Respected Israeli journalist Ben Caspit recently launched an attack against African asylum seekers in Israeli national newspapers ‘The Post’ and ‘Jerusalem Post.’ A response to the racist incitement and damaging factual inaccuracies.
By Natasha Roth and Leah McDonnell
A recent article in The Post‘s Sof Hashavua magazine, which was subsequently translated into English and published in The Jerusalem Post, addressed the topic of asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv. Unfortunately for all concerned, the piece was extraordinarily inflammatory and heavily speculative. Additionally, a great deal of the information used to support the arguments put forward in the piece was factually and statistically incorrect. Furthermore, none of this information was backed up with credible (or indeed any) sources. We attempted to contact the journalist in question, Ben Caspit, but our calls to the Jerusalem Post were not returned.
It is very easy to create an endless, back-and-forth dialogue between two sides with competing interests and opposing worldviews, which is why we have decided to focus on challenging the damaging inaccuracies found in the original article. This is not to ignore that many have been left appalled and saddened by the leading and prejudiced nature of the article – to say that the language used is racist and bordering on incitement is certainly a reasonable assessment of the overall tone. But incorrect reporting of facts must be overturned, and in doing so we hope to limit the damage caused by irresponsible and sensationalist journalism. Please note that where we have used the term “asylum seekers” in this response, the original article referred to “infiltrators.”
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Below we have summarised, and challenged, the main points of misinformation in the article. All sources are linked, with explanations of how the reader can check the information for themselves.
1. The article repeatedly asserts that there are between 60,000 and 80,000 asylum seekers currently living in south Tel Aviv. This is incorrect. According to the government’s own data, as of May 2013 there are 54,580 asylum seekers living in Israel entire. Not all of this populace is based in south Tel Aviv, making the Post‘s figures even more inaccurate. This information is freely and clearly available on the website of the Israeli Immigration and Border Authority (PIBA), a source which has previously been used by the Post. The information, which is in Hebrew, is on the second line of the table on page 3.
2. Caspit states that there are several ‘myths’ regarding asylum seekers in Israel. The first is that most asylum seekers are from Eritrea and Sudan. This is not a myth; according to PIBA’s statistics, 36,114 (66 percent) of asylum seekers currently in Israel are Eritrean, and 13,806 (25 percent) are Sudanese. Clearly, this combined figure constitutes the vast majority of the asylum seeker population.
Caspit then claims the dictatorial rule and enforced military service that Eritrea is notorious for are also myths, and that according to “data and research” (which he does not name), “Eritreans are not refugees.” This contradicts the latest information and advice given by the UK Border Agency and the US Department of State, which declares Eritrea an “authoritarian regime,” practicing “unlawful killings…torture, harsh prison conditions, and incommunicado detention,” as well as identifying that “the government continued to force persons to participate in its national service program, often for periods of indefinite duration.” Furthermore, the idea that Eritreans are not refugees is somewhat undermined by the fact that, as per the latest UNHCR statistics, 74 percent of Eritrean asylum seekers worldwide are recognised as refugees, and 84.5 percent are given protected status of some kind – whether as refugees, on humanitarian grounds, etc. (Those wishing to verify this information can download the UNHCR’s statistical spreadsheet at the link provided, and check tab 11.)
The article also claims that the violence in Darfur has “cooled down,” suggesting that Sudanese are no longer justified in fleeing their country. As this recent report from The Daily Beast confirms, this is far from the reality – and the situation is in fact worsening again. As acknowledged in this report, the violence is government-sponsored – and the UN Refugee Convention, to which Israel is a party, specifies that one may be considered a refugee if they are “unable or, owing to such fear… unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” Being persecuted by the state fits this category. The US Department of State also notes the ongoing instability of the Darfur region. In addition, the populations of the South Kordofan and Blue Nile regions of Sudan are currently being subjected to, at the very least, crimes against humanity – as confirmed in this recent report from Amnesty International. (It must be added that the UK Border Agency refers to Amnesty International sources in its assessments of asylum seeker claims, lest their credibility be in question.)
Once again, the UNHCR’s statistics contradict the idea that Sudanese are not genuine refugees – globally, 71.44 percent of Sudanese asylum seekers are given refugee status, with 74.4 percent receiving some kind of protected status, whether refugee, humanitarian or other (tab 11 of the spreadsheet). Caspit’s reference to low levels of Sudanese in Europe receiving asylum status is misleading, for it suggests high levels of rejection. In fact, the reason that acceptance rates are low is because there are relatively small numbers of Sudanese in Europe claiming asylum – as per the UNHCR’s statistics, as of 2011 there were fewer than 5,000 Sudanese asylum seekers in any European country – and data is not provided for such small figures (tab 5 of the spreadsheet). Additionally, Caspit’s muddling between Sudanese and Africans in general in this paragraph rather weakens his argument.
