Truth to Power

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The Act of “granting them refuge was in conformity with Jewish tradition of holding no higher imperative than the saving of human life and giving aid, succor and haven to strangers in distress.

I shall always remember with humble pride that my first act as the new prime minister of Israel was to issue the instruction that brought these unfortunate and innocent people to our shores.”

– Menachem Begin on his 1977 decision to invite Vietnamese Boat People who were fleeing communist rule to seek refuge in Israel.

The past two weeks have been momentous times for African asylum seekers in Israel. The fanciest restaurants in Tel Aviv were using disposable plates and cutlery since their dishwashers were all absent because of a prolonged general strike by the refugees. Mass demonstrations in Tel Aviv attracted up to 30,000 people (out of an estimated population of 55,000 refugees) who marched through the streets demanding fair treatment and justice. Demonstrations have continued this past week, including a march by refugee women and children in Tel Aviv to the US Embassy. Refugee representative were permitted to testify in a meeting at the Knesset after previously being banned from the building by the Speaker of the Knesset.

Unfortunately, the government was unmoved with Prime Minister Netanyahu and his allies issuing further threats against this helpless and marginalized population.

As background, almost all the refugees come from the most war-torn and oppressive countries in Africa, escaping war, genocide, prison and torture. They risked their lives to seek sanctuary in Israel by fleeing across the Sinai Peninsula where many were kidnapped, raped, and tortured for ransom by the Bedouin. There have been frequent reports of organ harvesting where refugees are cut open for profit, killing them in the process.

Over 80% come from Eritrea and Sudan, mainly Darfur, seeking asylum. As I wrote in a post in March 2012:

“In Israel, these two nationalities are not permitted to file for asylum — despite the life-threatening situation in both countries. Instead, they are given a temporary visa that includes a pending deportation order. The visa is stamped “This is not a work permit,” which makes it hard to obtain a job and exposes the asylum seekers to abuse and exploitation if they are hired illegally. This leads to a life of uncertainty and unending stress, and obviously no money for food or shelter.

In comparison, the United States, despite its stringent immigration policies, has granted asylum to 97% of Eritrean refugees who apply (Canada approved 99%).

The remaining 15% of refugees who come from other African countries are permitted to apply for asylum in Israel. 3,200 of them filed asylum applications in 2008 and 2009. However, the government committee responsible for evaluating these requests discussed only 52. The rest were rejected via email without any discussion. Of those 52 applications, only three refugees were granted asylum – one-tenth of one percent of all who applied.”

Unfortunately, more recent statistics of the number of asylum applications granted have not improved. Yet the government continues to state that these refugees are migrant workers, despite never even reviewing their asylum applications to ascertain their veracity. I detailed in several prior blog entries  how the Netanyahu government has demonized these poor souls, calling them a “cancer on society” “an existential threat” and “terrorists” – this from a country where much of the population themselves fled war, genocide and oppression and were labeled with vile anti-Semitic slurs. Race riots and fire bombings of refugee apartments and even a day care center in 2012 were the result of politicians making inflammatory speeches to racist crowds at rallies.

In the past year the government has instituted draconian policies of mass roundups and long-term incarceration in prison facilities in the Negev. Fathers are torn from their children and husbands from wives on the streets of Tel Aviv, leaving devastation and even starvation in the wake. Over a thousand were secretly deported back to South Sudan where their lives are at risk. These were cynical “voluntary” deportations made under threat of life-long detention.

So two weeks ago, the refugee community and their supporters finally had enough. They went on strike and marched. Unfortunately the government responded with the usual demagoguery that was parroted by much of the mainstream media.

This is not to deny that the African refugee situation in Israel is a complicated issue. How can a small country of under 8 million people throw open its doors to unlimited refugees? That would impose both severe economic and cultural burdens on the country. Long-term, the influx could grow and threaten the demographic and cultural makeup of the land.

However, counter-balancing these fears are several facts. The border with Sinai has been sealed with a high-tech fence so the flow of new refugees has slowed to a trickle. There are an estimated 200,000 migrant workers in Israel from China, Thailand and the Philippines who have been granted work visas. Why not give those visas to the African’s who are fleeing persecution and seeking asylum? The country needs them as manual laborers. And finally, Israel was founded by refugees fleeing oppression and it played a key role in 1951 to create the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. It is a betrayal of the founding principles of the country to treat asylum seekers in this manner.

This is a theme addressed in a column from the Jerusalem Post written by an American who made Aliyah several years ago and is bewildered by the actions of his adopted country. Click here to read this first-hand account of today’s refugee situation.

And finally, I am pasting in below an email sent last week by my good friend Gideon to the Good People Fund which has been supporting his humanitarian work. Gideon spends his days driving around Tel Aviv collecting food that would otherwise be thrown out from restaurants, caterers, and bakeries and distributing it to shelters and poverty stricken families. Much of his work has centered on the African refugee community where he is the savior of last resort for many particularly devastating cases, including a refugee couple who were turned into human torches in a firebombing last year and, just last week, a family with a one year-old baby who was stabbed in the head while in his mother’s arms by a racist. Here is Gideon’s email.

“You a have no idea what’s going on around here.

The refugee community has decided to continue their work strike indefinitely and are marching in the morning all the way from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. I am crazy enough to start marching with them until I fall, which will probably be around Ben-Gurion airport. Which is fine, I’ll just ask to be put on a flight to the US. I tell you it’s wild, really wild, in the developing attitude of government ministries and their fascist boss towards refugees. But also the wide public is so anti refugees that it amazes me over and over again. I simply can’t believe it as I watch it.

No work, no money in the pocket for several families for baby food (Similac, 94 NIS per week + diapers same amount) so there are 4-5 families you [The Good People Fund] and the Zichron group are now helping, including the family whose baby was stabbed and still is in very critical situation and on life support machines. I see them every day.

