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Racism toward African asylum seekers on the rise in Israel

On November 14, 2010

Racism toward African asylum seekers, fueled by politicians and Jewish religious leaders, is reaching new levels in Israel. In several cities Rabbis are urging Jews not to rent apartments to Africans, and African refugees are presented as a national security threat by Israeli politicians. The proposed solutions to this so-called "threat" include mass forced-deportations to Africa and transferring asylum seekers to a large tent city for the entire duration of their stay in Israel.

This racism isn't a new phenomena, but the obvious rise in its manifestations is quite alarming. Last week, Rabbis (Jewish religious leaders) from the ultra-orthodox city of Bnei Brak issued a public call to Israelis to stop renting apartments to "infiltrators" and migrant workers. The public call stated: "those who rent to them [migrant workers and refugees] are to blame for all the moral catastrophes that will results from this, but those who heed our call will... be blessed." The ultra-orthodox activist behind the public call said that "finally we managed to make this neighborhood ultra-orthodox [drive out secular Jews] and suddenly we see that more and more gentiles hang around here."

The public call by Bnei Brak Rabbis

The public call by Bnei Brak Rabbis

The apartment lenders in Bnei Brak have found a way to increase their profits. Instead of renting an apartment to an Israeli couple, they split the apartment to rooms and rent them each to impoverished asylum seekers, sometimes "stuffing" ten refugees into a small apartment. The municipality of Bnei Brak plans to combat this illegal practice by increasing inspection to look for split apartments and are considering publishing (and publicly shaming) those who rent to Africans "so that the public knows the identity of those who prefer their personal financial interests over the severe and unjustified harm caused to the rest of the [Jewish] public", the ultra-orthodox site Behadrey Haredim reported.

A similar call by 25 Rabbis not to rent to migrants and refugees was issued in July in Tel Aviv and was followed up by a pledge of 11 south Tel-Aviv realtors not to rent to refugees. Two weeks ago a Shas Tel Aviv municipality council-member proposed offering financial intensives to ultra-orthodox families to move into poor southern Tel Aviv neighborhoods where refugees and migrant workers reside. The reason behind the council-member's initiative is to tackle an alleged "culture of African refugees flooding south Tel Aviv and causing a growing demographic gap resulting in a suspension of Jewish relocation to the neighborhoods."

The cases reported thus far include ultra-orthodox Rabbis or politicians, but it would be misleading to single out the ultra-orthodox community. Racism toward African asylum seekers is common in general Israeli society. For example, last week the (secular) mayor of the southern Israeli city Eilat, Meir Yizhac HaLevi stated that if the state of Israel doesn't intervene to stop asylum seekers from working in Eilat until January 11, 2011, the municipality "intends to block the entrance of infiltrators ourselves." According to the mayor, "we plan to begin the process of removing illegal infiltrators from Eilat, make it hard for them to work here and rent apartments." HaLevi, like all other Israeli officials, presents the African asylum seekers as illegal migrants, even though reports by the state itself admit that 80% of the asylum seekers are entitled to group protection and cannot be deported due to dangers they face back home.

Senior Israeli politicians also promote this sort of racism. The Interior Minister Eli Yishai (from the ultra-orthodox party Shas) claimed that "more than one million people have tried, are trying and will try to infiltrate [Israel] from third world countries." According to him, "in order to maintain the Jewish majority, Israel must defend itself." Several propositions are currently being considered by the Israeli government on how to defend Israel from this "danger".

In the ongoing deliberation process inside the Israeli government a proposal being examined is to mass-deport the asylum seekers to African nations that would accept them for money. Another option being considered, which was reported last week in the papers Maariv and Makor Rishon is to construct a mass "holding facility" in the southern desert (Negev) that would hold thousands of tents. Officials in Israel's Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Population, Immigration and Border Authority (inside the Ministry of Interior) have proposed this "solution" and it is being considered by a inter-departmental committee chaired by the Prime Minister's Office director-general. According to officials quoted in the papers, the ability to work in Israel is what's luring the refugees to come there, and the asylum seekers in the holding facility would be provided with food and shelter and forbidden from working. Fines for Israelis who employ African asylum seekers would be tightly enforced, and according to the Makor Rishon report (but no the Maariv one), the asylum seekers will be forbidden from leaving the facility until they find a country willing to accept them.

Once again we see how the incitement by Israeli officials against asylum seekers is used to justify immoral and illegal proposals for dealing with them. Instead of acting like a civilized nation and letting asylum seekers go through the process of determining whether they are eligible for a refugee status or not, Israeli politicians prefer to pretend that they're all illegal migrant workers so they can treat them as such.

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