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How mainstream Israeli politicians sparked the Tel Aviv race riot

Israeli governments have neglected the poor neighborhoods of Tel Aviv for decades. Today, Knesset members use the asylum seekers to channel the anger of local residents and score easy political points.

Eritrean refugees react less then a minute after their shop was attacked by a mob following protest against African refugees and asylum seekers in Tel Aviv's Hatikva neighborhood on May 23, 2012.

For a moment, at around 11 p.m., it seemed that things were really getting out of control: Each report from the Hatikva neighborhood in south Tel Aviv was worse than previous ones: A couple of journalists – Haggai Matar from +972 and a reporter from Haaretz – were attacked and rescued by police; a mob of roughly 100 people tried to storm the Central Bus Station, considered a meeting place for African asylum seekers; a car was stormed by protesters, its windows smashed; at least two shops were looted; a woman holding a baby was struck in the head with a bottle, the baby to fell and both were rushed to a hospital; a man from Eritrea was chased by dozens of rioters and rescued by police.

Here is a short video of the attack on a car carrying African refugees:

After midnight, things calmed down a bit, and the night ended with several injured and 17 people arrested. It could have been much worse, if activists hadn’t warned African families to stay out of the streets, fearing violence. In daycares, notices like the one below were posted, urging parents to take their kids home early. If anything positive that can be said about last night, it’s the fact that no one was killed.

Note advising African asylum seekers to avoid the streets on May 23, 2012 (photo: Rotem Ilan)

According to most estimates, there are between 50,000 and 60,000 African asylum seekers in Israel, most of them from Sudan and Eritrea. There are around 100,000 illegal aliens in Israel with expired tourist and work permits, but this has not kept populist sentiment against the African refugees from gaining momentum in the last few weeks.

In recent years, the refugees – who crossed Israel’s southern borders, mostly from war-torn Sudan and dictatorial Eritrea – settled in the poorest neighborhoods of Jewish Israel – in south Tel Aviv, Eilat, and Ashdod. The residents of the southern town of Arad have elected a new mayor from Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu party, after she ran a campaign solely based around the promise to remove the aliens from town.

In south Tel Aviv, refugees – like the work immigrants who preceded them – moved into the area of the Central Bus Station (Shapira neighborhood), a poor area that was slowly going through early stages of gentrification. Later, Africans also settled in neighboring Hatikva, east of Shapira. Last night, the mob was stopped on the bridge over the Ayalon highway, which links the two neighborhoods.

The Jewish population in this area is very poor, and all of those neighborhoods have been neglected for years by the municipality and Israeli governments. The area around the bus station in particular has long been known as a center for drug trafficking, abuse and prostitution. In Kfar Shalem (near Hatikva), families of Sephardic Jews were evacuated from their homes recently to make way for new construction projects. The “Argazim” (boxes, in Hebrew) area nearby is one of the only places in Israel where Jews live in shacks and improvised homes, also under constant threat of evacuation. This socioeconomic foundation to the refugee problem is far more important than the statistics regarding their relatively small numbers or the actual crime rate.

Rioters smashing the window of an Ethiopian bar during a riot in Hatikva neighborhood on May 23, 2012 (photo: activestills)

Regarding crime, it’s important to note that refugees are not allowed to work in Israel. Hundreds of refugees, most of them men, are homeless, and can be seen roaming the streets at nights, and not only in the south. On several occasions when I was out late at night in the last couple of months I was approached by Africans asking for food, money or cigarettes. There is no denying that desperation among the refugees is on the rise, and so are the reports in the media on violent crimes committed by them. The emphasis is on “reports,” because numbers from the last few months are unavailable, and according to previous statistics, the crime rate among asylum seekers was much lower than among the Jewish population.

I should also say that my personal feeling is that the media hype regarding the situation in south Tel Aviv was much stronger than what I have actually felt there. I don’t live in Shapira, but both my brother and sister do, and I spend quite a bit of time there. I never felt threatened and I thought that the headlines in the Israeli media – both Haaretz and Maariv wrote last week that the atmosphere in the area is “on the verge of explosion” – were an exaggeration. The media certainly played its part in promoting xenophobia and fear of the Africans (the common term in Israel is not “asylum seekers” or refugees, but rather “infiltrators,” the same term used to describe Palestinians who tried to return their lands and homes in the 1950s, and were regarded by the government as potential terrorists).