I want to buy a container full of Similac and diapers for babies straight from a manufacturer. It’s a time when no money is coming in for the refugees. I can only take care in a very small way of the food needs of 50,000 people who are moving towards a starvation diet for them and their children.

Eritrean Sister Aziza updated me on one family who are really starving and one of their small children died last week in hospital. Reason of death was  ‘starvation.’  Can you believe this? I am going to see them tomorrow.

It is so impressive and amazing how the whole refugee community got together, united, and are determined to fight for their freedom all the way to starvation and death. It’s a sorry human drama unfolding in front of my eyes and I am so involved and identify and empathize with these wonderful people, that it can rip you apart and at the same time I am so impressed by their sincerity, honesty and the authenticity in what they are doing to win their basic human right: ‘freedom’ . But the more they protest and demonstrate it seems that it has the opposite effect and people are angry at them and hate them even more. Amazing. Huge shame.”

(NOTE: I heard from Gideon today and apparently the situation with the babies and young children of the refugees has gotten worse. Another baby died from what the hospital called “malnutrition,” and hunger appears to be spreading since many refugees lost their jobs due to their general strike.)

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News Roundup

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I have run across several news items over the past few weeks while sitting at my computer here in Oklahoma that I want to share. They range from the hopeful to the creepy, and I think you’ll find them of interest.

Hope

In case you missed this, two weeks ago the Israeli Supreme Court unanimously struck down as unconstitutional the law requiring a three-year minimum prison sentence for African refugees entering Israel, the vast majority of whom are asylum seekers fleeing war or persecution. Coverage in The Times of Israel quoted two of the justices as follows:

Justice Miriam Naor, deputy president of the High Court, said the ruling could be Israel’s “finest hour,” because it would force the country to find “humane solutions… that match not only international law, but also the Jewish worldview.”

The ruling will create “a difficult task” that Israel will perhaps “have to face against its will,” Justice Uzi Fogelman said, but “we must remember that those who come to our shores… are entitled to the right to liberty and the right to dignity that the Basic Law grants to any person as a human being.”

The African refugee situation in Israel is a complicated issue with no easy solutions. However this ruling offers some optimism that Israeli citizens and their leaders might wake up from their xenophobic fog and recognize the deep roots for justice and respect for all people in the Jewish tradition, especially the poor, the helpless, and those being oppressed. Perhaps this ruling also provides a glimmer of hope regarding the 40,000 Bedouin Israeli citizens in the Negev who are threatened with the destruction of their ancestral villages by the government or the Palestinians on the West Bank still enduring oppression, violence and impoverishment under the yoke of the occupation.

Perspective

Gershom Gorenberg, author of The Unmaking of Israel (a must-read book for anyone who cares about the future of Israel), recently published a column on the Daily Beast about how the growing refugee crisis resulting from the Syrian civil war might offer some fresh perspectives for understanding the Palestinian refugee situation that resulted from the 1948 war. Gorenberg challenges the accepted narratives of both sides in the conflict – that Israel had a premeditated policy in 1948 to expel all the Palestinians or that the Arab countries kept the Palestinians cooped up in refugee camps to keep the struggle aflame. Instead he suggests that the Syrian civil war, where millions have fled the fighting, offers an opportunity to re-examine these accepted notions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Creepy

Transitioning to the United States, there is a well-funded campaign being launched on college campuses, Generation Opportunity, to convince college students not to enroll in health insurance plans that will soon be offered as part of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), even if it means they forgo health insurance coverage. As Evan Feinberg, President of Generation Opportunity told Yahoo News, “You [college students] might have to pay a fine, but that’s going to be cheaper for you and better for you.” It’s hard for me to fathom how it will be better for college students not to have health insurance if they have the misfortune of being diagnosed with a serious illness.

In any case, the campaign features some video ads (scroll down to view them) with some creepy images that the promoters hope will go viral. It is distressing to see another example of how, what should be reasoned political discourse, has degenerated into the gutter of misleading information and sound bites.

Stereotypes

And finally, I recently viewed this short, four minute video, originally produced by ABC in 2010 (there is a 15 second commercial at the beginning), of the reaction of bystanders to three individuals – a young white man, a young black man, and a young blond woman – all engaged in the same suspicious act.  Although this was not a scientific experiment and the methodology can easily be criticized, it does give one pause to consider the built-in biases that we may not be aware we have and to honestly ask ourselves how we might have reacted. It is a fascinating video and an interesting thought experiment.

Dispossession

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Yesterday, the Knesset passed legislation in its first reading (two more readings are necessary before it becomes law) to evict 40,000 Israeli Bedouin citizens from their homes and to destroy their villages.  I have written about this issue several times in the past, most recently last month, where you can learn more about this travesty.

This is just another step in what Gershom Gorenberg, in his book “The Unmaking of Israel”, describes as the infiltration of the West Bank settler ideology into Israel, creating in its wake a society infused with injustice, xenophobia, and racism.

Another recent example of this is a headline in today’s Haaretz describing the incarceration of the children of African refugees. As the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child reported, legislation passed last year by the Knesset “authorizes the extended detention of children who come here illegally [NOTE: African asylum seekers fleeing war, torture and genocide are barred from entering Israel “legally,” no matter how desperate their situation.] even if they have suffered exploitation, torture and trafficking… Some of the children were taken into custody in the middle of the night under extremely stressful circumstances [NOTE: This experience is a common occurrence for West Bank Palestinian children, many hundreds of whom are arrested each year in terrifying middle of the night army raids.].”

But back to the Bedouin. I will end this column by pasting in below a first-person account of yesterday’s Knesset debate written by Rabbi Arik Ascherman from Rabbis for Human Rights. As background, 43 Knesset members voted in favor of evicting the Bedouin and 40 voted against.

