[News] What Israel’s anti-African pogroms tell us about Zionism

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu May 31 16:59:07 EDT 2012

What Israel’s anti-African pogroms tell us about Zionism


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A week ago, Tel Aviv's African migrant community 
came under a sustained mob attack, including 
vandalism, looting and firebombing. Robert 
Kazandjian, Ali Hocine Dimerdji and Samantha 
Asumadu argue that these events, and their 
aftermath, provide further evidence of the 
inherently racist nature of political Zionism.

Hocine Dimerdji, and 

A week ago, on the night of Wednesday 23rd May, 
South Tel Aviv erupted, becoming the epicentre of 
an attack by an angry, violent mob against 
members of the city’s African migrant population, 
deliberately targeted  because of no other reason than their ethnicity.

African-owned businesses and homes were destroyed 
and looted. There were no fatalities but many 
were injured. Social media was alive with images 
and information regarding the attacks, pointing 
out the absolute apathy, even complicity, of the authorities.

This attack on the African minority in Tel Aviv 
is not an isolated event. Wednesday night’s 
violence was the culmination of a series of 
racist attacks, including the firebombing of 
homes and a kindergarten in south Tel Aviv 
neighbourhoods. In fact, these attacks illustrate 
the prevalent high level of racial tension within 
the city and in Israel as a whole.

One cannot fully understand the events of 
Wednesday without an understanding of the various 
contexts at play, historical, political and 
ideological. Steven Salaita writes in 
Electronic Intifada that Zionism is ‘an ideology 
that can accommodate liberal and humanistic 
discourses, (but) cannot be practised without a 
concomitant abrogation of the rights of those who are not Jewish.’

Zionism, in other words, dictates racial and 
religious supremacy. Israel, a state built on 
ethnically cleansed land, thus operates under the 
veil of a democracy in which the Jewish 
population is the exclusive beneficiary of the democratic process.

However, Israel’s Jewish population is itself 
stratified within an ethnic hierarchy, where the 
prosperous Ashkenazi (white Jews of European 
descent) dominate the economy, media and 
politics. In comparison, the Mizrahi and Sephardi 
(Jews of Middle Eastern and North African 
descent) suffer socio-economic hardship.

Ethnic and religious minorities are uniformly 
oppressed, from Palestinian Muslims and 
Christians to African migrants. The disparity is 
well-documented. Human Rights Watch states that 
in Israel’s segregated school system ‘Palestinian 
Arab children get an education inferior to that 
of Jewish children, and their relatively poor 
performance in school reflects this.’

Discrimination continues into higher education, 
employment, healthcare and housing. If we 
consider the core principle of Zionism, the 
construction of a Jewish homeland in order to 
preserve Jewish identity and ensure Jewish 
security, this oppression is inevitable. However, 
it is the treatment of black Jews that reveals 
most about the racism ingrained in Israeli society.

Hanan Chehata writes, in 
Race and Class journal, that ‘the Falasha, 
Ethiopian Jews 
 brought to Israel in mass 
transfer operations, have found themselves 
relegated to an underclass.’ Chehata argues that 
black Jews are not only racially discriminated 
against but are also used to bolster the populations of illegal settlements.

In 2010, the Israel lobby group FLAME (Facts and 
Logic About the Middle East) ran an advertisement 
in Jewish American newspapers in an attempt to 
refute claims that Israel is an apartheid state. 
The advertisement argued that ‘Israel has brought 
in about 70,000 black Ethiopian Jews, who despite 
their backwardness have become fully integrated 
citizens of Israel.’ The advertisement 
perpetuates the image of the uncivilised savage; 
we might expect to find such language in 
nineteenth century European colonial texts.

Jonathan Cook wrote an extensive piece for The 
National, an English language newspaper, 
published daily in Abu Dhabi, that examines 
Israel’s treatment of Ethiopians. Cook writes 
that ‘Health officials in Israel are subjecting 
many female Ethiopian immigrants to a 
controversial long-term birth control drug.’ He 
further states that ’57 per cent of Depo Provera 
users in Israel are Ethiopian, even though the 
community accounts for less than two per cent of the total population.’

