By Arieh Oâ€™Sullivan, The Media Line
|Dozens of African migrants cross into southern Israel through the border with Egypt. (AP)|
OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: A tsunami of intolerance and discrimination against Arabs, ultra-Orthodox Jews and African refugees has washed over Israel in recent weeks, causing concern among many that it may be undermining Israelâ€™s democratic character.
The past week has seen an explosion of street protests calling to deport Africans who have congregated in neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv and against Israeli Arabs moving to the cities. A group of municipal rabbis signed a letter earlier this month declaring that it was forbidden by religious law to rent or sell homes to non-Jews.
â€œWe see it as a racist call,â€ Ron Gerlitz, the co-executive director of Sikkuy â€” the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel, told The Media Line. â€œIf someone says we should not rent to some people just because of their nationality then this is racism.â€
There are an estimated quarter of a million foreign workers in Israel, about half of these in the country illegally. This doesnâ€™t include the estimated 30,000 Africans who have flooded into the country by foot over the past few years, mostly from war-torn Eritrea, and Sudan. While these numbers are small compared to more than seven million Israelis, the foreigners tend to live in a limited number of neighborhoods where their presence is felt especially strongly.
Gerlitz said the attacks on Israelâ€™s Arab minority, which makes up some 20 percent of the population, was an â€œattack against democracy, because there is no democracy without uncompromising protection of the rights of the minority.â€
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, has also fanned the flames of incitement against Arabs. â€œEvery day, every week, you have another case of Israeli Arabs that are talking part in terrorist activity,â€ he said in an interview with Newsweek published last week.
Some demonstrators advocating for the expulsion of African migrants from south Tel Aviv last week held placards saying: â€œLieberman, where are you when we need you?â€
Intolerance has grown to encompass Israelis Jews as well, with ultra-Orthodox Jews targeted for their refusal to serve in the army or join the job market, enjoying government allowances that enable them to engage in religious studies well into adulthood.
Eli Yishai, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, protested what he called the â€œwitch huntâ€ being waged by the secular Israelis against ultra-Orthodox. But, in fact, the ultra-Orthodox have traditionally disparaged secular Israelis and many of their political leaders have taken on the fight against Africans.
â€œI call on all the leaders of all the parties to stop this wave of incitement. It creates rifts within the nation, and is completely unnecessary,â€ Yishai said last week.
He was referring to the repeated headlines against the government stipends given to yeshiva students and angry protests by mainly secular Israelis.
Yair Lapid, a popular on-air personality on the Channel 2 television network â€” who has been toying with following the political footsteps of his father, the secularist champion, Yosef (Tommy) Lapid â€” published a front-page editorial in the nationâ€™s largest daily lambasting the burden that tens of thousands of African migrants were putting on the economy. He has also been a leading voice in curtailing government funding to ultra-Orthodox.
Nahum Barnea, one of the countryâ€™s most influential columnists, opined that the arguments about foreigners were the byproduct of the failed peace process with the Palestinians, which has left politicians looking fro something to quarrel about.
And yet, in an unprecedented appeal, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week addressed the incitement against illegal migrants in a video message posted on his Facebook and YouTube pages.
â€œWe are a country run by the rule of law, we are a country that respects all peoples, whoever they are,â€ Netanyahu said. â€œI insist that citizens of Israel not take the law into their own hands, not through violence nor through incitement.â€
Earlier this month, Israel police arrested a gang of Jewish teenagers in occupied Jerusalem on suspicion of attacking Arabs for nationalist reasons. No arrests have yet been made, however, in the case of a burning tire being tossed into building housing Sudanese refugees in Ashdod two weeks ago.
The newspaper Haâ€™aretz appealed to President Shimon Peres to step in and express compassion for the illegal migrants and victims of hate crimes. It also called on him to show the Arab inhabitants that they are equal citizens and Israel values them.
Netanyanhu has vowed to put an end to the wave of African migrants flooding the country and his government is building an impermeable security barrier along portions of the 240-km border with the Egyptian Sinai. Israel is also mulling building a detention camp for those who do manage to cross, until they can be returned to their countries.
A recent poll by the Institute for Immigration and Social Integration found increasing apprehension among low-income and religious Israelis that foreign workers would take their jobs and threaten the Jewish character of the state.
On the other hand, the poll also found that a majority believed that once an African made it into the country, the state should provide them with social benefits.
â€œIsrael is going in a direction which understands that the margins of society should be included into society. We are talking about foreign workers, about people who cross the border illegally, about people who are married to immigrants and other parts of society who start to become a part of society,â€ Gerlitz said.
â€œBut this creates a counter effect in which the people who were inside the mainstream of society want a society that will be exclusive. They donâ€™t want those parts to be part of the society. I would agree that the fact that new groups want to join in Israeli society caused this effect and people end up saying â€˜We donâ€™t want the Arabs in our cities. We donâ€™t want the illegal immigrants. We donâ€™t want the foreign workers.â€™â€
Gerlitz added that the solution was to create a shared society â€œwhere all the people who live in this society believe it belongs to all its members, to Jews and Arabs alike.â€
Yohannes Bayu, director of the African Refugee Development Center, which helps refugees in Tel Aviv, said nationalists and ultra-Orthodox in Israel were fanning the flames of hatred for political gain.
â€œThey are trying to create fear in the minds of the people,â€ Bayu said. â€œTheyâ€™re not talking about these people as refugees, but are saying things like they are bringing diseases threaten the Jewish demographics.â€
Bayu, who isnâ€™t Jewish, was taken in by Israel as a refugee 15 years ago, when he was forced to flee his native Ethiopia. He said he has never seen the animosity against Africans so bad as it today.
â€œItâ€™s like when the Germans started attacking Jews. They didnâ€™t start all of a sudden. They brought all sorts of excuses and tried to raise the fear among the public that (Jews) were taking from them and were a demographic threat. And that turned into violence. Itâ€™s the same here now. Itâ€™s very scary,â€ Bayu said.
(Michael Grubb contributed to this report)