Last Thursday morning I woke up feeling more embarrassed for the state of Israel than almost ever before. Considering pogroms, racism (known in Israel almost exclusively as Anti-Semitism) and refugees are such central topics in Jewish history, collective memory and the Israeli education system, one would think that we would be the first to recognize such acts happening in our own backyard.
Rather, it seems that the recent influx of migrants from Africa and their “taking over” of “our” cities has created a blind spot in our national conscious.
Sadly, the riots in south Tel Aviv have demonstrated that nearly a century later, some of us are no better than our former European and Russian hosts who wanted nothing more than for us to leave their country.
If it walks like a pogrom and acts like a pogrom…
Is there any better word than pogrom to define what has been occurring in South Tel Aviv? Is there any better way to describe the shameful behavior of Israelis who attacked African migrants, vandalized and looted their stores, and smashed in their car windows? And this is without mentioning the firebombs that were thrown in the past weeks by Israelis at south Tel Aviv apartments and kindergartens housing African migrants and their children.
Thankfully, nobody has been seriously injured or killed – yet.
And what can be said of racism? Here we have elected members of the Israeli government leading the way and fanning the flames of incitement. Eli Yishai has gone on record saying foreign workers and African migrants carry “a profusion of diseases.” In addition, MK Michael Ben-Ari labeled the African migrants as rapists and harassers, MK Danny Danon called them a national plague and MK Miri Regev referred to the migrants as a cancer to our society.
This dangerous rhetoric seems to be trickling down from the Knesset to regular Israelis who were spotted at the south Tel Aviv protest with signs reading, “Yishai was right,” as well as on shirts declaring “Death to the Sudanese.” Journalists at the protests said they were called traitors while being chased through the streets by the protesters. Is this not a cause for concern?
Before things spiral further out of hand, we would be wise to listen to Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin who warned “that one cannot be dragged into incitement and use words the anti-Semites use against us.”
Many are quick to link a recent increase in crime to the influx of African migrants. However, the mass majority of reported incidents had nothing to do with the migrants. Moreover, police have said that crime rates among African migrants are no higher than the crime rates of the population as a whole. While the two rapes committed by migrants in the past month should be condemned in the strongest terms, it should not constitute a precursor and rallying call for incitement, aggression and expulsion of all African migrants.
It is indeed true that the African migrants currently living in Israel and the many more who wish to cross into Israel constitute a strategic challenge that deserves the government’s attention. However we must not let nationalism and a threatened sense of identity turn us into the Europe and Russia of the early 1900s. If anybody knows better, it should be us.
Daniel Feldman is currently working towards his MA degree in Conflict Research, Management and Resolution at Hebrew University. Follow him on Twitter @DanielFelds