The drug has a wide range of damaging side 
effects and was used by the South African 
apartheid government to limit the fertility of 
black women. Yali Hashash, a researcher at Haifa 
University said similar practices were used 
against Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews in the 1950s 
and 1960s because ‘Israel’s leading 
gynaecologists regarded Arab Jews as ‘primitive’ 
and incapable of acting ‘responsibly’.’ The 
evidence is difficult to refute and presents a 
compelling conclusion: the preservation of Jewish 
identity in the eyes of the state appears only to encompass white Europeans.

Although oppression takes on many guises, the 
language of oppression is universal. From the top 
down, prominent Israeli parliamentarians have 
fanned the flames of racial hatred and 
undoubtedly incited violence. In a cabinet 
meeting last week, Prime Minister Benjamin 
Netanyahu described African migrants in Israel as 
‘illegal infiltrators flooding the country 
threatening our existence as a Jewish and 
democratic state 
 our national security and our national identity.’

A familiar tune: in 1915, the CUP described the 
Armenian minority in Ottoman Turkey as a threat 
to Turkish security and identity. The Ottomans’ 
chief propagandist, Ziya Gokalp, insisted Turkey 
could only be revitalised if it rid itself of its 
non-Muslim minorities, arguing that Armenians 
were ‘a foreign body in the national Turkish 
state.’ A few years later, Nazi propagandists 
Goebbels and Rosenberg propounded the central 
notion that Germany needed to be Judenfrei (free 
of Jewish presence) in order to revitalise 
itself. In both instances, these fabrications 
created the cultural space for racial hatred and were the pretext for genocide.

Indeed, the Israeli interior minister Eli Yishai 
has played a vocal role in the vitriolic 
rhetoric. On Wednesday May 16th, he warned, in an 
interview on Israeli Army Radio, that the 
majority of African migrants in Israel are 
“criminals” and must be detained, stating:

‘I would do something harsh, but simple, put all 
of them, without exception, in prisons or 
detention centres, or divide them up and put the 
ones who don’t commit crimes in detention centres.’

In an attempt to sugar coat his racism, Yishai 
invoked a distinction between “asylum seekers” 
and “genuine refugees”, arguing that only an 
extremely small number of African migrants are 
genuine refugees. He also tried to temper his original claim by further adding:

‘I believe that most of them don’t (engage in 
criminal activity), but perhaps I’ll be 
criticized for that too, and the ones who commit 
even the smallest crime: to jail. From there, 
they will get a departing grant, or a deportation 
grant, call it whatever you want, and sent back 
to the countries they came from. We are losing 
the country. These incidents everyone is talking 
about now, I heard about them three years ago when I toured south Tel Aviv.’

In the same interview, Yishai warned that ‘the 
migrants are giving birth to hundreds of 
thousands, and the Zionist dream is dying.’ As 
mentioned earlier, the Israeli state appears to 
be taking direct action to preserve the ‘Zionist dream’ that Yishai refers to.

This was not the first time Yishai publicly aired 
anti-African racist sentiments. Speaking at a 
conference in Ramle on April 15, 2012, he 
reiterated his belief that African migrants 
should refrain from having children. He recounted 
the story of a disabled Jewish Israeli woman who 
employed an African migrant caregiver. According 
to Yishai, ‘The (disabled Israeli) woman had a 
foreign worker taking care of her, that foreign worker got pregnant.’

Indeed, the African woman did become pregnant and 
requested maternity leave. Yishai found her 
request, and the subsequent ruling by the Israeli 
Supreme Court that affirmed it, scandalous. In 
response, he said ‘[He] would have ordered her to 
be sent back to her country of origin,’ arguing that:

‘Foreign workers may enter the country
 But if a 
woman decides to stay here, build a home here, 
and get pregnant here – that was not our 
intention. Therefore if she decides to get 
pregnant, I feel that it’s only right for her to 
return to her country of origin.’

If it is not the state’s intention for foreign 
migrants to assimilate themselves into the very 
fabric of Israeli society then we can only assume 
their sole collective purpose is to be exploited, 
to have their labour power extracted before being removed.

In a democratic system, the words of politicians 
are expected to influence our own actions and 
attitudes. The racist mistruths and 
scaremongering perpetuated by Israel’s 
high-ranking parliamentarians have undoubtedly 
ignited anger and hate towards the African 
migrant community, inciting the pogrom in south Tel Aviv.

