first half of the statement is patently false: no, not everyone can convert to Judaism.
Unlike Christianity and Islam, converting to Orthodox Judaism is exceedingly difficult. In Israel, if you are an African asylum-seeker, it is impossible.
African asylum-seekers jailed in Holot detention center (front) and other asylum seekers a protest outside the facility on 17 February 2014.
Most of the African asylum-seekers in Israel are content to retain the religion they arrived with, but some — at least many dozens, and likely well over a hundred — have petitioned the government to be allowed to convert to Judaism. Whether they feel drawn to Jewish spiritual traditions, or are in a romantic relationship with a Jewish Israeli and want to marry them legally (Israel only permits marriages sanctioned by religious officials; civil marriages are done abroad, barring asylum-seekers from being able to obtain one) or some combination of the two, every single African asylum-seeker that applies to convert to Judaism is being summarily rejected.
The man responsible for implementing this policy is Israel’s “Conversion Czar” Muli Jeselsohn. In June, he explained the logic behind his refusal to allow even a single African asylum-seeker to join the Jewish people, saying, “here we are talking about tens of thousands who want to assimilate into us and have no connection to Judaism.”
Putting to bed the lie that any person, white or black, can become a member of the tribe, Jeselsohn added: “The government built a fence in the south, on the state’s border, and we built one here, at the entrance gate to the Jewish people.”
6. “The Israeli Consensus”
In recent years, Israeli society has swung so sharply to the far right that there is hardly a need for outright racists to mask their true intentions. When lawmakers accuse all non-Jewish Africans of being responsible for crime, terrorism and dangerous diseases, they are not booted out of office; instead, their popularity and political power increases.
Some Israelis strongly support the government’s efforts to cast out the Africans, but are uncomfortable with the racist rhetoric it employs in its drive to do so. To assuage the guilt of local liberals and whitewash the expulsion plan for foreign consumption, an “astroturf” front group was formed to lobby against African interests while using laundered language.
Masquerading as the middle of the road, the group called itself “The Israeli Consensus” in Hebrew, and “The Zionist Way” in English.
“The Israeli Consensus” leaders say that the group only opposes deporting victims of genocide, not other asylum-seekers. While some of the asylum-seekers in Israel did flee massacres in Darfur, most of the asylum-seekers in Israel escaped not from ethnic cleansing in Sudan, but from lifelong slavery in Eritrea.
By drawing the dividing line at mass murder, “Israeli Consensus” can claim to be combating genocide while simultaneously facilitating the forced removal of the vast majority of African asylum-seekers in the country, who “only” escaped servitude.
5. Shmulik Rifman
In December 2010, when the Israeli government was still building the desert detention centers into which it would later hold thousands of African asylum-seekers, then-Member of Knesset Reuven Rivlincriticized these prospective centers, calling them “concentration camps.”
And yet, in January 2012, Rivlin voted in favor of the Anti-Infiltration Law that “authorized” the government to round African asylum-seekers into the camps. Following that, in December 2013, after Israel’s high court quashed this law, Rivlin again voted in favor of an even more draconian version of the law which circumvented the court ruling. In June 2014, the Knesset elected Rivlin as Israel’s president.
How could someone who once sympathized with the plight of African asylum-seekers later vote — twice! — to round them into what he had himself called “concentration camps?”
Rivlin’s shift on this issue mirrored that of many Israelis. According to a poll published byIsrael Hayom in January 2014, 80 percent of Jewish Israelis now support rounding African asylum-seekers out of Israeli cities, into the internment camps and out of the country.
Broad consensus for rounding up the Africans was achieved with a tactic commonly called “problem-reaction-solution.” This method of manipulation works by creating a social problem, and then using the media to manufacture the desired reaction amongst the masses. People will then gladly accept a proposed solution which they would have outright rejected before the crisis broke.
Local residents and right-wing activists demonstrate against the presence of Africans in the south Tel Aviv neighborhood of Hatikva on 11 June 2014. The sign reads: “The Action Committee for Expulsion of Infiltrators is making it clear to the government: UP TO HERE AND NO FURTHER!!! We will not consent to being a city of refuge for the infiltrators.”
When the African asylum-seekers first arrived in Israel, almost all were all sent to the same poor neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv, over-burdening its already crumbling public services. A concerted campaign was then launched by top Israeli officials to blame the African asylum-seekers for all of south Tel Aviv’s social ills.
When city councillors started to warn that local youth would soon take out their anger on the Africans in the streets, the government responded by announcing that it would solve the “problem” it had created by removing the Africans from south Tel Aviv and forcing them into desert detention center camps.
