Like everything else in Israel, the question is complicated. Lacking a clear majority, all recent governments have had to include Jewish fundamentalist parties in their coalitions. In turn, these impose unsavoury choices regarding religious and ethnic issues. The latest problem is the growing presence of African migrants. Facing economic depression, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu found nothing better than pointing the finger against Africans. At the end of May, speaking to a group of retired army officers, Netanyahu declared African migrants a national security threat, endangering the country’s Jewish majority. He and his cabinet later passed new laws enabling the incarceration of asylum seekers for three years without trial or appeal, and the early deportation of Southern Sudanese. Eli Yishai, interior minister and a rabbi, called for the transformation of military bases into prisons where to confine illegal migrants. “The infiltrators are going to reach the Promised Land but they will only see it through bars”, he said.
Extremist groups fight for religious purity, and are at odds with the many Orthodox Christians who arrived in Israel from the Eastern bloc posing as Jews. The 100,000 strong community has now built churches and taken control of business in and around Ashkelon, but also in Jerusalem. Determined to avoid more such mistakes, the right wing parties have now started a war against Africans.
The first wave of Africans came in the 1980s with the arrival in Israel of the Beta Israel (also wrongly referred to as Falasha) community from Ethiopia. They found it difficult to integrate in Israeli society and some did return to Ethiopia. However, most remained and, being Jews, they integrated within society in the long run.
The present African population counts about 60,000 people. Most of them are from the Horn of Africa, people who escaped the dictatorial regime of Asmara or the civil war in Sudan. Many of them live in Shapira, a quiet neighbourhood south of Tel Aviv, where they find cheaper accommodations and menial jobs.
Last May, Shapira experienced a series of violent attacks. Molotov bombs were thrown at five apartments occupied by African asylum-seekers and a day-care centre. A week later, two Molotovs were thrown at the apartment of Nigerian workers. One evening, a group of teenagers – Israeli-born daughters of African migrants – were beaten up by a group of Jewish youth. One of the attackers was armed with a knife; another allegedly shouted racial slurs at the girls. Police have pressed charges against 11 teenagers for a series of attacks, including beating several Eritreans with chains and golf clubs.
Up to recently, the government did not process requests for asylum. Yet, considering the dangerous circumstances they face in their home countries, Israel did not deport Eritrean or Sudanese citizens. These African migrants found themselves in a limbo. They were allowed to stay, but had no papers to prove their status. To live, they accepted odd jobs. Most live in cramped conditions, sometimes as many as eight to a room. Those that cannot find enough work to pay rent, end up sleeping in parks.
In the past two years, Jewish Israelis have held a number of protests against the presence of Africans and have called on the state to deport the “infiltrators”. While the demonstrations have a decidedly xenophobic feel, protesters point out that the government is doing nothing about the social problems that come with the Africans’ unemployment and homelessness – a concern shared by human rights groups. Remarkably, Israel’s foreign ministry published a rare plea for tolerance. “Jewish history compels us to take exceptional caution on these matters of injury to the other, the guest and the foreigner,” the ministry declared in a statement on June 4th, condemning an arson attack on Eritreans.
With new laws in place, Israel has started repatriating South Sudanese. In mid June, the first batch of 700 South Sudanese returned to Juba. Israel and its military ally South Sudan both claim that the process has been one of “voluntary repatriation”. While some among the first planeload were very guarded about their feelings, others were ready to speak. “We had a problem with the minister of interior saying that South Sudanese should go back to their country,” said Paul Ruot Wan at a transit site outside Juba where the returnees were registered on 18 June. Ruot worked in hotels across Israel for five years before being told he had to go back to his new country. South Sudan’s minister of humanitarian affairs, Joseph Lual Achuil, repeatedly called this a voluntary process. “People are not being deported. We have agreed with the Israeli government for our people to be peacefully and voluntarily repatriated,” he said. Migrants who leave voluntarily are being offered US$1,000 each, and Israeli employers are required to pay all wages owed to the migrants before they leave.
While Israeli society is divided as ever over the issue, international observers are baffled. The country has a relatively low unemployment rate and the demand for foreign workers is high. In the past, entrepreneurs were eager to hire Palestinian workers. With the fortified wall dividing the Territories, the number of Palestinians able to enter Israel daily has greatly reduced. The new wave of ethno-phobia may pay political dividends on the short run, yet come to haunt its perpetrators in future.