Wednesday night’s violence followed an angry 
protest-rally, during which high-ranking members 
of the ruling Likud party delivered racist, 
vitriolic speeches. MK Miri Regev, echoing 
pre-genocidal rhetoric, described African 
migrants as ‘a cancer in our body’, blaming 
‘leftists’ for the fact that the government has 
not pursued a policy of mass expulsion. MK Danny 
Dannon, also spoke and later posted on Facebook 
that ‘Israel is at war. An enemy state of 
infiltrators was established in Israel, and its 
capital is south Tel Aviv’, referring to African 
migrants, a significant proportion of whom live in the district.

Upon the conclusion of the rally, a mob of an 
estimated 1000 Israelis approached the African 
migrant neighbourhood in south Tel Aviv. Police 
halted the mob’s progress, stopping them from 
crossing a bridge that leads into the heart of 
the residential area and arguably avoiding a massacre.

The mob proceeded to rampage through the Hatikva 
neighbourhood, attacking African men and women 
they encountered. An Eritrean woman was assaulted 
with bottles on Hanoch Street. The baby she was 
carrying dropped to the floor. A Sudanese man was 
set upon as he sat in his car and the windows were shattered.

The mob chanted slogans like ‘The people want the 
Sudanese deported’ and ‘Infiltrators get out of 
our homes’ as they careered through the streets. 
The violent rampage continued for several hours 
through the night, resulting in a surprisingly 
low amount of arrests, between 11 and 17 depending on sources.

+972 Magazine, an independent, non-profit 
publication generally regarded as representing 
leftwing, progressive views did publish 
eyewitness accounts of the pogrom. However, they 
also published a vitriolic piece written by Larry 
Derfner that tows the Likud party line, 
contributing to the hatred and violence towards 
African migrants. In his piece, Derfner, who 
identifies himself as ‘an ultra liberal Zionist’, wrote:

with at least 60,000 here and 2,000 to 3,000 
more arriving monthly, all of them crowding into 
a few neighbourhoods of poor, conservative, 
frightened Jews, they are a threat to the fabric 
of this society. Given their numbers, there’s a 
limit to how much compassion Israel can show 
them. At this point, we have to worry about our own first.’

Derfner’s comments validate the argument that 
while Zionism can accommodate liberal and 
humanistic discourses, it cannot be practised 
without the abuse and disregard of the rights of those who are not Jewish.

In the aftermath of the rampage, Danny Dannon, 
speaking to Haaretz, called for the forced 
expulsion of African migrants from population 
centres in Israel. He also demanded the 
acceleration of the building of detention centres 
where African migrants would be held, stating:

‘the infiltrators must be distanced immediately, 

 We must expedite the construction of temporary 
detention facilities and remove Africans from population centres.’

The Israeli media have been quick to emphasise 
that impoverished, working class Mizrahi Jews 
have carried out the attacks on African migrant 
communities. This reinforces the ethnic hierarchy 
and creates a space in which the Israeli 
authorities can deflect responsibility for both 
the violence and the conditions in which the Mizrahi subsist.

Predictably, the old colonial tactic of divide 
and rule is all too evident here. The ruling 
class are the cause of the hardship that the 
Mizrahi and Sephardi suffer. Through rhetoric and 
vitriol they are able to redirect anger toward 
African migrant communities who are victims of greater oppression themselves.

If the Israeli authorities continue to downplay 
and ignore what happened in Tel Aviv last week, 
there will undoubtedly be a repeat. If the men 
and women who govern Israel continue to fuel the 
fires of racial hatred, the severity of the 
violence will increase and the scale will spread.

Robert Kazandjian is a London-based freelance 
journalist and researcher. He has previously been 
published by The Independent and The Guardian, 
and writes on class, gender, race and 
international affairs. He's on Twitter at 

Ali Hocine Dimerdji is a French Studies PhD 
student at the University of Nottingham, and an 
Algerian citizen who has lived both in Algeria 
and Lebanon. Follow him on Twitter 

Samantha Asumadu is a British film director, 
producer and journalist. She has worked mainly in 
the Great Lakes region of Africa doing news 
features and documentaries, and also campaigns on 
democracy and safety issues. She's on Twitter 

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