43 in Favor of Destroyed villages and a Destroyed Way of Life; 40 Against

 I don’t know whether we will be tried in this world or in another, or by history.  But if this isn’t stopped, we will be tried.  There will be no need for outside commentators or experts or facts or witnesses. It won’t be a matter of a hostile outside world.  Tonight’s Knesset transcript will be sufficient.  Every word spoken by those who rose to defend or decry this legislation will be a fiery witness for the prosecution.  Those in support revealed their true colors, while the words of those opposed ensure that we will not be able to say that we didn’t know or weren’t warned.  We will be tried according to our own words, and found guilty.

I take comfort in our public opinion poll, for which we will be lifting the embargo this morning, our time.  Our hope is that the majority of average Israelis, when the disinformation is stripped away, recognize the fairness in recognizing the historic claims of the Bedouin to a mere 5.4% of the Negev.

Most of the Arab MK’s tore the law up from the speaker’s platform. All expressed anger. Some pleaded not to push the Arab population to the wall, asking “What do you want from us?”

Jewish MK’s from Meretz and the Labor party spoke of the dangerous anti-democratic nature of the legislation, and said that the only way forward was to sit down with our fellow citizens as equals and come to agreement. Their pain and anger was also palpable, as they confronted the imploding of everything they believe in as Israelis and as Zionists.  They asked that the land issue be put aside and that the issue of development and infrastructure be put first. It will be easier to talk about thorny issues after some trust is created.  Michal Rozin said, “First, stop the cruel demolitions.” (She happened to witness demolitions on the day she was on tour with us and our coalition partners.) Almost everything we might have said was said.  Micky Rosenthal and others practically repeated the words of Theodore Bikel when he asked, “How can we do to others what was done to us.” (All MK’s received the Bikel video and our background/position paper)

It was theater of the absurd, as Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein repeatedly expressed his dismay at the violation of Knesset decorum, expelling Arab MK after Arab MK. While many of those opposed spoke of how this was a dark day for the Knesset and Israeli democracy, going beyond the pale of legitimate debate, Edelstein  displayed no empathy, and seemed impervious to the pain, desperation and dismay being expressed.  For him, those emotions were all theatrics, and this was just another Knesset debate that had to be conducted according to the rules. Amid my streaming tears, I reflected on how Chaim Herzog was seen as a hero for tearing the “Zionism is Racism” resolution in pieces while standing on the speaker’s platform at the UN.

The right wing spoke lies about criminal squatters and Orit Struck said bluntly, “It is our land. They don’t have rights.”

Then, there were the “Moderates.” Ruby Rivlin (Likud) and Meir Shetreet (Tnuah) spoke for passing the law and then continuing the negotiations. But they and Welfare Minister Meir Cohen (Yesh Atid)  made it perfectly clear that the Bedouin would have to change their way of life. They paternalistically maintained that little urban boxes with electricity and running water would be good for the Bedouin.  They glossed over the fact that plenty of Jewish Israelis enjoy electricity and running water in rural settings, and certainly didn’t breath a word about the fact that “Changing their way of life” included dispossession from their land.  The opposition pointed out that there was no necessary connection between the issue of where the Bedouin should live and their ownership of their lands. 

MK Issawi Freij (Meretz)  summed it up best.  This bill says, “We will give you water if you give us your lands.” 

Ya’akov once said to Esau, “I will give you food if you give me your birthright.”  He thought he was being clever, but the price was anger, enmity, and twenty years of exile and estrangement from his brother.

Not only will we be judged if we do not pull back from what we did this evening, but we will pay a terrible price. Please stand with us, and be our mirror.

Blockbuster Scoop

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Among the issues recently dominating the front pages of Israeli newspapers are the tortured negotiations to form a coalition that will govern the country while the growing riots and demonstrations on the West Bank might be the opening salvos of a new intifada as hope for freedom among Palestinians dwindles to zero.  These daily stories appear against the backdrop of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strikes, a recently arrested Palestinian who died while undergoing interrogation by the Shin Bet (amidst allegations of torture), more threats about Iran, Israeli forces on the move in the Negev demolishing Bedouin homes, and the racially-motivated beatings of Arabs by violent mobs on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the aftermath of Purim festivities, events that are no longer aberrations.

One item that caught my attention was a controversy around the pending deportation of 25 African refugees back to Eritrea. Eritrea is one of the most oppressive regimes in the world where there is a universal, lifelong conscription of young men into the army. Draft dodgers are severely punished with torture and often death. Their plight reminds me of the multitudes of Jewish men who fled Czarist Russia back in the 1800’s which is why many found their way to America and some even to Palestine at the time.

Needless to say, these Africans have not found a warm welcome in Israel as I have written about repeatedly. The new law passed last year criminalizes these asylum seekers with an automatic three-year prison sentence with unlimited extensions. There is no trial or appeal. Apparently these 25 refugees opted for “voluntary repatriation” when faced with the threat of indefinite imprisonment. Human rights groups were up in arms over the pressure brought to bear on these helpless people who would face a guaranteed brutal reception when they landed in Eritrea.  So this controversy was simmering in the background of all the other news.

But then the blockbuster story appeared yesterday. Splashed across the front pages of the Haaretz newspaper was the scoop that Israel has already “voluntarily deported” 1,000 asylum seekers back to Sudan. Many of these refugees fled genocide in Darfur and more recently from the Nuba Mountain region where the government has conducted a brutal campaign against the civilian population including aerial bombings, the destruction of entire villages, mass arrests of thousands, and a government initiated famine. (Click here and here for articles written last year by Nikolas Kristof in The New York Times about this genocidal war).

