What is behind the Israeli mistreatment of African migrants?

Disturbing rhetoric on race from Israeli government ministers.

The recent anti-African mob violence in Tel Aviv was, sadly, no surprise. Only a few days previously, Prime Minister Netanyahu warned “illegal infiltrators” could threaten the country’s existence “as a Jewish and democratic state”, with Interior Minister Eli Yishai saying that “the migrants are giving birth to hundreds of thousands, and the Zionist dream is dying”. 
Cabinet ministers talk in terms of “expulsion by consent or without consent” to “preserve the country's Jewish identity”, and of “taking steps to kick out” the “scourge” of “infiltrators”. A prominent Likud parliamentarian and chair of the “Knesset Caucus to Solve the Infiltrator Problem” urged for this “plague” to be removed “without delay and without mercy”.
A disturbing conference held in April in Ramle gives further insight into this mainstream racism, and points to an important connection between the anti-African incitement, and the institutionalised discrimination faced by Palestinians.
At the annual get together, “Israeli politicians and right-wingers – including Knesset Members and rabbis who are paid by the government – gathered to discuss the ‘problem’ of foreigners (read: non-Jews) in Israel”. One analogy is to imagine British MPs and even cabinet members proudly attending – and speaking at – an English Defence League convention. 
Yishai gave an address, and one rabbi told the audience that Israel “is our home and an Arab who wants to express his nationalism has many countries in which to do so”. Perhaps the most extraordinary contribution came from the head of a campaign group "Fence for Life", which emerged as a prominent voice supporting the construction of Israel’s Separation Wall.
Here, Ilan Tsion explicitly makes the case for the Wall on the basis that it can keep out non-Jews, grouping together both Africans and Palestinians as threats to the Jewish character of the state. Instructively, Tsion boasted of his group’s role in lobbying for both the Wall and for a continued ban on Palestinian family reunification. 
This week, Yishai asked rhetorically: “So what, the State of Israel, as the Jewish state, in the name of democracy, in the name of honouring UN resolutions, (should accept) a recipe for suicide?” Likewise, when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the separation of Palestinian spouses, the majority opinion stated: “human rights are not a prescription for national suicide”. 
The "demographic threat" discourse is commonplace amongst both the left and right. Netanyahu, as Finance Minister in 2003, described Palestinian citizens as the real “demographic problem”. When Ehud Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem, he considered it “a matter of concern when the non-Jewish population rises a lot faster than the Jewish population”.
Worrying about the numbers of Palestinian babies is also a concern for the so-called "liberals" or "peace camp", who echo the logic found in this recent op-ed (titled “Keep our Israel Jewish”) that “[African migrants] should be deported, for the same reason I think we should finalize a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians: Because I want to keep living in a Jewish state”.  
This kind of ideology is inevitable in a country where racial discrimination is part and parcel of core laws and policies, and whose very establishment as a "Jewish majority" state was only possible, as Israeli historians like Ilan Pappe have pointed out, through ethnic cleansing and mass land expropriation. Indeed, the Ramle conference takes place in a town almost entirely emptied of its Palestinian population in 1948.
In 2012, African refugees are attacked in Tel Aviv for "threatening" the Jewish state; in 1948, Israeli forces targeted columns of Palestinian refugees “to speed them on their way”. In today’s Israel, politicians plan fences and detention camps for non-Jewish “infiltrators”; by 1956, as many as 5,000 Palestinians trying to return home had been killed as “infiltrators”.  
This thread running through Israel’s past and present – of expulsions, ethnocratic legislation, and obsessions with birth rates – is the context for the targeting of African refugees and Palestinians, and is one of the reasons why Israel’s advocates in the west are having to work so hard to maintain the myth of Israel’s democracy.
African immigrants in Tel Aviv Photograph: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/GettyImages

Ben White is an activist and writer. His latest book is "Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy"

Philipp Guelland/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Lock up your tourists: a holiday in some benighted Middle Eastern country isn’t “a celebration of life”

Of course, with Europe’s Mediterranean beaches now becoming de facto Bantustans for Syrian, Afghan and all manner of other exiles, they are looking a lot less attractive as sunlounger locations. 

