The A-Z of Israel
On 22 January, Israelis will go to the polls. The world watches – but how much do we really know about the country that calls itself “the sole bastion of democracy” in the Middle East?
A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z
F is for Foreigners
Israel’s “law of return”, a pillar of the Zionist project, gives Jews the world over the right to settle in Israel and gain citizenship. Successive waves of arrivals have contributed to the country’s patchwork of customs and languages (see Q for Qoph) and even precipitated shifts in the political landscape (see M for Mizrahim and U for Ultra-nationalists).
Yet Israel is also part of the global economy, and workers from the Far East and elsewhere plug gaps in the labour market. They have been joined by refugees from conflicts in Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea who cross into Israel through the border with Egypt. Many have thrived but tensions have also risen. In 2003, one Israeli firm insisted on making Chinese labourers sign a pledge, as a condition of employment, that they would not have sex with or marry Israelis. More recently, there have been outbreaks of violence against Africans living in working-class districts of Tel Aviv.
Politicians have been quick to play demagogue. At an anti-immigration rally in May last year, which was followed by assaults on Africans and the looting of their shops, an MP from the governing Likud party described the asylum-seekers as “a cancer in our body” (in a subsequent opinion poll, 52 per cent of Jewish Israelis agreed with her views). For some, such as the Jewish Chronicle and Guar - dian columnist Jonathan Freedland, the violence had uncomfortable historical echoes: he described it as a “pogrom”.
Anti-immigrant sentiment and racist violence and rhetoric are by no means unique to Israel. But in a country where many people believe that their identity is under threat from a future “Arab majority” (see D for Demographics), and whose “security” is ensured by limiting the rights of Palestinians, the feelings are all the more intense.
Israel prides itself on being a “Jewish and democratic state”; but when it comes to the rights of migrants, Israelis may be forced to decide whether ethnicity or democracy is the stronger of the two principles.