This deportation is a blatant violation of the UN Refugee Convention that Israel helped develop in the 1950’s in the aftermath of the Holocaust. As the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) representative stated, “…deporting Sudanese to Sudan would be the gravest violation possible of the convention that Israel has signed – a crime never before committed.” Although Israel claims the deportations were voluntary, the UNHCR stated there is no “freewill from inside a prison.”

Sudanese officials have consistently warned that it is a serious crime for any citizen to go to Israel and offenders would be punished. Let’s remember these people were already fleeing slaughter.

Trying to defend itself, Israel states that it is not deporting the refugees directly to Sudan but, by prior arrangement, they are being deported to a third country that, in turn, deports them to Sudan – as if this strategy will not quickly be discovered by the Sudanese authorities.

One Israeli human rights activist, Reut Michaeli, summed up this stunning news perfectly.

“The ease with which the State of Israel is willing to force people to return to a place where their lives are in danger…shows that we have become a society that sanctifies Jewish demography and gives it priority over humanistic Jewish values.

[Sudanese] who hear from [Israeli] government representatives that the law enables them to be held in prison forever without trial, and without their being able to apply for refugee status, despair. They are even willing to endanger their lives to gain a slim chance of freedom.”

Israeli officialdom has been mum about this development. Silence reigns from Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. Except that we know Netanyahu’s attitude given his government’s long record of incitement against the refugees.  Just a few weeks ago, in a Jerusalem speech to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, he repeatedly labeled all African asylum seekers in Israel “illegal job immigrants.” This while his government was sending 1,000 people back to their probable imprisonment and death in Sudan.  And, of course, those paragons of virtue in the audience gave him adulatory ovations, having forgotten they owed their own freedom to their ancestors who fled to America to escape similar bloody persecution or genocide.

ASSAF, the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, issued the following statement in Tel Aviv, “In deporting [people] to Sudan, Israel has crossed a red line and is not only violating its most basic obligation under international law, but demonstrating cruelty, hard-heartedness and indifference to the fate of human beings.”

A Man, a Woman, and a Baby

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From Maimonides:

Our sages commanded us to visit the non-Jewish sick and to bury the non-Jewish dead along with the Jewish dead, and support the non-Jewish poor along with the Jewish poor for the sake of peace. As it says, “God is good to all and God’s mercies extend over all God’s works” (Psalms 145:9), and “[The Torah’s] ways are pleasant and all its paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:17). —Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 10:12

Our beat-up car weaved around potholes in the dusty road. We were in what’s known as “Shchunat Ha’argazim,” a neighborhood named after the wooden shipping crates used long ago by poor immigrants for housing in this neglected corner of Tel Aviv. The houses aren’t shipping crates anymore but most aren’t much better; crumbling stone structures and metal huts. It’s hard to believe that this dilapidated enclave is within sight of the sleek office towers and glass-enclosed condos that make up so much of the city’s skyline.

My companion, Gideon, turned onto a dirt drive and parked next to a corrugated metal wall broken up by a row of prison-like steel doors. As we got out of the car, a big white dog ran up to us, barking furiously, protecting his territory. With the angry dog close on our heels, we carefully made our way to one of the heavy doors and knocked. We waited. The door opened tentatively: a small, young black woman holding a baby. She broke into a huge smile when she saw Gideon.

I followed as Gideon briskly walked through a covered courtyard hung with laundry, a two-burner gas stove resting on a rickety table, and entered the apartment, a single room jammed with beds, a sink and tiny counter in the corner. A man who had been lying down got up to give Gideon a hug, then Gideon turned to the baby in the woman’s arms, cooing and tickling its chubby little belly. Though I’d been warned, I was still stunned by the man’s appearance. His body was covered in thick brown scar tissue. His legs were raw, with what looked like open wounds.

This mother and father are African refugees from Eritrea whose Jerusalem apartment was firebombed seven months ago as part of a wave of violence directed at refugees, one outcome of an incitement campaign spearheaded by leading politicians. Attacked with Molotov cocktails, the mother, Marvit, pregnant at the time, and the father, Tsagai, a soft-spoken man who worked in construction, became human torches, suffering third degree burns over much of their bodies. After the conflagration they were left with nothing—impoverished, their minimal belongings destroyed, homeless, critically injured and in grave pain, with few sources of help. When Gideon heard the news of the bombing on the radio, he drove from Tel Aviv to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem to offer help. He subsequently found them housing in Tel Aviv and continues to find ways to pay their rent, ferries them to doctor visits, and is their steady source of food and moral support.

Now, returning to Israel after a half-year absence, I had come with Gideon to meet them in their tiny one-room apartment. Tsagai, in chronic pain, is unable to work. Marvit, who gave birth to a healthy baby boy four months ago when she was recuperating, was not injured as badly as her husband but her arms and legs are a patchwork of scars.

The African refugee situation in Israel is complicated but there are more humane policies and strategies the government could have chosen to pursue. Nevertheless, as I wrote in a blog post last year, these people who have fled genocide, war, rape and torture, have been demonized in the same way that Jews were for centuries. Senior ministers in the government and Knesset members have engaged in a campaign, unprecedented in its ferocity, calling these asylum seekers a “cancer,” a “national plague,” “rapists,” and an “existential threat” to the nation. As one appalled commentator wrote, “A reviled, powerless minority discussed in the language of war and disease. Where have my Jewish ears heard this before?”

The perpetrators of the attack on Marvit and Tsagi have never been caught. Even if they were, it is doubtful that they would have been prosecuted. Recently, the person arrested for throwing a Molotov cocktail at a Palestinian car last year, severely burning an entire family with children, was released without charges. The same goes for the perpetrators of “Price Tag” attacks throughout the West Bank, and the Jewish settlers who routinely attack Palestinians. Few are arrested or prosecuted.

