African Migrants and the Israeli Apartheid Debate

Race riot in Israel

Race riot in Israel

The name of the neighborhood could not have been more symbolic. Located in southern Tel Aviv, the impoverished Hatikva quarter has always born the stigma of sharing a name with Israel’s national anthem, while playing home to some of the poorest, most marginalized Jews in the country—as well as a growing population of African asylum seekers, mostly from Eritrea and South Sudan.

On May 23, Hatikva had the dubious distinction of hosting the worst race riots since Israel’s founding. Egged on by politicians from Israel’s governing Likud Party, local Jewish residents brutally assaulted migrants and looted their stores.

For followers of Israeli politics, none of this was surprising. In the preceding weeks, right-wing activists and politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had been attacking African migrants, repeatedly calling them a threat to Israeli society and security. It was just a matter of time before something like this happened.

In the wake of the violence, conservative media activists—accustomed to going on the offensive to support Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians—found themselves with an entirely new kind of problem. They had to defend the government against charges of supporting anti-African racism. Ill-prepared, they relied on media normally used for other purposes, like flyers that had been intended for Apartheid Week.

A Disingenuous Dodge

Featuring a black and white photo of a group of laughing Ethiopian Jewish kids, one flyer highlights an old headline quotation from the late New York Times columnist William Safire that reads: “For the first time in history, thousands of black people are brought into the country not in chains but as citizens.” In larger bold type appears the word “Apartheid?”

The work of the pro-Israel organization Stand With Us, the flyer was distributed by the controversial Elder of Ziyon blog. As an Israeli journalist, I received an emailed copy from someone who thought I would find it useful. A right-wing activist I know similarly plastered Reddit with links to it in the days immediately following the rioting. There was nothing especially unusual about the activity. It was the flyer itself that was noteworthy.

As propaganda, it’s relatively straightforward: How can Palestinians and leftists argue that Israelis an apartheid state if it officially encourages black African immigration? Never mind that these Falashim, or Beta Israel as they are also called, happen to be Jews (or, at least, recently Jewish, according to religious authorities).

For supporters of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, the strategy of defending the country this way makes a great deal of sense. Whereas South Africa undertook an official policy of segregation and discrimination concerning its black population, Israel’s decision to facilitate Ethiopian immigration and integration is obviously different.

The problem is that Israel advocates assume that the country’s cultural complexity is sufficient to ward off charges that it practices comparably racist policies toward Palestinians, or discriminates against non-Jewish Israelis and migrants. Such messaging presupposes a very narrow intellectual continuum, and it gives Palestinian advocates very little credit.

Nonetheless, with international coverage of anti-African riots in Tel Aviv, Israel’s backers are worried that the country’s mistreatment of migrants will be assimilated into Palestinian claims that Israel is an apartheid state. Given such precedents as Israel’s now-repealed Hadera-Gedera law (which forbade migrants from living in the center of the country) and its deportation of migrant children, you can understand the worry.

Zionism on Trial

The emergence of African-Jewish relations as a crisis concern is of profound significance — not just in relation to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but in terms of how it identifies Zionism with archetypically European colonialist attitudes toward persons of color. Zionism is not just antithetical to Palestinian national aspirations. It increasingly appears, as UN resolution 3379 once contended, “a form of racism and racial discrimination.”

That’s not to say that the Israelis who attacked African immigrants in Tel Aviv were necessarily behaving as “Zionists.” They could have been acting, for example, out of class resentment, fearful that Africans would “steal” already scarce jobs. And anti-African sentiment is hardly unique to Israel in the Middle East.

Nonetheless, how Israelis behave toward non-Jews colors the politics the outside world ascribes to them. This challenge underlines the present Israeli government’s singular concern with the problem of “de-legitimization” — especially since in Western politics, race relations are often used as a barometer of liberal democracy. If rights are not extended to all, and equality is not a legislated social value, such societies are ideologically suspect.

Indeed, in recent decades, Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians has resulted in exactly what Israel’s defenders claim: the delegitimizing of Jewish nationalism in the Holy Land. What rightist Zionists argue is that criticisms of Israel’s behavior put to question the Jewish right to statehood itself. What they perceive is not necessarily the legitimacy of external criticism–they have long since learned to ignore it–but rather its impact on their own conscience, telling them that there is something fundamentally wrong with the state of Israel — not just as a serial violator of human rights or international law, but as a moral entity.

Enter the use of Black African Jews to ward off criticisms of Israel being an unjust, apartheid state. What’s being expressed, however clumsily, is a refusal by right-wing Israelis and “hasbaristas” to separate the question of Israel’s legitimacy from how it treats anyone who is not Jewish. The fact that the subjects of the flyer are Jews is especially revealing in this regard, because they are being used as stand-ins for non-Jewish migrants. Why not use white migrants from the former USSR? Because it reflects a fundamentally ethnocentric point of view about Israeli citizenship: Being Jewish means, ironically, being white. Ethiopian-Israeli Jews have long protested their second-class status in Israel.

How might we disentangle all this? First and foremost, we must specify that there are other issues “delegitimizing” and problematizing the Israeli state besides the Palestinian issue. Heaven help us if actual African migrants enter the debate.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Joel Schalit is the editorial director of Souciant. His most recent book is Israel vs. Utopia (Akashic Books, 2009). An Israeli citizen, he lives and works in Berlin, Germany.