By Shoshana Gabay (Translated from Hebrew by Benno Karkabe, Shoshana Gabay and Dana Hadadi)
Israeli journalists are doing nobody any favors by blaming the long-time Mizrahi residents for the plight of African asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv. So one must ask: why aren’t journalists actually holding the government accountable?
May Golan is a young resident of an impoverished south Tel Aviv neighborhood, and an active member of Michael Ben-Ari’s fascist movement “Otzma Le’Israel” (Power to Israel). In an interview she gave to Haaretz, Golan succeeded in infuriating its readers with her personality and her slandering of African refugees.Golan’s written profile is another round of the Israeli press fighting racism against African refugees by exposing the dark ethnic roots of ‘agitators’: the Mizrahi Jews.
At the same time, the press displays the bleeding heart of the ruling class – offering those people in need a pair of worn sneakers, as one Haaretz journalist says in his personal story.
We are disappointed in the Mizrahi. That’s what Michael Handelzalts expressed in a Haaretz article, a day after last year’s riots in the slums of Tel Aviv. In his complaint over the ungrateful oriental Jews, he says: “we absorbed ‘Aliyah’ (immigration) from countries in distress, and then helped them to adjust to the progress that we built here, all to their benefit.” Then, paraphrasing the Book of Kings, he writes: “Our fathers watered weeds, we are beaten up by scorpions.” This statement by the disappointed journalist basically questions the Mizrahi Jews’ right to Israeli citizenship, which unconditionally provides them basic rights in the country.
Handelzalts, the paper’s theater critic, immigrated from eastern Europe in 1957 – a long time after the majority of Mizrahi Jews immigrants settled in that very south Tel Aviv neighborhood. In other words, he wasn’t born here, yet, to him it is natural to use the “royal we.” His Zionist idealization implies progress and an active attitude in society. In Handelzalts mind, the ungrateful and passive Mizrahim do not contribute, they only profit.
This fantasy of superiority, effectively draining the core of Israeli citizenship, is well-rooted in the hegemonic class; it has been carved into young Golan’s mind as well. “I am Jewish,” she says in one of her street duels, which is to say: my Judaism is my insurance ticket, whereas my rights as an Israeli citizen are not.
Even the African refugee himself has become aware of this very same fantasy. He has come to realize that the Israeli regime acts according to a set of ethnic rules, and that it takes more than just Israeli citizenship to allow the Israeli to put him down.
To sum up the approaches of both sides: Handelzalts has a pretty narrow concept of civil rights in Israel. His definition goes as follows: I am an Eastern European Jew, therefore I belong to the right group; and my ethnicity gives me the right to decide who is eligible for immigration into Israel and who is entitled to civil rights. And all this despite the fact that I was not born here. Golan and her peers in Otzma, on the other hand, promote a somewhat broader view. According to them, all Jews, and only Jews (regardless of their origin), should have civil rights as well as the right to set the terms of immigration to Israel. Neither the first theory nor the second fit into the accepted definition of civil rights in Western democracies.
A closer look into the circumstances that brought Africans here shows a positive correlation between the wealth of many Israelis – most of them either military or being top businessmen – why so many Africans had to flee from their homeland. It is as if rich Israelis and Europeans alike inflict mayhem on the African countries. They jointly participate in the large scale looting, trading in arms and ruining nature reserves.
One can see a gap between the Israeli media’s tendency to assign blame to the residents of south Tel Aviv and the blind spots of its consciousness, especially when considering the empathy by many wealthy Israelis – most of them either from the military or top businessmen – when it comes to the plight of African refugees. It is as if rich Israelis and Europeans alike inflict mayhem on the African countries while participating in the large scale looting, arms trading and ruining nature reserves. These ‘death dealers’ might very well be sitting next to Mr. Handelzalts in the theater. It might even be that they are as upset as he is, what with all those paupers and their barbarian manners in the slums of Tel Aviv.
How did we get to the point where Israeli media, politicians and publicists have a meaningful discussion over the fate of African refugees and south Tel Aviv’s residents without even once addressing the responsibility of the Israeli government? How come our reporters don’t besiege the doors of the Israeli government, demanding answers?
A week before all this took place, Haaretz published a study on the way different European states handle the asylum seeker issue. What was lacking in the study was the understanding that in those “properly managed” countries (a term that is excessively used in the Israeli press), the borders are not being opened to an unlimited number of famished and desperate asylum seekers without proper governmental supervision and institutional support.
Anyone who has spent some time in northern Europe knows that no country would place such a burden on its helpless citizens. In the Netherlands, for example, applying for ‘refugee’ status involves being transferred to one of the many absorption centers in the country, which are not exclusively situated in the poor suburbs.
Dutch embassies around the world check whether the asylum seekers request for protection is legitimate. Pending the outcome, the asylum seeker will have to stay in one of the absorption centers, where he/she receives an allowance for food, housing, health insurance which includes psychological treatment, and where his/her children go to school right away. He/she is not allowed to work until a request has been granted. In case of a rejection the asylum seeker will be repatriated by plane. Yet if, if refugee status is officially confirmed, he or she will be able to stay and work, and have the option of applying for Dutch citizenship.
Israelis like their politicians to be thugs – projecting actual threats onto Arabs, or even killing them with their bare hands (like the late, widely admired Ariel Sharon). Oddly enough, Israelis do not believe that a government is first and foremost the body entrusted to ensure the well-being and safety of its citizens. Since Israelis generally have a vague notion about the responsibilities of government, they are used to resolving unfinished matters on their own. This means that fighting over a place in line is in no different than fighting over a place in the streets of south Tel Aviv, where residents feel that their citizenship is fragile, and subsequently seek confrontation with refugees instead of confronting the government.
