Tony Greenstein | 05 March 2018 | Post Views:

Thousands of Israelis are attempting to stop the deportation of African refugees 

African asylum seekers

Although Israel was an early signatory to the 1951 Refugee
Convention, it has never welcomed refugees who are not Jewish. It has
admitted in total about 200 such refugees since its foundation,1
the most publicised incident being Menachem Begin’s acceptance of 66
Vietnamese in 1977, who had been rescued by an Israeli ship.

In 2007, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert granted temporary residence permits to 498 Sudanese asylum-seekers.2
However they were not given the right to reside and, as the number of
African migrants increased to over 60,000 by 2013, the refugees were
confronted with an organised and systematic campaign to drive them out.
The vast majority were fleeing authoritarian regimes in Eritrea and

As Lia Tarachansky explained when the refugees first arrived, they
were welcomed by the Israeli public: “But when the government of
Netanyahu decided to take a 90-degree turn on the treatment of the
African refugees, what resulted was a full-out war against them
Many had chosen Israel because they believed its propaganda that it was
a democracy and also because it was easier to reach than Europe.

Most refugees have been living in poor and overcrowded neighbourhoods
in southern Tel Aviv. Dozens squatted in a park across the street from
the city’s main bus station for weeks on end. A handful of high-profile
incidents, including an alleged rape of an 83-year-old woman by an
Eritrean asylum-seeker in 2012, were blown up by Israel’s media into an
attack on all asylum-seekers.
Israel has one of the highest rates of rape and sexual assaults in
the world. According to the Association of Rape Crisis Centres in
Israel, one in seven Israeli women will suffer rape in her lifetime and
one in three will experience a sexual assault.4 This,
however, did not stop allegations against the refugees that were similar
to those levied in Nazi Germany. Just as individual crimes by German
Jews were attributed to the whole Jewish community, so the same is true
of asylum-seekers in Israel.

In November 2010, the Israeli government approved a plan to build a
massive detention centre, Holot, in the Negev desert to hold thousands
of asylum-seekers and their families before deportation. Holot is the
biggest prison for refugees in the entire developed world. Israeli
police then embarked on mass racial profiling and went down the streets
of Tel Aviv asking for IDs from anyone who was brown or black – and
packed them off to this prison.

Netanyahu stirring up racial conflict in South Tel Aviv

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu was quite clear as to the
reasons for his hostility to the refugees – they were a threat to the
Zionist ‘dream’: “We must stop the mass entry of illegal migrant workers
because of the very serious threat to the character and future of the
state of Israel.”5 The very existence of a ‘Jewish’ state was
apparently threatened by the presence of 60,000 refugees. In the racial
fantasies of Netanyahu: “If we don’t stop their entry, the problem that
currently stands at 60,000 could grow to 600,000, and that threatens
our existence as a Jewish and democratic state.”6
As Lia Tarachansky pointed out,

the refugees are less than .001% of the population, and yet
they are constantly being talked about as though they are threatening
Israel’s Jewish majority – a demographic threat which is something that
the state of Israel uses frequently against the Palestinian minorities
in Israel.7

When Palestinians were expelled in 1948, this was said to be
necessary to create a Jewish majority state. But, incredibly, those who
tried to return were called ‘infiltrators’. Only the warped mentality of
settler colonialism could label those who were indigenous to the land
from which they had been forced out, and whose families had lived there
for centuries, in such a way. But Israel is the most racist state in the
world – a state where a plurality of Jews – 48% – want to see the
deportation of Israeli Arabs. According to a poll published in 2007, 75%
do not wish to live with an Arab in their apartment block.8

Sheffi Paz leads protest against asylum seekers

Nor does Israel comply with the biblical injunction, “You too must
befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”
(Deuteronomy10:19). This most certainly does not form part of Zionist
values. There are some 50 references in the Old Testament to befriending
the stranger (or refugee), but Israel’s ultra-right rabbinical
establishment is strangely oblivious to all of them.9 Zionism
prefers the book of Joshua, which instructed the Israelites to wipe out
the non-Jewish inhabitants of Canaan – every man, woman and child.

Israel is not a fulfilment of biblical prophecy about the return of
the Jews to the Promised Land. It is a settler colonial state, the
brainchild of evangelical Christians, for whom biblical and imperialist
imperatives coincided. Yet Israel is only a
Jewish state in that the settler population is racially defined as
ethnically Jewish. Being Jewish means having as few non-Jews as
possible. Israel’s Arabs are a barely tolerated fifth column, but black
African refugees are neither Jewish nor white – hence they must go. This
is the logic of Zionism.