3. Remaining with the comparison between Israel and Europe, Caspit’s article declares that “in 2010 and 2011 there were more African infiltrators in Israel than in any other European country.” This is a meaningless statement and a misleading ‘statistic’. The country (or even continent) of origin is irrelevant – an asylum seeker is an asylum seeker. Overall, as of 2011, many countries in Europe – France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK, for example – have larger asylum seeker populations than Israel (tab 1 of the spreadsheet). As a general rule, the bigger the country is, the larger its asylum seeker population is. The ethnic or national origin of an asylum seeker is immaterial, unless you are a racist.
4. In Caspit’s summary of PIBA Director Amnon Ben-Ami’s report on asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv, the claim is made that the numbers of asylum seekers coming to Israel is increasing again. This is directly contradicted by PIBA’s statistics and a recent address by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the Knesset. The monthly figures for asylum seekers crossing into Israel for 2013 are as follows: January – 10; February – 5; March – 3; April – 10; May – 2.
5. The article states that the police “cannot open files on illegal infiltrators.” This is incorrect. PIBA’s regulations for dealing with asylum seekers involved in criminal proceedings (the latest version is available in Hebrew, the previous version in English – the relevant information is the same in both) refer specifically to those with files open; furthermore, they make provisions for re-opening – or delaying the closing of – files if the appropriate authorities see fit, in order to open up a route to begin deportation proceedings.
6. Caspit bemoans the stopping of the “‘quick drop-offs’ of infiltrators on the Egyptian side of the fence,” neglecting to mention that this practice, actually known as that of “hot return,” violates international law.
7. Another erroneous statement is that once asylum seekers have crossed into Israel, they “receive a ride from the Israeli authorities to Tel Aviv.” As per the Prevention of Infiltration Law, once asylum seekers cross into Israel they are detained for a minimum of three years, in a prison which is nowhere near Tel Aviv.
8. Caspit claims that asylum seekers have “everything we have.” There are too many instances where this is simply incorrect to list exhaustively, but to take a particularly striking example, asylum seekers do not have access to basic healthcare, as per the provisions of Israel’s National Health Insurance Law. The universal right to medical care is enshrined in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which Israel voted in favor of), yet those without legal status in Israel have access only to emergency care, as standard health provisions are reserved for those with legal status.
Beyond these inaccuracies, there is a great deal in Caspit’s piece that is wildly misleading. We are unable to fathom where the story of worshippers being forced out of a Georgian synagogue in south Tel Aviv a few weeks ago, and the subsequent transformation of that synagogue into a near-bordello, has come from. An Israeli of Georgian descent, who owns a shop on the corner of Rosh Pina and Neve Sha’anan streets, confirmed that there is no Georgian synagogue in the area – and suggested that the nearest is in Bat Yam or Holon. Another employee at the shop confirmed that there is a former synagogue in the area which is now an Eritrean restaurant, but that the synagogue closed about six months ago.
The assertion that MK Stern, even with all his experience, had never before witnessed someone taking drugs until he saw “an African woman … sniffing cocaine or heroin,” suggests that drug abuse is an imported problem. But the Jerusalem Post reported in 2011 that “a study prepared by the Knesset’s Research and Information Center … added that according to the last poll carried out on the subject, 11.42 percent of the adult population used illegal psycho-active drugs.”
Caspit quotes a man who states that Eritreans will do the work of Israelis, but for far lower wages – implying that this is putting people out of work. Given their inability to gain a work permit and, consequently, a guaranteed wage, Caspit fails to present the idea that asylum seekers may not wish to be paid so little, but rather that they have no other choice. It should be noted that there are some excellent employers of asylum seekers in Israel, but this is not the case for all. Many asylum seekers face extortion by their employers, in terms of being under-paid when collecting their wages.
