Israel Interior Minister Eli Yishai, speaking at the Ramle Conference on April 15, 2012
Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s most recent remarks on African immigrants, calling for their expulsion and painting all of them (both refugees and migrant workers) as a criminal element in Israeli society, don’t seen to be drawing much censure. Yishai is getting criticism from the Israeli police, but not for his bombast: Yediot Ahronot reports that the police inspector-general and one of Netanyahu’s confidants are criticizing Yishai over the crime rate in South Tel Aviv – often blamed on African residents – and the two men promised that the government would devote more money to enforcing border controls and enforcing laws that prohibit hiring undocumented workers.
Yishai has a strong track record of racist anti-refugee remarks. As David Sheen reported from the Ramle Conference last month – at which some of Israel’s most right-wing politicians (Michael Ben-Ari, Danny Danon) and rabbis (Dov Lior) came together to discuss immigration and Israeli Arab “demographics” – no one in the Knesset opposition or Yishai’s own coalition seemed to much mind the minister’s suggestion about “reverse ransoming” Africans back to their homelands. It’s not surprising; the Jerusalem Post says that when Bibi’s man toured South Tel Aviv with the police inspector-general, he told crowds that African migrants should be given “1000 shekels and [a] plane ticket out.” Yishai himself had earlier told Army Radio “they should be put into holding cells or jails,” “and then given a grant and sent back.” Bibi himself was a bit more restrained, of course: “if we don’t stop the problem, 60,000 infiltrators are liable to become 600,000, and cause the negation of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Those who have demonstrated in Tel Aviv against African refugees chant such slogans as “Eilat for the Eilatis, Sudan for the Sudanese.” These slogans and chants provide a grim preface for the April firebombings in South Tel Aviv targeting African residents. A second firebombing, also targeting African residents, occurred two weeks ago, and led to major demonstrations both in support of and against the presence of African residents.
The Ramle conference proceedings, like the speeches given this week calling for the deportation of all African refugees, illustrates the “demographic threat” fears among rightist Israeli Jews that they will one day be outnumbered by non-Zionists, and that the political left will sell the country’s Zionism and territory out in a “political correctness” drive (Yisahi reportedly made reference to “refugee aid groups and Anarchists” seeking to “flood” Israel with African refugees at Ramle).
These fears, stoked by politicians in South Tel Aviv, has helped catapult the district’s racial tensions into the context of decades-old Cabinet-level discussions about how to deal with the country’s Arab population. Netanyahu himself in 2003 coined the phrase “demographic threat” to refer to the Arab population inside the Green Line.
As the infamous Koenig Memorandum, commissioned by the Israeli Interior Ministry after the first Land Day demonstration (1976) shows, a faction of officialdom, “left” and “right,” has been weighing these concerns for decades.
In the report, it becomes clear that armed infiltrators from Egypt, Syria and Jordan are no longer the existential threat post-1973; Arab youth with deferred aspirations and large family rates are, especially when they identify with “Arab” refugees living in Israel’s neighboring countries. Koenig says the “the Jews appointed to take care of this population” have failed in their task; they have neither integrated nor placated Palestinian Israelis. So despite all of the control mechanisms advocated over Arab Israelis, the report also addresses the “hostility” Jewish Israelis feel towards Palestinian citizens and the leadership failures alienating a fifth of the population.
The fear that this hostility will boil over into sectarian violence underlies the whole analysis; the 1976 Land Day is considered a watershed for future flashpoints, with Koenig assessing that the “Arabs” have lost their “fear,” have gained a national consciousness – become Palestinian, in effect, though he did not use that word – and will be able to win international victories through strikes and protests in Israel. Since Land Day has assumed such a place in both Israeli and Palestinian historiography and activism, Koenig was indeed prescient.
And having spent 12 years overseeing internal security measures in Galilee, Koenig was clearly convinced he was sitting atop an ethnic powder keg.
The advisory report (it was never officially adopted) caused a huge scandal when it was leaked to the press. Koenig urged the government to offer special treatment for Arab Israelis in some regards, notably education, but said the government had to quietly dilute their communities through expanded Jewish settlement in Nazareth and Acre. Koenig was also deeply suspicious of any “equal rights” proposals coming from the Israeli left or Palestinian community, arguing that should these demands arise, they will surely be dictated to people in Israel by the PLO and the Arab leaders of the Communist Party of Israel.
The “equal rights” worries then are particularly illuminating today. I said that there was a fear among rightist Israeli Jews of being outnumbered by non-Zionists. I said “non-Zionists” and not “non-Jews” because the right feels besieged not simply by Africans and Arabs; Muslims, or even Christians, but also by Israeli Jews who do not fit their strict definition of Zionism. As Haaretz’s Merav Michaeli opined in 2010, “‘them’ can be Arabs or foreigners, but most of the time they are secular Jews – the Israeli majority.” Some even sincerely believe the furtherest-right neoconservative line that the whole “Western world” will become a “Eurabia,” that “dhimmitude” under Muslims will be self-inflicted by secularists.
This is why there is an academic blacklist in settler circles with names like Ilan Pappe and Neve Gordon on it. This is why Zochrot’s activists were corralled by police for a public Nakba commemoration. This is why Rabbis for Human Rights, Anarchists Against the Wall and Yesh Gvul are also feared and condemned, utterly dismissed as hateful radicals. All of their actions, even when people in those groups support a two-state solution, hint at political alternatives in Israel to the Occupation, alternatives to that “third choice” few Israeli Jews wish to grapple with for fear of what will come in a “state for all its citizens.” After all these years of war, expulsion, terrorism and discrimination, the Israeli right sees only a future of Balkanization, of the interwar Hebron Ghetto, of Dolphinarium suicide bombings and a Third Intifada.