MK Michael Ben-Ari giving a speech at a protest against African refugees and asylum seekers in Tel Aviv's Hatikva neighborhood on May 23, 2012 (photo: activestills)

More than the media, politicians are to blame for last night. According to most reports, the protest was initially very quiet, and local residents who spoke at the event weren’t as harsh on the Africans as the Knesset members – none of them live in south Tel Aviv, by the way – who took the stage right after them.

MK Miri Regev from Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party called the Africans “a cancer.” MK Danny Danon (Likud) said that they had established an enemy state, with Tel Aviv as its capital. MK Ben-Ari (Ichud Leumi, a national-religious party) called for every one of them to be imprisoned and deported. Ben-Ari used to be a member of Meir Kahane’s organization, which was banned in Israel and placed on the U.S.  State Department’s terror list. He is now serving in the Israeli parliament. There was even a representative of the so-called moderate Kadima party – MK Ronit Tirosh – who also said that all of the African infiltrators need to be deported.

All of those MKs know all too well that deporting the refugees is forbidden according to international commitments Israel has taken upon itself. Coalition members speak out against their own policy: after all, the government could deport the refugees and pay the diplomatic price for it. But it effectively chooses to leave them here while inciting the public against them.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who wasn’t present at the protest himself, said that if he were authorized to use “the right measures, not one African infiltrator would be here within a year.” The Shas leader didn’t say what measures he was referring to.  And above all, there is the deafening silence of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who spoke against the demographic danger posed by the “infiltrators,” but didn’t say a word about last night’s violence.

Israel has seen race riots before: In 1992, following the murder of a teenage girl by a Palestinian, local Israeli Jews stormed construction sites in Bat Yam, beating up Arab workers there. They were later joined by dozens of hooligans who wanted to help avenge the spilled Jewish blood. The police ended up completely blocking the city and the riots continued for five days. Since 2000, mobs have attacked Palestinians at least twice in the mixed cities of Nazareth Ilit and Akko, also cities with relatively poor Jewish populations. Both the mayors of Nazereth Ilit and of Akko were known for their violent rhetoric against Palestinians.

Untimely, this is what’s troubling the most about the current riot: the incitement is coming from the mainstream. Israel will soon enter a very long elections season – primaries will be held in the Likud and other parties within a year or so, and it seemed that many backbenchers have found in the refugees issue a populist theme that can promote their brand. Interior Minister Yishai, who has been losing support to Likud in all recent polls, was probably happy too last night, when he saw the signs with his name carried by the protesters in Hatikva, and heard the chants against Netanyahu (as I write this, Knesset Speaker Rivlin and Police Minister Aharonovitz ask MKs to show “restraint.” Netanyahu is still silent UPDATE: PM Netanyahu had since stated that “he feels the pain of the people of south Tel Aviv […] but there is no room for the actions and statements we have seen yesterday”).

It’s less the size of the flames that have me worried today, than the identity of those who are supposed to put them out.

The blood of an African which was attacked during a riot in Hatikva neighborhood on May 23, 2012 (photo: activestills)

Read also:
Africans attacked in Tel Aviv protest; MKs: ‘infiltrators’ are cancer
How I survived a Tel Aviv mob attack
Using rape to justify racism

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    1. Lauren

      Made me angry and nauseous.
      Must be night of the long knives. And these thugs don’t see any resemblance between their racists actions and a typical facist criminal?

      Reply to Comment
    2. Kolumn9

      So Israel has its own racists and fascists. Welcome to being a normal country. Who here is going to raise his voice and argue that there are no racists or fascists in their country?

      Terminology is important here. Most people you refer to as ‘refugees’ are economic migrants from Eritrea. Being from a dictatorship does not automatically grant you refugee status. As such, the vast majority can be deported assuming their lives are not in imminent danger upon return to their countries of origin. The argument that Israel is unable to deport the vast majority of these people because it is against UN conventions is a bold lie. Yes, the infiltrators (and that is what they are) should be deported.

      Reply to Comment
      • zezemi

        the last thing i expect from Israelite s is to throw stone on a refugee. People from Israel have been refugees and they have seen its horror for generations. I am wandering if they know the histories of their fathers or if they just read a page from their books they wouldnt be doing this to anyone.

        Reply to Comment

        In response, you are correct terminology is important. They called all kinds of names as “the Nazis” slaughtered “the Jews” pretty simple one race is Klingon deporting or promoting economic strife in or to justify their wrong intentions as well as bold actions. What is Israel is meekly attempting to say is plainly seen by the world at large. The people of Israel have not learned much. They are repeating the same isolationist mistakes of its well noted ill fated past.

