In recent weeks, the world’s attention has been fixed on Baltimore, MD, after 25-year-old African-American Freddie Gray died in police custody, sparking street protests and a popular uprising which is being credited with convincing the State’s Attorney to charge six Baltimore police officers in Gray’s death. In recent days, however, some observers of these events are turning their attention to the State of Israel, and pondering the possible associations between these two places.
On one hand, some critics have speculated about the tactical training that Baltimore police officers have received in Israel, wondering whether the force has adopted crowd control methods Israel has long practiced on Palestinians. On the other hand, some analysts are asking if the African-Israeli protests of recent days against state-sponsored racism and police brutality were in part inspired by the #BlackLivesMatter uprising in Baltimore.
While both of these Baltimore-Israel connections merit attention, there is another relationship between the two territories that also deserves to be explored. Since 2003, Baltimore has had a partnership with the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, and ties between the two towns have been cultivated at the highest levels. Last June, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake made time to meet with a delegation visiting from the Israeli city.
Over the course of Israel’s 67-year-history, many of its municipalities have established strong bonds with their American counterparts, with some forging formal alliances to become twin towns and sister cities. Associations with Israeli cities are so popular in America that some are willing to double- and even triple-up for the privilege. Such is the case with Baltimore, whose link to Ashkelon is also shared by Portland, OR and Sacramento, CA.
Some of these ties result from efforts by local Jewish communities to drum up support for the State of Israel, and in particular, to “adopt” Israeli communities that they feel require extra assistance (in addition to the billions of dollars the U.S. government showers on Israel annually). Since Ashkelon is located within rocket range of the Gaza Strip, it qualifies under this category (the Israeli towns of Sderot and Netivot are both closer to Gaza, but have populations of only 25,000 each, while Ashkelon’s is five times that amount).
Ashkelon was a Canaanite coastal town of perhaps 15,000 people before the Biblical era, and an Arab village of approximately 11,000 inhabitants before 1948. In 1950, two years after the State of Israel was established, the government drove out nearly the entire Palestinian population – many to nearby Gaza – and resettled thousands of Jewish families in their homes. Though the number of Arabs living in the Ashkelon area remains low, it would seem that it is not nearly low enough for some top city officials.
In January 2011, Ashkelon city councilor Tomer Galam publicly warned of romantic relationships between local Jews and non-Jews, or in his words, “the problem of the phenomenon of Arabs that tempt young residents of Ashkelon”. Posters raising the specter of mixed-race-and-religion couples appeared throughout Ashkelon, cautioning “Be careful, Dad, wake up, before Yusuf (Arabic for Joseph) will be in your living room.” The city’s deputy mayor Shimon Cohen then organized an anti-miscegenation rally outside Ashkelon City Hall.
Anti-Arab incitement also extends to Ashkelon’s education system. Last summer, while the Israeli military was waging war on Gaza – making some of the descendants of the those former Ashkelonians refugees in their own country once again – a high school teacher in Ashkelon sent all of his students a text message: “These days it is important to remember that there are good Arabs, too! And they can be found here.” He attached to the message an image of an Arab cemetery.
To compound insult to injury, the teacher who sent the message was not punished for his actions, yet the student who brought it to the attention of school administrators was.
A couple of months later, following a terrorist attack in Jerusalem, Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni fired all the Arab laborers who had been constructing bomb shelters for the municipality. This step was seen as so extreme, even by Israeli benchmarks, that it triggered condemnations from all across the political spectrum. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat openly scolded Shimoni, saying, “You can’t outlaw an entire public, as was done in Nazi Germany seventy years ago.”
While Ashkelon officials incite racism against Arabs, its effects are mitigated because the city’s Palestinian population is nearly non-existent. Jewish-African-Israelis, commonly called Ethiopian-Israelis, however, make up about 5% of the city’s residents, and they suffer from significant race-based discrimination.
In March 2012, as air raid sirens warned of an impending rocket attack from Gaza and residents rushed down to their apartment building’s communal bomb shelter for protection, only one woman was physically prevented from entering. She was a black woman who had immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia a few years earlier. An investigation revealed that the area bomb shelters had been operating according to strict segregation by race for over two decades.