The only long-term solution such individuals can see are population transfers of Palestinians to Egypt and Jordan, and “limited” rights for those who would elect to remain in newly-annexed Judea and Samaria. Yet few want to think past the Occupation’s unsustainable status quo argue Noam Sheizaf and David Shulman. Because, as Shulman wrote in the NYRB this month, “we’ve been so traumatized, first by our whole history and then by the history of this conflict, that we want at least an illusion of security.”
So given the present discussion over Arab Israelis’ national service exemptions, Likud’s renewed emphasis on holding onto settlement blocs past the Green Line for security reasons and deep suspicion among rightist politicians and activists for “left-wing” politicians and activists who associate with the likes of J Street or the European Commission, Koenig’s thinking continues to occupy an integral place among in Israeli politics.
David Sheen and Larry Derfner have noted in their reporting on South Tel Aviv that the neighborhoods being hit by these attacks, and protests in support of and against African residents, are in areas of the city where many Sephardi (“Spanish”) and Mizrahi (“Arab”) Jews reside alongside African migrants who arrived illegally through Egypt, creating tensions between marginalized groups since the Sephardi and Mizarhi, like the “Russian” Jews who constitute most of Yisrael Beiteinu’s leadership – face discrimination from the Ashkenazi Jewish majority and have built their political parties up in response to such bias.
Last year, a friend of mine, Sean O’Neill reported from Ashkelon that while meeting with Palestinian migrant workers, he also met with a group of African refugees who “came illegally, through the Sinai desert, running the risk of being imprisoned or shot. Ali, from Sudan, was caught six years ago in the Negev after entering Israel from Egypt with the help of Bedouin smugglers.” Derfner explained back in 2010 how the local politics of racial tensions and economic non-opportunities play out when discussing the estimated 50,000 plus African refugees in Israel who’ve come from conflict zones in Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia:
Leading them is Shlomo Maslawi, a Tel Aviv city councilman with Likud and Hatikva’s long-time political leader. Gathered in a meeting room in the neighborhood cultural center during the evening hours before the recent World Cup final, Maslawi and the residents never refer to the Sudanese and Eritreans as “refugees” or “asylum- seekers,” but as “infiltrators” – the term also used by Israeli officials – or, most often, as “kushim,” which can mean anything from “blacks” to “niggers.”
Hatikva [neighborhood in South Tel Aviv] is lower-middle-class, mainly Sephardi, rightwing, traditionally religious and socially conservative, and residents at the meeting also use the term “they” to mean the people who try to help the asylum-seekers.
“They,” in this case, include well-to-do, liberal, Ashkenazim of North Tel Aviv such as Mayor Ron Huldai and councilwoman Yael Dayan, “bleeding hearts” who demonstrate against expelling the foreigners, and liberal NGOs such as the New Israel Fund.
Shlomo Maslawi was one of the featured speakers at the Ramle Conference. And Eli Yishai, along with his political party, Shas, are also “rightwing, traditionally religious and socially conservative” in a culture dominated by “secular white men” (Yishai is Mizrahi and Haredi, an “ultra-Orthodox”). These intersectarian tensions within Israeli society run deep, and account for much of the rhetorical venom.
Immigration critics at that conference used sexually-charged language in calling for deportations. This climate suggests that news of a gang rape allegedly committed by African residents in Tel Aviv, which has been front page news all last week in Israel, will likely only inflame the refugee debate. Further demonstrations against African residents are almost guaranteed. The ARDC, an advocacy group for African refugees, warned that “Yishai remarks lead to rising tensions and hatred towards volunteers,” and following his remarks, death threats have come in to a group called Hotline for Migrant Workers.
Though Sheen has reported that despite Yishai’s bombast and the anti-refugee campaign being waged by some Tel Aviv officials and organizations like Fence for Life, there are Israeli activists who will stand up to this baiting. Unfortunately, his reporting from Ramle shows what a tough crowd they’re working – and not just at that conference. The refugee advocates are clearly in the minority nationally, and at Ramle, they were apparently not challenging the equally abrasive remarks being made about Arab Israelis by other speakers. For those who did speak up “for” the refugees, they apparently felt obligated to stress their “Zionist credentials” – as though being a refugee advocate automatically made one post-Zionist or “anti-Israel” – and emphasize that African migrants were generally “hard-working.”
Is that an example of a paternalistic defense? Yes, but this was not a crowd of politicians and polemicists willing to let the refugee advocates set the tone of the debate along more universalist human rights arguments, for Arab Israelis or African residents. Those arguments carry weight when brought up among the internationalist left – the conflated (and hated) North Tel Aviv council members and the NIF – they do convince the political and religious right in Israel, or in America and Europe.
Israeli journalists on Twitter have speculated that Yishai may be on his way out of the government, since Netanyahu no longer truly needs his party’s ten Knesset votes. Now that he has Kadima’s 20+ members in his new coalition, Netanyahu has much less of a need for Shas’s quarrelsome ten votes. But no one has reported any solid evidence that Netanyahu is about to ditch Yishai, or that he will face more than tepid criticism from some activists and opposition KMs for his remarks.