But back to Gideon. He is an Israeli who believes the Jewish state should be different, that we have a moral mandate to help those in need. He spends much of each day collecting food and bringing it to shelters and the homeless, especially populations the rest of society shuns.

Gideon’s activities are supported by the Good People Fund which raises money to finance the work of people like him in Israel and the USA. The fund helps these “good people” in their work of Tikun Olam, repairing the world as they seek out those in need, feeding the poor, and relieving suffering. Typically, they run small non-profits that operate under-the-radar with just volunteers or very small staffs.

Gideon’s next objective is to raise the $625 monthly rent that will be needed over the next year for Marvit and Tzagai ($7,500 in total). Until now, the rent has been paid by the Good People Fund and by ASSAF, an organization that provides counseling and asylum assistance to African refugees. But existing funds are running out and Gideon does not know where he will find February’s rent – and the rent after that.

Although my blog is usually political in nature, sometimes I encounter situations that cry out for attention. This is one of those. I hope readers can help by making a donation on the Good People Fund website. You can designate your gift for a special purpose (Gideon’s work, African refugees, hunger, etc.) or you can make a general donation for the fund to distribute where the need is greatest. Marvit and Tsagai’s family is not the only dire situation that the fund hears about. Much of its work is directed at helping individuals or families who have their own uniquely distressing circumstances.

Please forward the link to this blog post to others who might be interested in helping.

This column was previously published on The Times of Israel.

The West Bank in Israel

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Historian Gershom Gorenberg, in his book “The Unmaking of Israel,” devotes an entire chapter making the case that the ideology and practices of radical Jewish settlers and the government in the West Bank are spreading into Israel proper within the Green Line (the border before the 1967 Six-Day War). In this post I want to explore whether developments confirm this thesis, which, if true, has far-reaching implications for the country and its democratic future.

As an aside, Gorenberg’s book, published last fall, is one of the most important and engrossing books about Israel of the past year. It reads like a novel but is chock-full of in-depth research. As an Orthodox Jew living in Jerusalem, he is disturbed by what he sees as the destruction of the core values of Israel and Judaism. If someone like Gorenberg is so concerned, it behooves those on both the left and the right to pay close attention and to take a look at his book.

But let me return to the question of whether the right-wing West Bank ideology is spreading into Israel proper in a significant way. There are two minority groups in Israel that we can view as test cases of this.

Minority Group 1: The Bedouin in the Negev

The first group to consider are Israeli citizens in the Negev who happen to be Bedouin. Loyal to the state and often serving in the Israeli army, many have been forced off their ancestral lands and moved to crime-ridden and poverty-stricken towns. Since they could no longer practice their traditional lifestyle, the social fabric that kept their communities together unraveled.

Today, the government is implementing the Prawer Plan that will force another 30,000 of these Israeli citizens off their lands and into the townships, making way for Jewish National Fund (JNF) forests and Jewish-only settlements. The Bedouin have begun fighting back for their very lives. On March 15 I posted a column on how one such village, Al-Araqeeb, has become a symbol of resistance after being demolished repeatedly by the army and police. A few residents are still clinging to their land and now live among the headstones in the village cemetery, in the hope that the government won’t trespass on sacred ground.

A row of tiny saplings planted by the JNF to create forests on Bedouin land

The rationale for the Prawer Plan is a fear that demographic trends will lead to Jews becoming a minority in the Negev. In 2010, Prime Minister Netanyahu, while speaking about the Bedouin situation, issued this warning:

…a situation in which a demand for national rights will be made from some quarters inside Israel, for example in the Negev, should the area be left without a Jewish majority. Such things happened in the Balkans, and it is a real threat.

So the fear is of a threat of secession and civil war if Jews do not retain majority control in every geographic area of Israel. Disregarding for now whether this is a valid concern, in order to accomplish this goal Israel is using strategies that destroy the core foundations of a democracy wherein all citizens have equal rights.

The government has been using tactics that it refined in the West Bank to take over the Bedouin lands: unjust and twisted laws enabling the expropriation of property at the expense of one group to benefit another group, ignoring centuries-old tribal practices for recognizing land ownership that were accepted by the Ottoman and British authorities before 1948, accusing subgroups of being a threat, making life unbearable for residents so that they will voluntarily move, and horrific home demolition practices that impoverish families and force them out. As I wrote on March 15, the greatest irony was when a young Bedouin “who had served in the Israeli army, received his order to appear for his annual reserve duty on the same day he received from the government a demolition notice for his home. No firm date is given with these notices. The bulldozer will simply show up one day at this soldier’s door.”

Demolition of a building at Al-Araqeeb on July 27, 2010

Some have labeled the Bedouin situation in the Negev the “West Bank in Israel,” warning that embittered young Bedouins are becoming radicalized. Netanyahu may be fearful of a Balkans-type situation, but he is doing a good job recreating it with his repressive policies and xenophobic comments.

Even if Netanyahu’s fear is valid, the Bedouin villages threatened with destruction account for only 5 percent of the land in the Negev. There is plenty of other land available for Jewish towns in the wide-open expanses of the desert, and there is no need for the JNF to destroy the way of life of 30,000 Israeli citizens for some additional dunams of forest. This makes no sense unless it is viewed through the prism of the ideology of the West Bank settlement enterprise, where there are similar objectives of building Jewish settlements while forcing the local population out. This brings into focus Gorenberg’s thesis.

A demolished Al-Araqeeb house

Minority Group #2: African Refugees

There are approximately 50,000-60,000 African refugees in Israel today, mainly clustered in the poorer sections of Tel Aviv and Eilat. Most entered Israel illegally, and the numbers crossing the border have increased dramatically. Many, if not most, are asylum seekers fleeing war, torture, rape, and genocide. This is a complex subject with no easy answers, but the government’s repressive policies are deplorable, especially given the Jewish history of fleeing persecution.