Caspit also argues that it is very easy for asylum seekers to open businesses because they do so illegally or pay off a landlord. In truth, asylum seekers with a 2(a)5 permit (essentially a non-deportation order) are unable to gain access to business licences. According to business consultant Anat Kilger, at the Tel Aviv University Buchmann Faculty of Law, it is in fact official policy for the Tel Aviv Municipality not to even consider business licence applications for those with a foreign ID only. This does not make it difficult for asylum seekers to legitimately open a business, it makes it impossible. Those who do try and get a business licence tend to go through an Israeli. They are required to pay this person a large sum of money to apply for a business licence; the Israeli will then ‘hire’ the asylum seeker as the manager. So, while the asylum seeker runs the business, legally it is registered with an Israeli citizen. This is another form of extortion. Many asylum seekers are unable to pay a third party to open a business for them, and others are not used to having to apply for a business licence in their country of origin, therefore not realising they need one. As a consequence, some asylum seekers will resort to opening a business illegally.
The article accuses NGOs of “taking advantage of this political vacuum to change Israel from a country for Jews to a country for everyone.” In reality, however, these NGOs are simply trying to push for Israel to fulfil its obligations as a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. The idea of an NGO conspiracy theory is incorrect and fanciful. Furthermore, stating that this is the intention of all “leftist and human rights organizations” based on a single anonymous testimony from a research report that was never cited, lacks due diligence and credibility.
The list goes on. Caspit decries the fact that landlords are dividing apartments and charging more for smaller units, without considering that this is extortion – no matter who the residents are. He discusses an ‘incident’ in Ramat Aviv, but offers no more information than that “three black men were spotted sitting on a bench.” This, apparently, was a sufficient offence for them to be picked up by the police. (One calls to mind Rosa Parks.) We are warned that “[v]isits to the child health centers have become impossible,” with no explanation as to why. The loud and crude observation that arches over all of this is simply that many Israelis do not want Africans around them. A photo in the original Israel Post article, which somehow failed to make it into the Jerusalem Post translation, shows a solitary white (presumably Israeli) woman walking down a street whose other occupants are exclusively black males. The message is stark, leading, and would be almost laughably propagandist were it not so dangerous. Other canards used by Caspit are equally irresponsible and disappointing – to coin the phrase “African Republic of Zion,” and raise an alarm about an Islamic fundamentalist “fifth column” in our midst is evidence of the dreadful brand of malignant amnesia at which Israel’s policymakers and opinion-shapers excel. Yet perhaps the most offensive blow was struck with Caspit’s attempts to render the atmosphere of an evening in south Tel Aviv. To say, as he did, that “[i]t’s as if an imaginary ship was brought here from the bowels of Africa,” is a phrase of such abhorrent suggestiveness that it is difficult to believe it appeared in two separate national newspapers. It says much about Israel that so shameful an anachronism is considered acceptable for mass consumption.
In Caspit’s defence, the article title, “South Tel Aviv: Abandoned by the state,” is a correct assertion. The south of Tel Aviv has been abandoned by the state – and has been for several years. Historically, the south has been an overlooked, underfunded area. There is not the same access to services that one would have in the north. The area is fraught with drugs, prostitution and trafficking. It can be dangerous at night. These assessments are all true – but these are issues that existed long before asylum seekers arrived in the area. All of south Tel Aviv’s residents – asylum seekers and Israelis – are fearful, as there is a lack of state interaction. The absence of police engagement with the south is also exacerbating the area’s lawlessness, allowing a small percentage of violent and dangerous actors (Israelis and asylum seekers alike) to move with impunity. This is a real threat – but not in the way that Caspit implies. The majority of asylum seekers are not violent criminals, and an official Knesset report – which cited police statistics – confirmed as such, before it was pulled from the Knesset’s website and its author, Dr Gilad Natan, removed from his post. The state and the Tel Aviv Municipality have failed the people of south Tel Aviv. The infrastructure of Neve Sha’anan is unable to support the amount of residents it now has. The stench that Caspit continuously refers to is not because all the asylum seekers use the sidewalks as toilets, but rather because the city will not fix the overrun sewage system or collect garbage properly. A local Israeli from the area explained that residents, herself included, have tried many times to contact the municipality to have these issues rectified but, to their knowledge, nothing has yet been done.
There is much that remains to be challenged in Caspit’s article; in omitting its other follies, we are not seeking to downplay their gravity. But these are complex conflicts which cannot be addressed in one response. As the renowned British journalist C.P. Scott stated, “comment is free, but facts are sacred.” Truth is the first, and forgotten, casualty of hatred. We are starting out by restoring its sanctity.
Leah McDonnell is a Canadian research volunteer at the ARDC. McDonnell recently completed a graduate diploma program in International Development. The African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) is a non-profit organization founded in 2004 by refugees and Israeli citizens to assist, support and empower refugees and asylum seekers in Israel.