That we always kill the thing we love may be a tedious truism, but that can’t make us feel any better when the warm body that we once cuddled and cooed to is lying on the ground at our feet while our hands are bathed in its warm red blood. Last week the head of the UN World Tourism Organisation, Taleb Rifai, spoke out, saying that travel as “a celebration of life” is under threat. Rifai, of course, was referring to tourism, rather than a broad idea of travel.

Apparently, global tourism rates have been rising faster than expected – there was a 4.4 per cent increase in 2015, the sixth consecutive year in which the numbers of people wearing garishly patterned shirts that don’t suit them went up. And what is the world total of tourists? A whopping 1.18 billion – which represents a hell of a lot of Germans lunging for the sunlounger ahead of you. If, that is, they aren’t stuck at home being bombed, shot, stabbed or sexually molested by the refugee cuckoos they’ve allowed into their gemütlich nests.

Rifai’s concern is just this: that the security measures taken by governments in response to the perceived terrorist threat will have a severe impact on an industry that accounts for one in every 11 jobs. (Yes, that’s right, one in 11! I was just as surprised as you to learn that one out of every 11 people I pass in the street very likely keeps a hot caramelised peanut stall.) But while we’re chewing over the statistics let’s just bite down a bit more on that 1.18 billion figure. It’s the equivalent of the world’s entire population in 1850 packing bucket and spade, shouldering their cumbersome Fox Talbot photographic apparatuses and buggering right off for a fortnight. Which rather suggests the question: who sold them their hot caramelised peanuts, aliens?

Look, I don’t want to piss on anybody’s parade (unless it’s the ghastly fake kind you find at Disneyland, complete with drum-twirling majorettes and Uncle Sam on stilts), and I appreciate it’s the time of year when hard-pressed workers of all stripes are making their holiday bookings, but isn’t the notion of a global economy substantially – if not primarily – dependent on vast hordes of tourists maddening by definition?

Currently, 9 per cent of global GDP comes from tourism, which accounts for a whopping 30 per cent of the world’s service industries. Western aid donors don’t like to allocate funds to tourism in the developing world but Rifai believes this is short-sighted, given that investment in such projects can have a multiplier effect as overall infrastructure, personnel training and other services improve.

I don’t want to come over all Paddy Leigh Fermor on you, but is a two-week package tour to some benighted Middle Eastern country really a “celebration of life”? I remember when the British tourists were all stuck in Sharm el-Sheikh last year how flabbergasted – not to say outraged – some of them were. “How could such a thing have happened to us?” they wailed, as if it were some sort of human right to be allowed to sip sugar water and paddle in the Red Sea at the tip of a peninsula that’s been the site of a savage insurgency for well over a decade. Left to me, if I’d been given the job of sorting self-aware sheep from gormless goats, I’d have made sure anyone who complained never got home.

Years ago J G Ballard wrote a short story predicated on just this idea: the thousands of Brit tourists sunning themselves in the Med receive a communication from HMG informing them that they are surplus to requirements and are being let go of. Far from being enraged by this summary curtailment of their citizenship, the doughty holidaymakers create a bizarre sort of “ribbon territory”, thousands of miles long, incredibly squiggly, but only a beach deep – then they declare unilateral independence.

Of course, with Europe’s Mediterranean beaches now becoming de facto Bantustans for Syrian, Afghan and all manner of other exiles, they are looking a lot less attractive as sunlounger locations. Still, I don’t imagine this will badly dent the numbers of tourists heading there for their hols, because the organising principle of tourism is, as Rifai makes clear, perception.

It is one thing to share a sable strand with a few washed-up beggars – the hyper-rich do it all the time in the Caribbean – but quite another to touch down in a country where every waiter and water-ski instructor nurtures a deep and burning desire to exterminate the infidel and establish Allah’s kingdom on earth. The only problem for the dumb and ovine tourists is that while they’re away in Tunisia or Egypt or Turkey enjoying a cheap holiday in someone else’s failing state, flying columns of refugees are occupying their own homeland.

There would be a sort of poetic justice in this if it really were to become a systematic scheme, whereby those whose work is deemed unproductive or irrelevant were simply swapped for the doctors, dentists and accountants who are now shivering to death in the waters off Lesbos.

I speak fearlessly about such penultimate solutions because I understand full well that the British economy can do without the product of my labours down t’word-pit; so I’m ready to celebrate life to the full. Are you?

Next week: Real Meals

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war