Homeless African refugees sleeping in Levinsky Park in Tel Aviv

For months, while Nicholas Kristof has been writing columns in The New York Times about the Sudanese government bombing villages in the Nuba Mountains and the resulting mass starvation (a replay of Darfur),  Prime Minister Netanyahu and other government ministers have been accusing these same Africans, who are fleeing for their lives, of being migrant workers and an existential threat to the Jewish state. This culminated several weeks ago with a race riot in south Tel Aviv where refugees were attacked on the street and shops were destroyed by a violent mob of hundreds. The mayhem occurred immediately after Knesset members inflamed a crowd of 1,000 at an anti-African rally. This is how I described it in a blog post on May 25:

Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Danny Danon from the Likud shouted: “The infiltrators must be expelled from Israel! Expulsion now!” Miri Regev from the Likud declared, “The Sudanese are a cancer in our body.” Michael Ben Ari from the far-right National Union party exclaimed “There are rapists and harassers here. The time for talk is over.”

The violence was preceded by weeks of incitement from Government ministers. Interior Minister Eli Yishai has been making headlines almost every day with statements such as “We must put all these infiltrators behind bars in detention and holding centers, then send them home.” Deputy Knesset Speaker Danon wrote on Facebook that “Israel is at war” and the “Infiltrators are a national plague.” As Peter Beinart wrote in a column yesterday, “A reviled, powerless minority discussed in the language of war and disease? Where have my Jewish ears heard that before?”

Not much has changed since the riot. Eli Yishai of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, who heads the Interior Ministry that is responsible for immigration, has said that most Africans are engaged in criminal activity and few deserve asylum. On May 31st in an over-the-top interview in Maariv, he went further and claimed that many Israeli women have been raped by Africans but “do not complain out of fear of being stigmatized as having contracted AIDS.” Last week’s newspaper headlines blared “Prime Minister: 25,000 illegal African migrants should be deported as soon as possible.”

Unfortunately, this rhetoric is not new. In a post on March 10 I described how the Netanyahu government has been demonizing the refugees for several years, alleging that the influx of African refugees is a demographic threat to the existence of a Jewish state and defining them as labor migrants or infiltrators (a term previously used only for terrorists). This terminology has been picked up by the media, creating a sense of hysteria over the threat posed by these helpless people.

Given Interior Minister Yishai’s attitudes, it is not surprising that the government has set up an ineffective system to screen refugees (PDF) for valid asylum claims. For example, those fleeing from the Sudan and Eritrea (an extremely repressive government that is ranked below North Korea on some measures), who make up 85% of refugees entering Israel today, are not allowed to apply for asylum. In contrast, 97% and 99% of Eritrean refugees are granted asylum in the United States and Canada, respectively. Africans from other war-torn and repressive countries can apply, but as I wrote in a March 4 column describing Israel’s flawed asylum procedures, in 2008 and 2009, of the 3,200 asylum applications submitted, only three were approved. In 2011, the results were even worse: 3,692 asylum applications were rejected and only one was approved. (NOTE: These statistics also included some asylum applications from non-African nationalities.)

The government’s response to the refugee challenge is to build massive prisons in the Negev desert where new refugees – men, women and children — will be incarcerated for up to three years. Last week saw the announcement of plans for additional facilities that will include tent prisons, where tens of thousands will be incarcerated. This week, a new bill backed by the government was discussed in the Knesset that would impose five-year prison terms on anyone employing, transporting, or providing housing to refugees. If Israel begins forcibly repatriating refugees to their repressive home countries, as Netanyahu has threatened, many will face prison, torture, or death.

The government could choose a more humane approach that is consistent with the 1951 United Nations Convention dealing with refugees, which the first government of Israel helped develop as a result of the Holocaust. There are alternative policy choices that could be made, but instead the government has chosen repression and incitement while ignoring traditional Jewish humanitarian values. For some perspective, it is interesting to read two recent op-ed columns by Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz and Rabbi Donniel Hartman.

(Full disclosure: I have a personal interest in this brewing humanitarian crisis. This past winter I helped organize a breakfast program for refugees in Tel Aviv to provide a morning meal to those who would otherwise go hungry all day. In three months we have served over 30,000 meals. The Good People Fund, an American non-profit that raises money to relieve hunger, poverty and human suffering in Israel and America, has funded this program and continues to solicit donations to keep it going. An article describing the breakfast project in this past weekend’s New Jersey Jewish Standard quoted Naomi Eisenberger, Executive Director of the Good People Fund: “We’re doing this on a month-to-month basis, as long as our funds hold out. Our attitude is that we have to leave politics aside. These are hungry people and they’re totally and completely helpless. Someone has to feed them. You can’t let them starve in the middle of Tel Aviv.”)

Breakfast being served to refugees in Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park. The US-based Good People Fund (www.goodpeoplefund.org) is raising money to serve this meal on a daily basis.

The West Bank in Israel

So how do the Bedouin and the African refugee situations exemplify Gorenberg’s thesis about the West Bank ideology penetrating Israel within the Green Line? The incitement against these two groups comes from the same desire – for many a religious mandate – for Jews to redeem the entire Land of Israel and ensure Jewish majority control. In the process, the rights of non-Jewish minorities are considered less important and inevitably leads to abuse. As Gorenberg details in his book, many yeshivot now teach that the commandment to settle the land takes priority over other ethical and moral commandments in Judaism.