        Reply to Comment
    3. max

      Lauren, thugs are thugs. In this case, they may have learned something from UK, France, Germany, Russia… Let’s hope they don’t learn more from those places, let alone from less ‘civilized’ countries in the world.

      Reply to Comment
    4. sh

      An economic migrant who is persecuted, whose country is at war or who might just die of hunger in his or her country of origin is a refugee. Or at least was when Jews left the countries in which they were born for places like America at the start of the 20th century.

      Reply to Comment
    5. max

      Netanyahu didn’t say “he feels the pain of the people of south Tel Aviv […] but there is no room for the actions and statements we have seen yesterday”
      He said that there’s no room for these words and actions… and he’s addressing also the people of south Tel Aviv, whose pain he understands.
      There’s a fundamental difference between the source and your ‘translation’, Noam.
      Do you feel uncomfortable that your PM thinks like you?

      Reply to Comment
    6. max

      No SH… The Jews and Irish and many others that emigrated to America because of hunger were immigrants, not refugees.
      But are these considerations really relevant to how an Israeli feels towards the issue and would react to it?

      Reply to Comment
    7. Piotr Berman

      Very nice, Mr. Prime Minister and Mr. Knesset Speaker. You should consider parliamentary sanctions for mob incitement, like removing from committees. E.g. MK Michael Ben Ari list those committes (stars indicate current):

      Member, Constitution, Law and Justice Committee*
      Member, Joint Committee for Discussion on the Law and Governance Order Bill (Annulment of Trial, Judgment and Administration) (Referendum)*
      Member, Joint Committee for the Credit Provision Services Law-2002*
      Member, Joint Committee for Declaring a State of Emergency*
      Member, Subcommittee for Review of foreign Donations to Israeli organizations*
      Alternate Member, Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee*

      Some of these committees exists basically for incitement, but one issue at the time.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Rico

      @Max – not sure what the difference is between your translation and Noam’s translation. “Words” instead of “statements”?

      Did you think Noam’s translation was implying that Bibi was addressing the Africans?

      Reply to Comment
    9. Colin Wright

      This is one of the more self-destructive acts Israel has committed of late; I cannot think of anything more likely to jeopardize their support in the United States.

      Reply to Comment
    10. sh

      Max – “But are these considerations really relevant to how an Israeli feels towards the issue and would react to it?”
      Unfortunately yes, because for reasons I can’t explain, the USA is these days held up as the be-all and end-all of enlightenment and democracy.
      But point taken about immigrants to the USA. The USA was an immigration country without obviously preferential immigration laws. Jews in that kind of trouble for whom the USA was financially unattainable also changed countries at the time, but over land. They were treated largely like we’re treating the people who come here from Africa and when caught, repeatedly put on trains out of the country they were trying to find work in, with no option but to try again. That is why this Israeli wonders at Israelis who have forgotten that.
      We don’t have an immigration policy apart from the one that allows it for Jews only. We talk about being a democracy. The day is coming when we will have to consciously choose between them. Judging by trends in the country it could be argued that we have already chosen.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Jack

      This isnt really a question about black immigrants but about the view in Israel when it comes to non jews generally. Poll from Israel show a huge majority want to get rid of palestinians today living inside of Israel, want the state to enrcourage them to “leave”.

      Reply to Comment
    12. sh

      The choice between a ghetto and a country then, Jack.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Resentment and anger were the dominant emotions among Israelis shopping in the market on Thursday, less than a day after demonstrations on the nearby Etzel Street descended into violent rioting. “There are 70% fewer blacks here after the demonstration,” said one 24-year-old stallholder with a degree of satisfaction, while refusing to give his name. (AFP)
      Etzel Street. That sets the tone nicely.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Jack

      Simply, Israel arent a democratic state. It want to be a state solely for 1 etno-relgious group. Thats contradicting since in part, it already lives thousands of non-jews that dont want to leave their homes.

      Reply to Comment
    15. max

      SH “We talk about being a democracy” – democracy isn’t a binary situation, and Israel doesn’t fare that bad. True, it continuously stutters on some perspectives, but altogether it managed to stay the course in quite turbulent waters – not a simple feat.