The government has now set in motion a second round of the problem-reaction-solution process. By quickly building an internment camp without providing it with sufficient services, they have created a social and ecological disaster. Thousands of men are now stuck in the middle of the desert with nothing to do all day, and sewage from the complex isspoiling the surrounding environment.
The government has repeatedly said that it wants to deport those languishing in the detention center back to Africa. But how to get from the problem it created to the solution it desires?
Enter Shmulik Rifman, mayor of the Ramat HaNegev Regional Council, in whose territory the aforementioned desert detention center is located. In remarks to Israel Channel 2, Rifman warned viewers that unless the government gets these “infiltrators” out of his district, local residents will begin to beat them up.
Now, as Israel deports the asylum-seekers back to Africa, it can claim that it is merely responding to the demands of its own citizens, and doing its utmost to prevent the vigilante violence that it instigated at the outset.
4. Tzipi Livni
National elections have now been called for March, and Tzipi Livni is being touted by some political pundits as the progressive candidate to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But if there is any difference to be found between Livni and Netanyahu, it is only in their rhetoric. Just as Livni’s policy vis-á-vis the Palestinians is nearly indistinguishable from Netanyahu’s, so too is her stance on the issue of African asylum-seekers.
In January 2012, when Livni was in the opposition and the Kadima party she led controlled more seats than any other party in the parliament, she did not instruct her legislators to vote against the first iteration of the Netanyahu government’s Anti-Infiltration Law. Of Kadima’s twenty-eight legislators in the 18th Knesset, only the single (Jewish) African Member of Knesset and one other lawmaker voted against the bill — while another voted for it (the others did not bother to show up for the vote).
After the 2013 elections, Livni accepted Netanyahu’s offer to head the justice ministry. Charged with this job, she should have insisted that the government respect the decision of the highest court in the land, when it quashed the Anti-Infiltration Law and demanded the closure of the desert detention centers where African asylum-seekers are held.
Instead, she remained in the government while it worked furiously to pass another version of the law, even more draconian than the original. When it came up for a vote, her Hatnuah faction supported its passage in the plenum.
Residents of south Tel Aviv protest against African asylum-seekers outside the high court in Jerusalem during a hearing regarding a petition against the “Anti-Infiltration Law” on 1 April. The signs in the front refer to south Tel Aviv neighborhoods with large African populations being turned into “prisons” while the signs in the back call on the high court “to follow the law — protect us.”
A year later, the high court quashed this second version of the Anti-Infiltration Law, making it the first law in Israeli history to be stricken from the books twice. The government responded by crafting yet another iteration of the law, determined to keep the Africans locked up at any cost.
When it came time for the Knesset to vote on the third version of the Anti-Infiltration Law, Netanyahu had already called for new national elections and fired Livni from her post as justice minister. She was now in the opposition again, no longer bound by coalition discipline and able to vote according to her conscience. Despite this, her Hatnuah faction once again voted in favor of incarcerating non-Jewish Africans whose only crime is asking for asylum.
Tzipi Livni has been branded a moderate who wants to steer Israel in a different direction, away from its current course — the ultra-nationalism of Netanyahu. But Livni’s parliamentary record reveals that this image is an illusion. Rather than pose an electoral threat to Netanyahu, she has chiefly served as his fig leaf, putting a moderate face on his government of far-right extremists, thereby permitting them to pass reams of racist legislation.
3. Gideon Saar
In Israel, the person in the powerful position of interior minister determines in large part the fate of African asylum-seekers. In his hands (except for six weeks in 1970, the position has always been held by a man) lies the power to grant entry permits, residence permits and work permits to those who need them — or to deny them, condemning these people to hopelessness. Interior Minister Gideon Saar chose to use his power for the latter purpose.
As news of Israel’s treatment of Africans began to leak in the international press, Saar’s team hatched a plan to divert attention from the plight of the asylum-seekers.
Government officials began to hold talks with representatives of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, negotiating a deal which would see hundreds of members of their community receiving some kind of legal status.
(After trying to drive them out for decades, the Israeli government finally granted residency to most members of the community in 2003, but hundreds of African Hebrew Israelites who have been in Israel for decades — some for their entire lives — still lack legal status of any sort.)
By granting residency or citizenship to a few hundred diaspora Africans — in this case African Americans who immigrated to Israel in the 1970s and 1980s — Saar hoped to “black-wash” Israel’s image and shield the government from scrutiny over its treatment of tens of thousands of continental Africans.
With the promise of a deal on the horizon, Saar and his staff were received with fanfare on 1 April in the African Hebrew village of Dimona in the Naqab desert. Once the photo-op was over, however, little progress seems to have been made. By year’s end, the stateless African Hebrew Israelites were no closer to receiving their long-denied legal status.