Asked to explain why this was the case, a white Jewish neighbor said, “To tell you the truth, it’s difficult to deal with them, they are uncultured.” Ashkelon city councilor Yuri Zamushchik responded to the incident by stating: “It was a mistake to begin with to fill the building with immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia together… It may not be politically correct, but those are the facts on the ground.”
Zamushchik’s impressions are borne out by the observations of real estate agents in Ashkelon, who say that in certain neighborhoods of the city, residents refuse to sell apartments to Ethiopian-Israeli families. “I hear talk of, if Ethiopians move into the building, it will reduce the flat’s worth,” is how one real estate lawyer described the phenomenon. “Sometimes there is horrible talk of their smells, their foods, and so on.”
In May 2012, the owner of Ashkelon’s HaPoel Football Club, Prosper Azgi, was recorded calling one of the African men who played for his team the Hebrew equivalent of the N-word. Azgi could be heard clearly on tape saying, “Tell the player what happens to a [N-word] like him, he belongs in a psychiatric ward.” In spite of the evidence, a judge cleared Azgi of the charge of making racist epithets, claiming that since the African player’s first language is not Hebrew, he could not have understood the curse word.
In 1951, the year after Ashkelon was depopulated of Arabs, a new neighborhood was built for African immigrants – but they were white Jews from South Africa. In recent years, the city has seen another wave of Africans arrive – this time, non-white and non-Jewish. Of the 65,000 or so non-Jewish Africans that entered Israel between 2006 and 2012 requesting asylum – before the government built a fence on Israel’s African border to keep them out – approximately 1,500 took up residence in Ashkelon, according to city officials.
Before the government began forcing asylum-seekers to self-deport back to Africa – 15,000 have been kicked out, and only 50,000 now remain – they constituted about 0.7% of the population of Israel, and about 1.2% of the population in Ashkelon. And yet, even this minuscule number of newcomers is seen as a severe threat, precisely because the would-be refugees are non-white non-Jews.
In February 2012, upset that some African asylum-seekers and Israeli art school students were on speaking terms, the municipality set out to separate the two populations. City officials documented the African asylum-seekers and restricted their movements to only one area of Ashkelon, and encouraged them to leave the country.
In May, when residents of Ashkelon learned that a few dozen Africans were renting a shed adjacent to their apartments for community activities, including Christian prayers, they openly threatened to burn the building down.
Just days later, on May 23, top Israeli government lawmakers incited an anti-African race riot. After being told by a ruling party Member of Knesset that the asylum-seekers are the country’s “cancer”, a thousand Jews ran through the streets of Tel Aviv, smashing African shops and assaulting any dark-skinned person they came across, man or woman. The following day, Ashkelon Mayor Benny Vaknin and other Israeli mayors called upon the government to round all the asylum-seekers into detention centers and deport them.
The government has since taken Vaknin and his cohorts up on their proposal, forcing 15,000 asylum-seekers to self-deport back to Africa. But for some residents of Ashkelon, this expulsion is not nearly occurring quick enough. A year after the Tel Aviv race riot, an Israeli man stabbed two African asylum-seekers in Ashkelon, without any provocation. The local press did not even deem the incident important enough to report on the back pages of any newspaper.
Shamefully, the anti-African sentiment in Ashkelon even extends to black people who immigrated to Israel from the United States of America. In 2010, a multi-generational family of African-American Jews from Kansas City was beaten without cause by Israeli immigration police. As the officers kicked the mother of the family in the stomach – while she was seven months pregnant at the time – they cursed her with the Hebrew equivalent of the N-word, saying, “Kushim, we don’t need you here.”
Without a doubt, discriminatory treatment towards people of color is a serious problem afflicting all of Israel, just as it plagues the U.S. and other parts of the world, as well. But even by Israeli standards, Ashkelon stands out as one of the most racist cities in the country. As it stands, Ashkelon may be an appropriate sister city for the Baltimore whose public servants took the life of Freddie Gray, but it is hardly a fitting twin town for a Baltimore that is now uprising against racism.