by Tony Greenstein
When Miri Regev, a Likud member of the knesset (Israeli parliament), stated that “the Sudanese are a cancer in our body” back in 2012, she sparked off a pogrom against refugees in south Tel Aviv. Later she apologised to cancer victims, for having compared them to refugees – she also apologised for comparing the refugees to human beings!1 And today Miri Regev is Israel’s culture minister!
In fact the attitude of Regev is no different from that of her government. Refugees are called ‘infiltrators’ in order to compare them with those Palestinians who tried to return to Israel after being expelled in 1948. Not one Syrian has been given refugee status despite the country being Israel’s neighbour. As professor Gideon Kunda explained,
‘Infiltrator’ is a very loaded word, and it was not chosen by accident. It’s part of our collective memory, going back to the early period of the state, to Ma’aleh Akrabim2 and to Palestinians who tried to return to their land.”3
Large numbers of African refugees, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan, began arriving in Israel in the second half of the 2000s and this has accelerated from around 2010-12. There were an estimated 60,000 refugees at one time, though the numbers today are thought to be no more than 46,000. Large numbers have been ‘persuaded’ to ‘self-deport’ via a bribe of some $3,000, combined with long periods inside the Holot detention centre in the Negev desert. As The Times of Israelreports, “Israel has recognised fewer than 1% as asylum claims and, since 2009, less than 0.15% – the lowest rate in the western world.”4 Although most refugees from Eritrea and Sudan are internationally acknowledged as refugees, in Israel virtually none are given refugee status.
In every country in Europe there is anti-refugee feeling. But in Israel it is qualitatively different, as such sentiment is not about competition for jobs, or social and other economic issues. It is about race and ethnicity: Israel is a Jewish state and the refugees are not Jewish – they dilute the Jewishness of the Jewish state. As Binyamin Netanyahu remarked,
If we don’t stop their entry, the problem that currently stands at 60,000 could grow to 600,000, and that threatens our existence as a Jewish and democratic state … This phenomenon is very grave and threatens the social fabric of society, our national security and our national identity.5
This is an objection on explicitly racist grounds. Israel is prepared to take any Jewish immigrant from any country. Sometimes, as with the Iraq Jews in the 1950s and the Soviet Jews in the 1970s-80s, it is prepared to force them to come, even against their own wishes, but in the case of non-Jewish African refugees they are a threat to “national identity”: that is, Jewish national identity, because Israel’s Arab population are themselves barely tolerated guests. And, of course, they are a threat to “national security” because calling into question Israel’s Jewish “national identity” is an existential threat.
The Israeli Labor Party has been no better than Netanyahu and Likud. Indeed it has tried to outflank them from the right. As David Sheen wrote in May 2012, Labor leader Isaac Herzog wrote an opinion piece, challenging arguments by human rights groups that Eritreans in Israel deserved protection as refugees.6 In March 2015, Herzog repeated this refrain on the eve of the Israeli national elections, saying, “We need to negotiate with Eritrea on the return of the Eritreans back to Eritrea.”7 We should bear this in mind, when the Jewish Labour Movement – which is, of course, affiliated to the Labour Party here in Britain – boasts that the Israeli Labor Party is its “sister party” in Israel.
Recently there was a horrific case of a refugee who, after being thrown into the Holot detention camp in the Negev desert for a year, was eventually released, making his way to Petah Tikvah. One evening he made an approach to three Israeli Jewish women, which they rejected. He was not violent or threatening, but the idea of a non-Jewish African man approaching Jewish women was enough for his attackers, who took nearly an hour to beat him to death. Not only did no-one intervene to put a stop to this, but those who were around sympathised with the attackers.
It was not until an article appeared in Ha’aretz nearly two weeks later that the authorities got round to arresting two Jewish youths. It is unlikely that they will face a murder charge, because their offence was “spontaneous”. Of course, if it had been the opposite way round then it would have been called ‘terrorism’ and police raids would have ensued. Loud headlines and no doubt Tom Watson MP would have pontificated about terror in Israeli streets.
An article on the openly fascist organisation, Lehava, by Jonathan Cook, a journalist based in Nazareth, is equally horrific. Lehava, whose leaders derive from the Jewish Nazi Kach party, which was banned in Israel in the 1980s, openly organises groups of young thugs to attack any Arab in a ‘Jewish’ area.