During his year and a half long stint as interior minister, Saar continued to rail against African asylum-seekers at every opportunity, just like his predecessor, Eli Yishai. His only significant departure in this regard seems to have been his reticence to accuse the Africans of being AIDS-infecting rapists, as Yishai did on numerous occasions.
It is unlikely that Saar holds asylum-seekers in higher regard than Yishai. Rather, Saar’s reluctance to frame non-Jewish Africans as sex criminals may be the same reason he is widely suspected of abruptly resigning his commission in September: allegations of his own sexual impropriety.
Even after tendering his resignation, Saar continued to incite against African asylum-seekers, in the hopes of putting pressure on the high court to permit their continued incarceration. With the historic high court decision in September to quash the Anti-Infiltration law for the second time, a defeated Saar finally bowed out and a replacement interior minister was appointed in his stead.
2. Gilad Erdan
After Saar’s departure, Netanyahu chose Gilad Erdan to fill the powerful position of interior minister. The choice was especially interesting because as recently as 2007, the Likud lawmaker — then in the opposition — served as the head of the Knesset lobby for Darfuri refugees. “We’re talking about victims of genocide,” he then said about the asylum-seekers. In Israel’s treatment of Darfuri refugees, he said that “we Jews must be a shining example to the world because of our history.”
Two years later Likud took power, initiating a reign of terror on African asylum-seekers that has continued to this day. The government’s hard-handed approach may have initially caused Erdan some embarrassment. When it passed two consecutive Anti-Infiltration amendments that “authorized” it to round Africans up off city streets and into desert detention centers, Erdan was absent from the Knesset plenum on both occasions, in January 2012 and in December 2013.
Immigration police arrest African asylum-seekers during a raid in southern Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park on 21 May 2014.
But once Erdan was appointed interior minister and charged with ensuring that Africans continue to be incarcerated in Israel, he took to the task with gusto. In the last two months of the year, Erdan worked hard to iron out the wording of the third Anti-Infiltration amendment and safeguard its passage in parliament. Sure enough, the legislation was passed under his watch, in the final minutes of the last session of the nineteenth Knesset.
After the law’s passage, Erdan expressed regret that it was not nearly harsh enough on the asylum-seekers, and he vowed that once a new Knesset body is elected in March — one likely to be even more right-wing than the current Knesset, if such a thing is possible — he will further tighten the screws on the non-Jewish Africans.
1. Benjamin Netanyahu
Once again, for the third year running, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads the list of Israel’s racist ringleaders.
From the top, he coordinated the country’s policy of rounding non-Jewish Africans into wretched detention centers as a temporary measure until they can be coerced into accepting deportation orders and expelled altogether.
But in 2014, Netanyahu broke all previous records for anti-African nastiness.
Since his election as prime minister in 2009, members of his government have stooped so low as to blame African asylum-seekers for the spread of plagues, and even derided them as living personification of deadly disease.
In October 2009, then-Interior Minister Eli Yishai told Israel’s Channel 2 that African asylum-seekers “will bring with them a profusion of diseases: hepatitis, measles, tuberculosis, AIDS and drugs.”
In May 2012, Likud lawmaker Miri Regev told a crowd of thousands of Israelis that African asylum-seekers “are a cancer in our body.” Minutes later, members of the crowd broke off and smashed the storefronts of any African cafe they could find, and smashed the heads of any African man or woman they could catch.
Jewish Israelis should be especially sensitive to insults of this nature because of the way they have been used to incite racist violence against Jews in the not so distant past. In Nazi Germany, anti-Semitic poster campaigns conflated Jews with vermin that spread diseases and viruses that cause diseases. Despite this, Netanyahu did not discipline either Yishai or Regev in any way for their racist statements. Just the opposite: in 2013, Netanyahu promoted Regev to head the interior committee, which coordinates government policy on African asylum-seekers.
But after Israel’s high court threw out his government’s Anti-Infiltration Law for the second time, Netanyahu lost his cool and stooped to publicly associating non-Jewish Africans with a poisonous plague. In October 2014, Netanyahu announced that he would take steps to prevent the spread of Ebola into Israel “as part of the struggle against infiltrators” — the term the government uses to dehumanize the asylum-seekers.
Netanyahu is so proud of his war on Africans that he bragged about it in his annual video message to the Israeli people on Rosh HaShana, the Jewish new year. In the YouTube clip, Netanyahu claims that Israel’s anti-African policy — making their lives so miserable that they reluctantly agree to return to the tortures from which they fled — is a successful solution that other nations have failed to achieve, implying that they would be wise to emulate it.
David Sheen is an independent writer and filmmaker. Born in Toronto, Canada, Sheen now lives in Dimona. His website is www.davidsheen.com and he can be followed on Twitter: @davidsheen.