One very public example of this occurred before the 2009 invasion of Gaza (Operation Cast Lead) when the Army’s chief rabbi distributed a booklet to soldiers that included the following:

We are commanded by the Torah to build our state in it [the Land of Israel] and forbidden by the Torah to give up even one millimeter of it to the Gentiles, in the form of any kind of impure and foolish distortions about autonomy, enclave or any other national weaknesses. We shall not leave it under the control of another people, not even one finger of it, not even a piece of a fingernail.

The booklet goes on describe the Palestinians as being identical to the ancient Philistine enemy, and exhorts soldiers to show no mercy toward militants and civilians alike.

Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights NGO, wrote in a letter at the time to the Defense Minister that the booklet “contradicts the basic principles of the laws of war…and also contradicts the principles of Jewish morality in the name of which the Chief Military Rabbi is supposedly speaking.” Gorenberg, commenting on this and related episodes, wrote that Army Chief Rabbi Avihai Ronski, who founded a yeshiva in an illegal settlement, was “legitimizing the religious right’s anti-humanistic attitudes and its claim to be the voice of Judaism.”

Many claim that the treatment of the Bedouin and the refugees is simply racism. Even Jews from Ethiopia, who are black, have experienced serious discrimination in Israel based on their color – and as described in this article, some are struggling with their identity because of the Tel Aviv race riot.

However, I think it is more complicated than that. Professor Shaul Magid, who writes a blog on The Times of Israel, has a more insightful perspective now that Jews find themselves as a majority ruling a country:

Some have written that the attacks against migrants in south Tel Aviv are an example of racism. While racism exists in Israel as it exists everywhere, I am not convinced this is the root of the problem. The problem, as I see it, is “otherness.” More precisely, how does an oppressed people became a true majority and refashion its identity so that otherness is not by definition a threat? In this sense, the Arabs have made it too easy for the Jews in Israel to be a majority and yet not identify as such. Holocaust imagery is still used to justify Israel’s behavior, as if a country with one of the most powerful militaries in the world and the backing of the only true superpower can be equated with the emaciated living corpses of Auschwitz. The comparison is nothing less than grotesque. It is arguably the case that the victim has no ethical obligation other than to survive. But the majority is not the victim, at least not in that way. This is not to say that majorities can’t be threatened. They surely can. But majorities, unlike besieged victims, do have ethical obligations toward minorities in their midst.

What I am suggesting is that the mentality of the victim — the identity of the besieged minority — still functions as a pillar of Israeli self-fashioning, and this, I believe, underlies the tragic episode of the migrants. The “other,” any “other,” is a threat by definition, even when she is basically powerless…. what a majority produces when it identifies and acts as a victimized minority is tyranny.

I agree with Magid’s assessment – and this applies as well to the Palestinians. For 45 years they have lived under an occupation that includes policies — practiced on a mass scale — of home demolitions, property theft, economic deprivation, and incarceration without any semblance of due process. I am not referring to policies instituted for security purposes, which are valid, but rather policies that have no reason other than “redeeming the land” and forcing Palestinians out. These practices mostly occur under the radar and are rarely, if ever, covered in the overseas Jewish press. The same goes for the non-security-related violence that is endemic to the occupation – and is rapidly increasing – and the day-to-day harassment and intimidation that occurs.

And now these policies, and the ideology behind them, are being applied to the Bedouin and the refugees, in different ways for each group. The difference between the West Bank and Israel within the Green Line is indeed getting blurry.

Interestingly, Gershom Gorenberg hardly deals with the abusive aspects of the occupation in his book. Rather, he concentrates on the establishment and spread of ideology. One example he uses is right-wing West Bank settlers who are purposefully settling in mixed Arab-Jewish cities in Israel, bringing their ideology with them and creating conflict in areas where formerly co-existence reigned. His thesis is that this will spread to other segments of Israeli society, which it seems is already occurring.

In summation, Gorenberg uses the following allegory to describe what is happening to the country he loves:

In “God of Vengeance,” Sholom Asch’s classic Yiddish play, a character in an unnamed Eastern European town a century ago runs a brothel in his basement while trying to bring up his daughter as a chaste Jewish girl on the floor above. To protect her purity, he places a Torah scroll in his home. He has a matchmaker find a pious groom for her. His plan fails. A wooden floor cannot keep the two realms of his life apart. Reverence for a sacred scroll cannot ward off corruption when people ignore the words written on it.

Let us read Asch’s drama as an allegory for what happens when a fragile democracy tries to maintain an undemocratic regime next door in occupied territory. A border, especially one not even shown on maps, cannot seal off the rot. Nor can politicians’ declarations of reverence for liberal values.

In recent years, the corrosive effects of the occupation on Israel have been glaring, especially the vocal, shameless efforts of the political right to treat Israeli Arabs as enemies of the state rather than as fellow citizens…. Unchecked, the offensive against democracy has grown wider. The political right uses charges of treason to attack critics of policy in the occupied territories, and seeks legislation to curb dissent and the rights of Arab citizens and to bypass the Supreme Court.

And finally, Gorenberg quotes philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who in 1967 joined a small chorus of prophetic voices, including David Ben Gurion’s, that warned of the grave dangers the occupation posed to Israeli society.

Only months after Israel conquered the West Bank, philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz warned that continuing the occupation would “undermine the social structure we have created and cause the corruption of individuals, both Jew and Arab.” Leibowitz’s warning has proved all too prophetic.

This column was previously published on The Times of Israel

Coming Home to Roost

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There was a race riot in Tel Aviv on Wednesday evening. Shops wrecked, people beaten on the street, car windows smashed, and black people cowering in their homes as the mob banged on their doors and the bars over their windows. Army radio called it a “pogrom. (Click here for photos.)

The riot was instigated by mainstream Knesset members at an earlier anti-African refugees rally attended by 1,000 people. Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Danny Danon from the Likud shouted: “The infiltrators must be expelled from Israel! Expulsion now!” Miri Regev from the Likud declared, “The Sudanese are a cancer in our body.” Michael Ben Ari from the far-right National Union party exclaimed “There are rapists and harassers here. The time for talk is over.”

