For the past three weeks, journalist David Sheen has brought the reality of Israel’s war on African migrants into classrooms and lecture halls on North American college campuses. The leading writer on the virulent racism engulfing African asylum seekers within Israel did the same on Tuesday night, delivering a blistering indictment of Israeli state racism to dozens of people at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center.
Sheen’s videos and reports have become the go-to source for those looking to understand how a state founded to protect refugees has become a state systematically targeting refugees for indefinite imprisonment and deportation. A Canadian citizen who first moved to Israel in 1999, Sheen gradually turned away from Zionism as a result of the state’s policies of occupation and aggression, as Max Blumenthal documented in his book Goliath: Life and Loathing In Greater Israel.
The details Sheen presents on his tour are downright chilling and devastating. And as he notes, the climate for African asylum seekers has only gotten worse in recent months, with the passage of new laws authorizing indefinite imprisonment in a prison until they can be returned home. The Israeli public strongly supports the detainment and deportation of Africans.
The 50,000-plus African refugees now in Israel are facing a full-frontal assault on their rights to asylum and obtain access to essential services. Sheen pointed out how, in the summer of 2012, Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center limited visits and admission to Africans out of concern they would spread disease. Doctors told Yediot Aharonot that the policies constituted “patient care apartheid,” and the hospital eased up on the restrictions following the outcry. The journalist also noted that in the winter of 2010, the mayor of Bnei Brak used the pretext of building code violations to chase African refugees out of the city–in the dead of winter. At the root of these policies is the driving ethos in Israel of maintaining Jewish supremacy in the face of so-called demographic threats, whether they be Palestinian or African.
The refugees first trekked from countries like Sudan and Eritrea and congregated in Egypt. They were escaping from ethnic cleansing and dictatorship, but were confronted with racism and repression in Egypt. The harsh climate for African refugees culminated in a December 30, 2005 Egyptian police massacre of Sudanese refugees, which convinced many that it was time to move on to Israel. But while no Israeli forces are shooting Africans, that’s the best that can be said about their welcome in the country.
The Israeli political establishment has decried the presence of African asylum seekers, many of whom have been unceremoniously dumped in low-income areas like South Tel Aviv, where the already disenfranchised Mizrahi population looks at the refugees with disdain. The anti-African racism is thoroughly mainstream in the country, as the appointment of Eli Yishai as interior minister in 2009 showed. Yishai used his perch as the man formulating policy on asylum seekers to call for deporting them all. But, mindful of how bad it would look to expel people en masse and the fact it’s illegal under international law to deport them to places they would be persecuted in, Israel has tried to make their lives insufferable so they would “self deport,” as Sheen said. Israel has deported some people back to South Sudan, where civil war recently broke out. But deportations to Israeli-allied Eritrea, where many come from, are out of the question under international law.
Aside from official racism from the state–which also includes state-funded rabbis calling on landlords to not rent to Africans–the Israeli street has gotten in on the action. The most stunning mob action to grip Tel Aviv in years occurred in May 2012. After an anti-African rally featured Israeli politicians like Likud Member of Knesset Miri Regev calling Africans a “cancer,” mob violence broke out. Israelis took to the streets, smashing the windows of cars driven by Africans and physically attacking some refugees.
Recent and unprecedented protests by African refugees (which Allison Deger reported on here) have featured people calling for asylum from Israel. But the state has turned a deaf ear to those calls. In total, Israel has granted asylum to less than 1 percent of those applying for refugee status–an extremely low rate in a region that has taken in millions of Syrian refugees.
“Israel actually leads the world in refugee rejection,” said Sheen. “The government says that none of these people are refugees. I guess all the refugees arrived in the U.S. and Canada and everywhere else, and all the liars came to Israel. According to the government, they’re all cheats, they’re only in Israel to make money.”
In 2012, Israel passed an amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law, first initiated to deter expelled Palestinians from coming back to their homes and lands after the 1948 Nakba. The amendment targeted African asylum seekers, authorizing the state to detain them for three years. “This old law used to criminalize and dispossess Palestinians is resuscitated decades later to criminalize and demonize Africans,” said Sheen.
When the High Court struck the law down late last year, the Knesset passed a new law that allowed indefinite imprisonment and the detainment of any person caught trying to cross into Israel for a year. A fence Israel built on the border with Egypt has helped staunch the flow of African migrants escaping repression in their home countries.
So now, there are hundreds of African refugees being held in the Holot detention facility, where they have to check-in three times a day and sleep there at night.
Meanwhile, Israel has secretly flown refugees to Uganda in recent weeks.
Sheen sees little hope for Africans residing in Israel. “No matter how much they protested and how long they went on strike for, it didn’t matter, because the Israeli government said, ‘we don’t care. We’re still going to keep on rounding you up and making your lives miserable until you leave’.”
He also delivered a harsh assessment of how American Jewish groups have reacted to the issue.
“In all of 2013, from January-December, the [Anti-Defamation League] did not have one word to say about Israel’s war on African refugees,” said Sheen. He noted that the ADL was founded 100 years ago after the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish man accused of raping a white Christian woman. Similar anti-miscegenation tropes are frequently invoked to target Africans.
“It wasn’t just the ADL, it wasn’t just Abe Foxman…it was every single Jewish American mainstream group across the board,” said Sheen. “None of them had anything to say in criticism, in critique of the Israeli government, as it moved to kick out all African asylum seekers. And it’s so ironic because here in the United States, these mainstream Jewish groups, there’s wall-to-wall support for immigration reform.”
Update: A reader has pointed me to a letter sent last year authored by a coalition of Jewish groups–most notably the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, the most mainstream of the signatories–that mildly criticizes Israel’s polices on asylum seekers. But it also echoes Israeli government rhetoric that asylum seekers pose “a mounting social and demographic challenge easy to underestimate.”