The need for Jewish racial purity was what led to the ban on a book from the high school syllabus in Israel – Borderlife
portrayed a relationship between an Arab and Jewish teenager. Another
of Israel’s taboos is ‘mixed-race’ – ie, Arab-Jewish – relationships.
The fascist Lehava group, whose ‘charity’, Hemla, is funded by the
Israeli state, uses packs of its activists to hunt down and attack Arab
males suspected of wanting to establish relationships with Jewish women.10

New moves

In 2013 Israel built a border fence with Egypt and Netanyahu’s
government embarked on a series of measures whose purpose was to make
life more difficult for asylum-seekers in Israel. It also began secretly
pressuring Eritreans and Sudanese to leave for unnamed third countries.

The two countries chosen for deportation were Rwanda and Uganda.
Netanyahu reached a corrupt and criminal deal with the dictator of
Rwanda, Paul Ngame – although they are denying it now. Once the
asylum-seekers reached these countries, they were abandoned and rendered
stateless – and subject to deportation back to the country they had
escaped from. Most of those who have already been forced out – up to
20,000 – live in a stateless limbo in Kampala or Kigale. Many have now
been forced out of Uganda or Rwanda, making them vulnerable to blackmail
and physical abuse at the hands of smugglers and security forces. Some
have continued north to Sudan or Libya in an effort to reach Europe. A
few have been captured and killed by Islamic State fighters or drowned
in the Mediterranean.11

Many refugees have settled in the south of Tel Aviv, where they have
been subject to pogroms and violent demonstrations by racist Israelis.
They are accused of having illegally entered Israel, because most asylum
claims in Israel are not recognised.

It is one of the achievements of the Israeli state to have turned
Jewish people – the victims of past pogroms – into pogromists
themselves, all with the encouragement and support of the Israeli
government. Culture minister Miri Regev has called refugees a “cancer”
in Israeli society. When criticised for this, she apologised to cancer
patients, for having compared them to asylum-seekers.12
Among the measures used to ‘encourage’ such asylum-seekers to leave
is a 2014 law that allows Israel to confiscate – ie, steal – 20% of the
income of refugees. These are part of the poorest section of Israeli
society – people who have little or no access to medical or health
facilities, who get no public housing or benefits.13 The
confiscated money is deposited into a special bank account and
theoretically the asylum-seekers will be able to access the money upon
leaving the country. The Israeli bank, Mizrahi Tefahot, which won the
tender to manage these accounts, informed its investors that the policy
would improve its liquidity and reserve ratio, because the money will
not be accessible to its owners, and the bank could use it to offset
loans.14 In essence the African refugees, like Palestinian
labourers, have paid taxes to the state of Israel, whilst receiving
absolutely no services whatsoever.

The normal excuse for discrimination against the Palestinians is
‘security’, but even that excuse is missing here. People who are
innocent of any of the things the Israeli state accuses its enemies of
are still being treated as an enemy, simply because they are black and
not Jewish.

When Israel’s supreme court ruled against detaining the refugees for
longer than a year or forcing them out of the country, the government
has simply ignored those rulings – and it has done this with the
complicity of the Israeli Labor Party:

There’s a silent consensus about that on the entire spectrum
of the Israeli Zionist political leadership. Even so-called centrist
politicians like Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid and Yitzhak Herzog are all
respecting the status quo of essentially ignoring the ruling of the
supreme court.15

Celina Shapil 92 holocaust survivor

However, large numbers of Israel’s holocaust survivors, in whose name
the state has committed so many war crimes, have spoken out against all
this. Many of them are also kept in abject poverty in Israel.16
If there is one lesson that everyone can draw from the holocaust, it is
that, if the west had taken in the Jewish refugees from Hitler, then
far fewer would have died. Today the same forces that opposed the
immigration of Jewish refugees in the 1930s – the America Firsters, the Daily Mails
and the far right – support Zionism and the Israeli state. But many
holocaust survivors perceive the contradiction between Zionism and the
lessons of the holocaust. Zionism’s desire to create a Jewish state that
is as ethnically pure and Jewish as possible is no different from the
desire of Hitler and the Nazis to create an ethnically pure German
state. But some non-Jews are more unwanted than others. In Israel today
there are thousands of non-Jewish Russians who are not being deported.
The difference is that they are white.

Avi Gabbay – Israeli Labor Party leader

Israeli Labor Party

What is most shameful is the role of the Israeli Labor Party, which
abroad tries to present itself as progressive. Under its new, even more
rightwing leader, Avi Gabbay, it is fully behind Netanyahu. The refugees
from Eritrea are ‘bogus’, the party claims – no matter that every
international body and human rights agency says that Eritrea is one of
the worst police states in the world.
According to Jill Hoffman of the Jerusalem Post the Zionist
Union parliamentary faction of the Labor Party voted 12-11 to back the
government’s plan to deport refugees after Gabbay told the members of
the Knesset: “This is not an issue of right or left. We would pay a
price for arguing with the public.”17 This prompted Tamar Zandberg, a member of the Knesset for the left Zionist Meretz Party, to ask:

What has become of you? Are you the Zionist Union or the
expelling union? Have you gone mad? In your tactics for wooing votes,
you’ve abandoned your fundamental values and ability to tell right from

Now, of course, Tamar is wrong. The ILP never had any anti-racist
values. It was first and foremost a party of Zionist colonisation. It
was therefore predictable that it would come out in support of
Netanyahu’s proposed deportation of black African refugees.