It gets even more absurd when the politicians themselves come and join the residents’ demonstrations against African refugees, since the actual target for demonstrators should be the very same politicians. Instead of scrutinizing government representatives, the Israeli press makes it their task to settle the score with one group of citizens or another.
In a televised debate on the situation in south Tel Aviv, the journalist host rolled his eyes the moment a citizen blamed the government for the situation of African asylum seekers, before replying: “What does the situation of refugees have to do with the government?” Any time someone tries to hold the government accountable for anything in any public debate in Israel (regardless of the issue) his/her position is seen as nonsensical and labeled as another triviality. That’s just the way life goes.
There is no point arguing with crime rates in the neighborhoods since the arrival of African refugees. Tens of thousands of miserable people who reach the Israeli border are thrown into the slums without a penny to their name. Under these extreme circumstances, they are bound to become a serious threat to the local residents, not to mention and a heavy burden. This would be the case even if the color of their skin was white as snow, and their mother tongue was be English or French. Those same refugees go after targets even weaker than themselves in order to survive. This is why you will not find Filipino nurses walking the streets of Tel Aviv, as they frequently did whenever they had a day off. If they must, they will only go out in larger groups.
Could you really relax at the beach and close your eyes for five minutes, and not be aware of a penniless African moving around in wide circles, waiting for the best moment to grab something from you? Would you be able to take a bite while walking the street, with the eyes of a starving man staring at you? Would you feel comfortable sleeping in your own house knowing that a man is sleeping on your doorstep? It is obvious that in order to protect themselves, the residents in south Tel Aviv feel they have no other choice but to lock themselves in their own homes. All in all, what is more important for a journalist? To interview and find out the opinion of a local resident, or to demand a committee investigate the extent to which the government can be held accountable for this human jungle.
Compared to the African refugees, the fate of illegal Eastern European immigrants is a completely different one. Year after year, the immigration authority publishes figures that show that the majority of those staying illegally in Israel are originally from the former Soviet Union and the rest of Eastern Europe. They arrive as tourists or foreign workers, and disperse across the country with the help of compatriots who have already have established themselves. The immigrants are backed up by powerful lobby groups or political parties, such as Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. These politicians exercise massive pressure in order to give all tourists who come from Eastern Europe free access to the country, despite the objections of administrators in government offices. As a consequence, free access for Russian tourists was initiated in 2008, and later on for Ukrainians and tourists from other neighboring countries. At this point it should be clarified that, at present, none of the aforementioned “well managed” countries in Europe or North America do accept Russian tourists without a valid visa.
All procedures concerning illegal residents from Eastern Europe are handled by the government or Knesset committees, without any public awareness or discussion, let alone public protests. According to the transcripts of a meeting held in 1995 which dealt with the issue of illegal immigrants, former member of Knesset Marina Solodkin said: “This is a rebellion of bureaucrats against an elected parliament.” In 2005 Avigdor Liberman himself requested that the Ministry of Internal Affairs suspend the head of the Population Authority, claiming that he did not act in accordance with government agreements, and accused him of racism against immigrants from the former Soviet Union. This kind of political pressure helped thousands of immigrants from the former USSR, and continues to do so, as every year only a few hundred of them are denied access to the country or a permit to stay.
The same Knesset members lobbying on the behalf of Eastern European foreigners are also members of the Knesset Lobby for the Prevention of Illegal Immigration, a group whose main objective is the expulsion of African refugees. It is disturbing that, despite the accessible publications of the Population and Immigration Authority, the only public figures referring to the topic were published by Professor Galia Tzabar, the head of the African Studies Department in Tel Aviv University. Tzabar complained about the lack of fairness in the treatment of African refugees, compared to the treatment of Eastern European immigrants. Of course, it didn’t take long for commenters online to call the comparison an outrage, since only Eastern European immigrants contribute to Israel’s progress.
Israel has absorbed a tremendous amount of immigrants since the nineties (they now make up for about 20% of its entire population). Experience tells us that any wave of immigration will put pressure on the lowest economic and social classes with regard to housing, wages and welfare and health budgets. For the upper classes, the very same immigration has an opposite effect: it enlarges their political and economic power.
The immigration of both Eastern Europeans and African asylum seekers were a difficult test of the lower classes’ endurance, and the neglectful way our government has handled the refugee issue was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The government should be compassionate toward those whose lives are in danger – they should provide them shelter, guidance and support. Not only in order to comply with international law, but also as to not harm the lower classes. In the absence of a widely shared and transparent policy that aims to reduce immigration to sustainable proportions, we should not let in people only on the basis of their ethnic background, but rather to assist those in need according to international treaties.
Meanwhile, the Israeli immigration quota will continue to be exploited in an unfair and arbitrary way by politicians serving the immigrants of Eastern European countries – Europeans whose life in their home countries is not in danger at all.
This post originally appeared in Hebrew on Haokets.
Filed under: Media, Mizrahiness, Politics Tagged: African asylum seekers, Avigdor Liberman, haaretz, Knesset, Michael Ben-Ari, Michael Handelzalts, mizrahim, Netherlands, Russians, Shoshana Gabay, south tel aviv, Tel Aviv, Yisrael Beiteinu