The violence was preceded by weeks of incitement by Government ministers. Interior Minister Eli Yishai has been making headlines almost every day with statements such as “We must put all these infiltrators behind bars in detention and holding centers, then send them home….” Deputy Knesset Speaker Danon wrote on Facebook that “Israel is at war” and the “Infiltrators are a national plague.” As author Peter Beinart wrote in a column yesterday, “A reviled, powerless minority discussed in the language of war and disease? Where have my Jewish ears heard that before?”

Recently there have been several incidents of Molotov cocktails thrown at African homes and businesses in Tel Aviv, and 11 young people were arrested for attacking refugees with clubs. This follows a vicious multi-year campaign by the government demonizing African asylum seekers that I described in a previous blog post on March 10.

Unfortunately, this type of vigilante violence is becoming pervasive in the West Bank as well. Jewish settler violence against Palestinians is skyrocketing and becoming routine. They act with impunity as few ever get prosecuted. This week settlers were caught on video shooting Palestinians while nearby Israeli soldiers passively looked on and did nothing to stop them.

To understand what it is like to be in the middle of the violent passions being stirred up, read this column from Haaretz reporter Ilan Lior for an eyewitness account of what it was like to be caught in the Tel Aviv riot.

It started as a legitimate protest, and then it went out of control. The masses understood the message: the time for talking is over – it’s now time to act.

I have been a journalist for ten years. I’ve covered terror attacks, funerals, car accidents, and protests. I’ve seen fury, frustration, despair, and sadness in a variety of places and forms. But I’ve never seen such hatred as it was displayed on Wednesday night in the Hatikva neighborhood. If it weren’t for the police presence, it would have ended in lynching. I have no doubt. Perhaps a migrant worker would have been murdered, perhaps an asylum seeker, or maybe just a passerby in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It started as a legitimate protest. South Tel Aviv residents objected to the government’s policy, or more accurately, the government’s lack of policy. Over the course of a few years, tens of thousands of Africans have made their way into the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv. Residents call them infiltrators, others call them refugees or asylum seekers. The Africans have made life in south Tel Aviv hellish, according to the residents.

A demonstration of hatred took place on the stage. One after another, residents took the stage to tell horror stories of violence perpetrated by the infiltrators. Some called for extreme action and even violence. “Bibi, I’m taking the law into my own hands,” warned one of the residents. Protest organizers, among them a city councilman, Shlomo Maslawi, attempted to tone it down and calm the crowd. We must not turn to violence, they said.

The Knesset members were not interested. Believe it or not, they fanned the flames. “The Sudanese are a cancer in our body,” said Miri Regev, (Likud). “All the left-wingers that filed petitions in the Supreme court should be embarrassed – they stopped the expulsion,” she added.

Michael Ben Ari joined in on her incitement. “There are rapists and harassers here. The time for talk is over,” said Ben Ari (National Union), exciting the crowd. He also pointed a finger of blame at the left-wingers, and “tzfonbonim” (Israeli slang for affluent, stuck-up residents of north Tel Aviv).

Regev and Ben Ari did their part. The protest went out of control. The masses understood the message: Talk is over, it’s time to act. Now is the time to take the law in to our own hands, to get violent, to release our rage. Some members of the migrant community passed by, scared, while others say they were afraid to leave their houses. The protesters, they believed, are just waiting for the right time to strike.

Just moments after Ben Ari’s speech, I found myself in a surreal situation. “You’re a left-winger that throws rocks at soldiers at checkpoints,” one protester called at me. “You’re a traitor, we’ll finish you,” threatened another. I tried to explain that I was a journalist, and not a left-wing activist, that I’ve never protested at checkpoints, nor thrown a rock at anyone. I told them that I came to give a voice to the residents’ calls, to their struggles, and to pass the message on to those who make decisions. No one listened.

The situation started to deteriorate very quickly. The threats became more intense, hands were thrown in the air, one of the protesters pushed me, another snatched my notepad and threw it in the air. “You’re making a mistake,” I said, desperately trying to stop the carnage. Border Patrol officers saved me, escorting me off to the side. “I recognize you. I’m a bus driver. I saw you throw rocks at soldiers at a checkpoint last week,” said one woman, running amok. “You’re mistaken, they’re deceiving you,” I answered. “I’ll get you,” she threatened, in front of the uniformed officers.

A short time after, she was joined by another protester, then another, then another. The officers decided they needed to get me out of there, and fast. They began to push me down Hahagana street. “Faster, they’ll murder you,” the frightened officers told me. I looked behind me. Hundreds of people had begun to chase me. It was clear to me that the small police presence would not be able to deal with the masses. Some of them caught up. One grabbed my shirt, and ripped it, while threatening to murder me. For the first time, I saw true hatred in the eyes of another person.

The officers pushed me into a patrol car, in an attempt to protect me. The patrol car became the center of the chaos. The masses surrounded it, protesters banged on the doors and windows, rocked the car from side to side. “Traitor,” they yelled.

The hardship of south Tel Aviv residents is real. No one denies that. These are weak neighborhoods, forced to take on a population with nothing, engaged in a daily struggle for survival. But that’s only part of the story. On Wednesday, everyone with black skin was labeled an enemy. These Knesset members are largely responsible for turning the words into acts. They cannot shake off that responsibility. The harsh violence against passersby that happened to have black skin is a direct result of their wild incitements. The incitements on Wednesday are the start of a slippery slope. It is best to stop it as early as possible. If the public leaders and neighborhood officials won’t take responsibility, someone could pay with their life. The writing is on the wall, in black and white.

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