Lehava’s purpose is to ‘dissuade’ Arabs from having any social or sexual relations with Jewish women. This stuff is out of Nuremburg, but it is also at one with the idea of a Jewish state. Lehava is not just a fringe fascist group like Britain First. It is based in the settlements and has hundreds of young supporters, but, more than that, it has political support in the government. It was Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, who invited Lehava into the knesset to explain how the appalling vista of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews could be prevented. In her capacity as chairwoman of the status of women committee in the knesset in 2011, she invited the racist group, Lehava, to explain how “romantic contacts” between Jews and Arabs might be prevented. Responding to criticism, Hotovely said it was “important to examine procedures for preventing mixed marriages, and Lehava members are the right people for that”.8
One of the consequences of this invitation to the knesset was that the ‘charitable’ wing of Lehava, Hemla (Mercy), has received government funding totalling about half of its income. As Ha’aretz observed in an article entitled ‘A strange kind of Mercy’,
The rightwing organisation, Lehava, is noted for its vehement anti-assimilation views, and many of its members are disciples of Meir Kahane. Yet Hemla (Mercy), a group closely linked to Lehava, receives state funding for its rehabilitation work with Jewish women.9
And who are these women who need ‘rehabilitating’? Jewish women who have had affairs with Arab men, of course.
Although not spoken of, there is an unwritten consensus across the Zionist spectrum that relationships between Arab males and Jewish women (or ‘miscegenation’ – an ugly word once commonly used in the deep south of America) should not be tolerated. An obsession with interracial sexual relations has been a characteristic of all movements for national purity – whether it is the Ku Klux Klan, the Nazis, apartheid South Africa or Zionism. Israel, unlike the South Africa of old, does not have an Immorality Act, but it relies on moral and social pressures to prevent such liaisons.
An opinion poll on YNet found that over half the Jewish population believed that marriage to an Arab was “national treason”. Many religions historically, whether Jewish or Catholic, have frowned upon inter-marriage. This is religious chauvinism, not racism, but when that becomes the policy of a state then it is racism. It becomes a quest for racial purity.
When Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan wrote the novel Borderlifeabout the relationship between a Palestinian man and a Jewish woman, it was banned from Israel’s high school syllabus. As education ministry official Dalia Fenig explained, “Adolescent youth tend to romanticise and don’t have, in many cases, the systematic point of view that includes considerations about preserving the identity of the nation and the significance of assimilation.”10
Imagine a book in Britain depicting a relationship between black and white people being banned because youth were impressionable and would not understand “considerations about preserving the identity of the nation”. There would be uproar. It is only the National Front and fringe fascists who believe that “the nation” does not include black people. Yet in Israel that is a majority Jewish and Zionist viewpoint – Israel is the state of the Jewish nation, and certainly not the Palestinian or Arab nation.
Israeli fascist groups like Lehava march to the drum beat of ‘Death to the Arabs’ and the equally charming slogan, ‘A Jew has a soul – an Arab is a son of a whore’. Lehava, which not only organises gangs of thugs to attack Arabs on the street, but hands out ‘kosher’ certificates to employers who refuse to employ Arabs, is feeding into an already existing national consensus. It is a consensus whereby 90% of Israel’s Jewish population do not even recognise the concept of a non-Jewish African refugee. A consensus whereby nearly 80% of Jews take it for granted that Jews in a Jewish state are entitled to preferential treatment over Arabs.
This is why the Israeli state is reluctant to ban Lehava as a terrorist organisation, whereas it has no compunction about prohibiting the Northern Islamic Movement. The NIM was a political and welfare association with massive support amongst Israeli Palestinians and which had led the political/religious struggle against Zionist attempts to take over the Temple Mount and the area of the Golden Dome in Jerusalem.
It is for the same reason that Israel gaoled Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour, who posted a piece of work to the social media.11 According to +972 magazine, “The main clause of the indictment was based on a poem that she (or somebody else using her name) posted on YouTube under the title ‘Qawem ya sha’abi, qawemhum’ (Resist my people, resist them).”12Whereas Jewish racists who post death threats and worse on social media are never troubled by the Israeli police, a Palestinian poet who calls for resistance is dragged from her home, at 3.30 in the morning – by a large group of policemen who have no warrant – and is then held for six months in prison and a further six months under ‘house arrest’ far from her home. The much vaunted ‘independent’ Israeli court system is complicit in all of this – although an international campaign fronted by Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and others succeeded in winning a concession: Dareen was eventually allowed to transfer to house arrest in her home town.
A 1954 attack on a bus in the Negev desert, in which 11 Israelis were shot dead by cross-border marauders.
The Guardian May 20 2012.
Tony Greenstein is a veteran marxist and anti-imperialist activist in Britain. The piece above first appeared in the December 15 of the British publication, the Weekly Worker, here.