We should be calling out those in Britain like the Jewish Labour
Movement who are helping to drive the anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism
witch-hunt in the Labour Party, but who refuse to condemn the behaviour
of what the JLM describes as its “sister party” in Israel. 19 I
have sent messages to both Jeremy Newmark, chair of the Jewish Labour
Movement, and Rhea Wolfson, who is a member of Labour’s national
executive committee, as well as the JLM itself, asking them to condemn
the ILP’s support for Netanyahu. But I have been met with silence. It is
the JLM who has subjected Jackie Walker, a black Jewish anti-racist and
former vice-chair of Momentum, to a scurrilous political lynching.

Rhea Wolfson is politically close to the Alliance for Workers’
Liberty. She spoke at the Labour Party fringe meeting of the AWL front
group, Stop the Purge,and she is on the editorial board of the AWL’s The Clarion
magazine. Perhaps the AWL can persuade Wolfson to dissociate herself
from the JLM’s support for the ILP and its stance on Israel’s refugees –
and to do this in the most public way by resigning from the JLM.
Wolfson should be congratulating those like the holocaust survivors who
condemn the deportations, not keeping company with racists.

But holocaust survivors are not the only ones. On January 22, David
Sheen, a Canadian-Israeli who has campaigned tirelessly in support of
Israel’s refugees, wrote in Electronic Intifada that Israel was set to win its war on African refugees20 and Netanyahu would be able to deport them. Yet in the space of a week it was claimed that Netanyahu’s plans were now in ruins.21

There has been considerable embarrassment among Israel’s more liberal
middle classes against what has become an international scandal. Even
Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, has warned that
this affair is making Israel even more of an international pariah. “It
is particularly welcome that hundreds of Israeli academics have spoken
out,” wrote professor Rachel Giora of Tel Aviv University in a message
to me:

It’s really rare that I can feel proud of Israelis. Indeed
recently there are many demonstrations and lots of published petitions
against governmental policies. But today language turned into acts.
Today Israeli pilots and crews announced their refusal to cooperate with
the government on the deportation of African asylum-seekers to Africa.
They won’t fly the refugees to their death! And they call on other
airlines to join in.

Israel’s refugees can breathe a little more easily due to
this refusal. And the signatures of several hundred professors and
intellectuals to a letter calling on the prime minister to put a halt to
the expulsion of asylum-seekers from Eritrea and Sudan are also a
breath of fresh air.

B Michael, a contributor to the Ha’aretz newspaper, has
compared the policy of Adolf Eichmann towards the Jews of Vienna with
Israel’s policy of forcing out black African asylum-seekers.22
Eichmann’s policy of impoverishing, terrorising and stripping Jews of
their rights was considered a massive success at the time in forcing the
Jews out of Austria. Israel is only just learning how to accomplish the
same feat. Israel’s refugee population of 60,000 has already been
reduced by 10,000-15,000 through a combination of tactics, such as
imprisonment in Holot, depriving them of the right to work, pogroms and
racist attacks. Israel has learnt well, as B Michael said, from the
Jews’ traditional enemies.

Although only a few weeks ago activists such as David Sheen were
conceding defeat on deportation, according to Anshel Pfeffer, the wheels
had been coming off the hastily drawn expulsion plan for months.23
One of Netanyahu’s proudest achievements had been the border fence with
Egypt. He described it in 2013 as “one of the greatest engineering
feats ever achieved in Israel.”
Netanyahu and the far-right Zionists have used the poverty of south
Tel Aviv’s existing Jewish working class residents as a rallying point
for far-right activists – including members of the outlawed Kahanist
groups. It was in May 2012, after ‘culture’ minister Miri Regev had made
her “cancer” speech, that a mob of one thousand Israelis ran amok,
attacking any refugee they could find. With record low unemployment
rates and a growing demand for foreign workers, a plan to legalise the
asylum-seekers and resettle them across Israel would have been sensible,
but Netanyahu and the coalition government, with the support of the
ILP, preferred incitement against the “infiltrators”.
A few thousand asylum-seekers were prevailed upon to leave
“voluntarily”. Dozens of planes were to be chartered – the refugees
given the stark choice of leaving voluntarily with $3,500 in cash or
facing indefinite detention. But news of how they were mistreated upon
arrival soon filtered back – and then no-one was prepared to volunteer
any more.

