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Israel and the theory of the Other

January 25, 2014 at 3:50 am

Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip [4biaplatform/Twitter]

In 1896 Theodor Herzl wrote “The Jewish State”, a book that was to change the lives of Palestinians forever. Believing that Jews would always be subject to anti-Semitism whilst they formed a disparate community, or lived as minorities in other countries, Herzl proposed that they must have a land which belonged solely to them.

He considered a number of countries and brought them all before the Zionist Congress, an assembly designed for open debate of the Jewish problem. At the 6th Zionist conference in 1903 the British government offered the nascent Zionist Movement land in Uganda, one of its East African colonies.1

Recently the lives of Israelis and Africans and how they may, or may not, live together are under the spotlight. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, has pledged that he will block, arrest and deport illegal immigrants in Israel.

Likud Party members are determined to finish a steel fence along the Egypt-Israeli border, designed to deter refugees from entering the country. Israel is expanding the capacity of the Saharonim detention facility in anticipation of an influx. On Sunday it became possible for illegal migrants to be imprisoned for up to three years without trial or deportation. Anyone aiding the migrants could receive a jail term starting at five and stretching up to fifteen years.2

Despite the horror felt by many Israelis, the recent wave of anti-immigrant sentiment is not limited to political parties. The day after Netanyahu’s announcement, a house in Jerusalem with ten Eritreans inside was set on fire; four of the residents were hospitalised with burns and the effects of smoke inhalation. The violence follows firebomb attacks in Tel Aviv on a nursery and apartment blocks in migrant-heavy areas in the south of the city. In a fierce demonstration last month shops that were run by or which served migrants were looted and destroyed.3

Residents have complained about cultural differences between themselves and the African community. HIV scares, loud music played on the Sabbath, drinking, fighting and a rise in crime have all been cited as reasons for the unrest. But the causes for the outbreak run much deeper.

Last Friday in an interview with the newspaper Maariv, Eli Yishai the interior minister was quoted as saying: “Most of these people arriving here are Muslims who think the country doesn’t belong to us, the white man.” Further, “The infiltrators, along with the Palestinians, will quickly bring us to the end of our Zionist dream.”4

Presumably he was referring to the same dream that Herzl laid out in his book in 1896, that of a land just for Jewish people. In fact there are many rules in Israel that enforce this utopia: some apartment blocks in Israel have signs saying “Jews only”. In Israel it is illegal for a Jew to marry a non-Jew.

But the violence stretches beyond religion, with some Jewish Africans on the receiving end. As part of a right-wing march on May 23rd, Hananya Vanda, an Israeli of Ethiopian Jewish origin, was attacked. Afterwards protesters claimed that they didn’t know that she was Jewish, as if this somehow justified their behaviour.

Ethiopian Jews became intertwined with Israel’s history when they were chosen by the government to migrate in 1984-85 during the Ethiopian revolution.5 As the Israeli government feared the size of the Palestinian population, African Jews were brought over to tip the balance in their favour. Another wave arrived in 1991 as part of Operation Solomon.

Despite the fact that they have always regarded themselves as Jews they were obliged to convert to one of the most orthodox forms of Judaism. It was a hotly debated issue as to whether ‘black Hebrews’ were be to accepted under the law of return. Now, Ethiopian Israelis generally live in poor areas with cheap housing and special, cheap mortgages from the government with many working in low-grade jobs.

It is not just the Ethiopian Jews who suffer discrimination at the hands of Israel, despite relations improving since 2003. The Abayudaya, or Ugandan Jews, who have a history of conflict with Christians and Muslims, say their biggest problem now is Israel, which does not recognize them as authentic Jews. Controversially, it was around the same time that Britain considered giving away Uganda for the Jewish homeland that the Abayudaya were formed. Despite being promised a homeland like the Israelis they were not given one.6

As history repeats itself the current violence bears striking similarities to what the Palestinians have endured under Israel. In 1954 it was Palestinians who were the ‘infiltrators’, a justification for their exile. Now this has become the term by which African refugees are commonly referred to. Palestinians were not allowed to work in Jewish areas under the British mandate; Palestinian Israelis suffer discrimination in areas of employment and schooling too. Those living in the West Bank and Gaza suffer far worse.

On Friday graffiti was scrawled on the walls of a bilingual school in the Jewish-Arab village of Neve Shalom reading “death to Arabs”, “revenge” and “Kahana was right”, amongst other obscenities. Around fourteen cars had their tyres slashed in an attack on a village described as one founded upon the principle of coexistence, one that advocates acceptance and agreement between faith groups.7

Even the white Jewish community is showing signs of intolerance. Recently, the Ramat Aviv shopping centre in Tel Aviv refused entry to an ultra-orthodox man.8

It is hard to tell if politicians are fanning the flames of the violence or exploiting it for political gain; they are not mutually exclusive of each other. Whether the attacks are a threat of religion, race or culture they seem to have an underlying theme and that is the suspicion of difference and fear of anyone outside their own. Either way, it is hard to understand how a community living so close to Africa does not want to interact and live peacefully with the people around them.

The rhetoric of Israeli politicians is telling in a country that is on constant guard against a threat from their neighbours. A threat that is growing alongside negative public opinion from their Arab neighbours, allies in the West and disdain at the recent activities from many Israelis themselves.
A 1951 UN convention on refugees, of which Israel is a signatory, makes clear that states who receive refugees have a responsibility towards their welfare, health, rights, freedom, and access to documents. The very least refugees deserve is basic access to human rights and it is Israel’s duty to provide this.

Attacks by politicians and the few Israelis who have taken it upon themselves to take action will only serve to demean and demoralise refugees. The knock-on effect will be more crime and desperation and then increased community tensions. Constructing a wall across the Egypt-Israel border will only cause refugees to take more dangerous measures to enter the country and then suffer the consequences. Hasn’t history taught us enough about what building walls can do to a society? This climate of fear and hatred will make the problem worse, not better.

1. A Guide to Zionism, Jessie E. Sampler, Kessinger Publishing (Dec 1, 2004) 51-56

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.