      Reply to Comment
    16. A hot summer comes your way.
      I think this round about evidence that July 14 is not done. Yossi reports your VAT is going up; I suspect the ruling coalition has not clue as to how to deal with what generated J14, and I think the present events ride the same distress in rawer form.
      Can your politics confront itself? Will other MK’s refuse to ignore what those your report have done? Sickly, there might be a lever here to create a new postion upon which to stand. No matter the situation on the ground, these MK’s purposefully stoaked the anger, against the warnings of others. The first blush sickness lies with these MK’s.
      The United States has, for many decades set up quotas of various nationalities trying to enter the US economic immigrants. Sometimes nationalities have been completely excluded for a time. For fear of its neighbors (think Haiti and Mexico), the US has always refused economic plight as reason for refugee status. Haitian were deported back to Haiti, where most likely many died of various causes. The issue is not whether the Africans should be there; the issue is how you protect them while they are there. Deportation is entirely another matter. But not, at present, in Isarel.

      Reply to Comment
    17. Bronxman

      Wasn’t there a time when no countries wanted Jews trying to escape Europe before WW II. The same situation existed after the War when Jews who had survived also wanted to get out of Europe. Only Israel, for the most part, was welcoming. One would think that being a victim so many times over the centuries would produce more than an attitude of “I’m alright Jack, so f*** you”. I guess I was wrong.

      Reply to Comment
    18. Suha

      All this have made you angry but not the killing of Palestinians over the years, stealing their lands and locking them up in jails for no charges? When someone is black, someone else will always try to look good.

      Reply to Comment
    19. Suha

      And no they did not go to Israel by their own choice, in fact they were all a part of a multiculturalism campaign, but when Netenyahu took over, the first thing he did was scratch off left party plans including “showing multicultural side to Israel”
      A country with a constitution that states “Israel is a Jewish country” and not a secular country can never be multicultural.

      Reply to Comment
    20. obvious answer

      Here is the obvious solution to the problem that benefits everyone: The immigrants have the right to asylum. Israel cannot deport them if they will face death in their home countries. So, step 1: Israel should send troops to South Sudan to preven t violence against them, then step 2: return the immigrants to their countries of origin. Problem solved.

      Reply to Comment
    21. You can’t just plonk down Israeli troops anywhere you want like that. You aren’t NATO, you know.

      Reply to Comment
    22. Woody

      Thank you for mentioning that Ben-Ari is on the US terrorist list. It’s appalling that the US government takes care to bomb whole families in Yemen because they suspect people of terrorism, yet when there is one in plain sight who is inciting violence in their pseudo-colony, they do nothing. Not even a peep from the US Embassy about this.

      Reply to Comment
    23. Dan N

      Thanks for the coverage of this, it’s completely been ignored by the press where I’m from in the UK.
      I’d like to suggest that calling this a ‘race riot’ is erroneous though, in that race riots usually signify riots by ethnic minorities, not against them. The London riots of 2011 were (at least considerably) race riots, directly linked to the systematic race-(and class) based violence of the London police force, and British society in general. Calling what happened in south Tel Aviv a race riot gives credence to those responsible for being a minority under persecution. They are absolutely not a minority in Israel.
      I’d suggest calling what happened in south Tel Aviv a pogrom. Pogroms, as I’m sure you’re aware, signify a violent uprising by a dominant ethnic group over a minority ethnic group. Typically pogroms are initiated by heads of states who target a scapegoat group with their discourse, which the media apparatus amplifies across society, and which the populace takes to the telos, the logical end, through supposedly ‘spontaneous’ acts of violence.
      Usually there is more at stake in pogroms than just racism. Racism, taken out of its wider context, is a dangerous liberal discourse which places a pernicious social-phenomenon on a benign level of liberal rights and values, ie out of the wider political context. What is usually at stake in a pogrom is an attempt to deflect the gaze of social unrest away from the state or powerful elites. The social gaze gets fixed on the pogrom whilst the underlying issues continue to bubble. Even progressive groups tend to fixate on the pogrom itself without considering the wider political environment, which is understandable of course but it serves to compound the problem as it allows what caused the problem to bubble up again.
      The question is why has the state orchestrated this pogrom, as it clearly has. What is at stake? Why now? What weakness is it attempting to hide?
      Back to you, Israel!

      Reply to Comment
    24. Csa

      Kolumn9 you are only partially right. Many of these migrants will face persecution for the fact that they have been living in Israel and can thus subsequently claim that they are asylum seekers.

      Reply to Comment
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