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Lack of Empathy Leads to Racism toward African Refugees in Israel

On August 6, 2010

Israel is the the home of approximately 26,000 Africans who have entered Israel illegally through Egypt. Roughly 80% of these migrants are recognized as asylum seekers by the State, and currently cannot be deported to their countries of origin due to dangers they face there. The asylum seekers are usually met with apathy from the state and racism from their Israeli neighbors.

Many reports in Israel and some abroad detailed the manifestations of such racism, including residents of Tel Aviv protesting against the decision to open a kindergarten for children of migrants (which will not be built), Tel Aviv Rabbis signing a petition calling on Jews not to rent apartments to migrants,[1] and a general sense of fear of the asylum seekers. Most of the reports don't go beyond describing the phenomenon, and if they do attempt to explain the attitudes toward the asylum seekers, it is usually attributed to legitimate reasons like a supposed increase in crime that migrants bring, or to the backwardness of the racist by pointing out their social status, mizrahi (Arab-Jewish) origin or religiousness.

I think that such explanations are either simplistic or racist. While there is truth in the fact many of the people interviewed on the subject who expressed racist opinions toward the asylum seekers are religious, mizrahi or poor, labeling these sects and classes as racist allows the Israelis who don't belong to these under-privileged groups to escape accounting for their own culpability in the racism manifested toward African asylum seekers in Israel. Instead of labeling some groups in society as racist, I wish to show how prevalent views in Israel about national security and identity result in lack of empathy toward the Africans within our borders, which inevitably leads to racism. In my opinion, the lack of empathy is the result of three main ways of thinking: Jewish ethnocentrism, preoccupation with national security threats and the myth of the migrant "leech".

The lack of empathy toward the suffering of the African asylum seekers is firstly based on a clear distinction between "us" (Israelis/Jews) and "them" (Africans/gentiles). While such distinctions are common in all societies across the globe, the othering of the asylum seekers in Israel is based mostly on the fact that they are not Jewish, since other Africans (mostly Ethiopian Jews) have been accepted in Israel, albeit with manifestations of discrimination and occasional racism. Judaism, like other religions, makes a clear distinctions between the inner group (the Jews, the Chosen People) and the outer group (the gentiles), with whom the Jews are not to mix. This clear distinction is very influential among religious circles in Israel and their attitudes toward migrants and refugees.[2]

While the view of gentiles as lesser-humans in uncommon among most Israelis (who aren't religious), the sense of Jewish brotherhood in the face of everyone else is still potent in definition of Israeli identity. Therefore, the common view in Israel, which is based on the ethnic-religious distinction, is that even if the asylum seekers live in our midst, they are still the "other" and there is no sense of empathy toward them, let alone some sense of obligation.

A second cause for the lack of empathy toward the asylum seekers is the discourse of national security in Israel which is dominated by a preoccupation with threats: the Iranian threat, the demographic threat, the rocket threat, the delegitimization threat, etc (we even have the "Ministry of Strategic Threats"). The asylum seekers are placed within this discourse by being categorized as a national security threat, which is clear from the common way of addressing the asylum seekers - infiltrators (mistanenim). The term was first used to describe Palestinian refugees who attempted to enter Israel after 1949 first to return to their homes and work in their fields, and later to perform terrorist and sabotage acts. The insistence of the Netanyahu government and the Israeli media on calling the asylum seekers "infiltrators" is intended to mark them as a threat and stoke fear. The asylum seekers are described as potential terrorists, just like the infiltrators of the 1950s, and as those who cause "cultural, social and economic damage, and pull us towards the Third World", as Netanyahu stated. The proposed solutions to this national security "threat" range from construction of a fence along the Egypt-Israel border, deportations of asylum seekers (in violation of international law) and construction of labor camps where the asylum seekers would live.

The third motivator for the lack of empathy toward the asylum seekers is the myth that is often repeated by Israeli governments and guides their policy toward migrant workers, and that is that illegal migrants are "exploiting" Israel to gain better living standards than they would have back home. Asylum seekers are included in the group of illegal migrants, despite the fact that they cannot be deported (and illegal migrants are), because of the widely held belief and government proclamations that the asylum seekers aren't really political refugees but work migrants. According to this logic, Israel is stuck with the burden of the "fake refugees", unable to deport them lest it violates international law. Looking at the asylum seekers this way leads to the logical conclusion that these Africans are not hard-working people who are helping the Israeli economy, taking jobs that Israelis won't do, but leeches sucking up the public goods intended for the Israeli population alone.

Studies have shown that lack of empathy leads to racism, while the default state is empathy and racism is taught. The common ways of thinking that I've described transform the poor African asylum seeker, who would naturally evoke empathy, to be seen as a leech exploiting Israel and a threat. On the fertile ground of this lack of empathy and suspicion toward the asylum seeker, racism can flourish with the smallest incentive. The State of Israel provides such an incentive by not recognizing the asylum seekers as refugees and abandoning them to their own fate. The asylum seekers are granted permits to stay and work in Israel but are not supported by the state. They end up moving to poor urban areas where they can afford to pay rent and do whatever jobs they can get their hands on. The result is that Israelis who are primed to lack empathy toward the asylum seekers and see them as a threat, now encounter them and are forced to compete for the few jobs available in the area and the little resources the state offers them. The locals are unwilling to share their resources, due to their own poverty and lack of empathy toward the migrants. Why share with people who are threats, foreign and just not "us"?

Thus, the under-privileged Israelis protests against admitting children of migrants to their overpopulated and underfunded schools and correctly state that the willingness of the African asylum seekers to work for less than minimum wage deprives them of low-skilled jobs that once belonged to them. The migrants are blamed for stealing jobs, increasing crime and racist stereotypes abound - they are seen as thugs, drunkards, sex-maniacs, Muslim subversives, Christian interlopers, etc.

Labeling these under-privileged Israelis as racists may be correct, but it also absolves the state of its responsibility toward asylum seekers and lower-class Israelis. Labeling religious Jews as racists ignores the fact that most Israelis make the distinctions between people deserving of empathy and those who don't, and the migrants are on the wrong side of that divide. Labeling different groups as racists ignores how the government, the media, and general apathy and lack of empathy lay the foundations for the racism manifested toward the other in the Israeli society.


[1] The prohibition on renting to migrants was based on the religious edict "lo techanem" with regards to gentiles (some limit it to pagans alone) which means both "do not have mercy on them" (as you should with a Jew) and "do not let them stay (park)" in the Land of Israel.

[2] A recent poll showed that 100% of ultra-orthodox, 85% of orthodox and 56% of moderately-religious Israeli Jews voiced opposition to granting citizenship to children of undocumented migrant workers, while the secular Israelis were much more likely to support this measure (43% of support).

Originally posted by Elizabeth on