But the high court refused to let the government incarcerate them for
more than 60 days. However, it eventually backed down and approved
deportation to “third countries” of any refugee whose asylum request was
not pending. The interior ministry has made it almost impossible to
request asylum – and of 12,000 requests just 10 have been approved.

Legal clinic Israeli law students

Wheels coming off

Only a few weeks ago it seemed all was over. But, even as the first
notices were being issued to the refugees, the wheels were coming off.
The Israel Prison Service, already suffering from massive overcrowding
with Palestinians, had no space for the thousands of expected detainees.
The refugees made it clear they would not accept the financial
inducements and when the government threatened to deport them by force
they ran up against legal obstacles.

No less important, the small circle of activists supporting the
refugees had begun to grow rapidly. A series of petitions circulated,
with the signatories committing themselves to hiding refugees in their
homes if necessary. Thousands have signed the petitions and hundreds of
people turned out for meetings on a rain-soaked Wednesday night in
Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, which were organised by a group called Standing
Together (Omdim Beyachad), to oppose the deportations.
Thousands of Israelis are supporting the airline workers in their stand
and Zazim, a new national organisation founded by university students,
is holding protests and setting up information booths across the
The government’s backers in the media have derided these groups as
anti-Israeli and far-leftists who did not care for the poor residents of
south Tel Aviv. But still the protests grew,24 with
petitions signed by over 1,000 doctors and medical staff; and, perhaps
most damagingly, a personal letter was sent to Netanyahu, signed by 36
holocaust survivors.25

The publicity has already caused Rwanda to announce that it will not
accept refugees deported against their will. How much one can trust this
is another matter.

The timing could not have been better. The survivors’ letter was the
main Holocaust-related news coming out of Israel just in time for
International Holocaust Remembrance Day! For once the occasion is being
put to good use instead of being employed to justify Israel’s racism.

Then there is the case of Celina Shapil, who spent the winter of 1943
on the run from the Nazis – she crossed the borders of Poland, Slovakia
and Hungary on foot through the snow at the age of 17.26 Now 92, she was outraged at the government’s deportation plans and decided it was time to speak out:

I too have lived through a situation where the whole world
was apathetic. I know what it feels like to be alone and feel like no
one cares. It’s shameful we are the ones now doing this. It should not
have to come to this so there needs to be public pressure. The
government must change its policy.

As for the 36 survivors, they wrote to Netanyahu:

We – who know what it means to be a refugee, to be without a
home or a country that would protect and defend us from violence and
suffering – cannot understand how a Jewish government can expel refugees
and asylum-seekers to a journey of pain, suffering and death.27

This is why, far from being anti-Semitic, it is essential to compare
Israel’s racist actions to those of the Nazis. It is only in this way
that sections of Israel’s own Jewish citizens can be confronted with
what Zionism means. What is sad is that it is left to those like the
holocaust survivors, as young Israelis are overwhelmingly racist.28
However, there are exceptions. Ella Navot, a 24-year-old sociology
student at Tel Aviv University and one of the founders of Stop the
Expulsion, said:

Deportation is like a red line for many people. Until now we
could just sit at home and say, ‘Oh no, this is bad.’ And for the past
few years people who care and follow the issue have been outraged, but
this is the last straw.29

Navot explained:

There are so many aspects to what drew me to this. I could
talk about the fact that my grandmother is a holocaust survivor or about
my parents, who are leftwing and have always advocated for human
rights, but really what brought me to it is when I met the people
themselves and started to understand the issue. They became friends and
when one hears their stories one cannot ignore them.

The campaign launched last week, which called on Israelis to hide
asylum-seekers if it becomes necessary, was inspired, its organisers
say, by the story of Anne Frank.30 The massive response to the campaign, now called Miklat Yisrael
(Israel Refuge) took its organisers, including American-born rabbi
Susan Silverman of Jerusalem, who came up with the idea, by surprise.
As for the 92-year-old Celina Shapil, who continues to mourn her
parents and younger brother – all murdered in Auschwitz – she feels
lucky to have been able to rebuild her life. But she hopes the African
asylum-seekers will find refuge in Israel too. Otherwise, she warns, “We
will go down terribly in history”.


14. See interview of Lia Tarachansky by Shir Hever:
Israeli Labor sells out African refugees, as ‘infiltrators’,
27. Ibid.
28. See ‘Zionism and holocaust abuse’ Weekly Worker November 30 2017.

30. ‘Inspired by Anne Frank, rabbis in Israel plan to hide African asylum-seekers facing deportation’ Ha’aretz January 19 2018.

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