From Africa to Tel Aviv, Part Three: Demonizing Asylum Seekers

In my prior two posts (here and here) I described the plight of African asylum seekers in Tel Aviv and how the Israeli government is not fulfilling its legal and ethical responsibility to protect their human rights. I explained how it’s not abiding by the stipulations in the 1951 United Nations Convention dealing with refugees that the first Israeli government helped develop. Instead, the current government has instituted draconian policies denying the vast majority of refugees the right to file for asylum while restricting their right to work and withholding material support. This is creating a humanitarian crisis on the streets of Tel Aviv. Hunger and hopelessness are spreading, which will affect not just the refugees themselves but will create social problems for the broader Israeli society.

African asylum seekers demoralized and hopeless in Tel Aviv's Levinsky Park: penniless, homeless, and not permitted to work. Credit: EPA

In this column I will describe how the government has justified these policies by demonizing the asylum seekers and convincing the public that they are a threat to the country.

The Implications of the Words We Use

Until a few years ago, the Africans were referred to as refugees or asylum seekers. Although the government did very little for them, they were not vilified. That has now changed. Government ministers and Knesset members have begun a campaign of redefinition to call them “infiltrators,” a term that for many decades was used to describe armed Arab terrorists crossing the border from neighboring countries. This is despite the fact that no African refugee has ever been involved with terrorism in Israel. Recently, the Minister of Interior, Eli Yishai, called upon soldiers to “block infiltrators,” calling the Africans “an existential threat.” The Minister of Justice, Yaakov Neeman, stated the “infiltrators… create a real danger to the existence of the State of Israel.” This has become a regular drumbeat from government officials and picked up by the media.

Prime Minister Netanyahu took this inflammatory language even further when he used war-like terminology in a 2011 speech to describe the Africans’ effect on Israel: ”The infiltrators have conquered Eilat and Arad, and they are conquering Tel Aviv from north to south.” He added that “only a small amount are actually refugees.” It is important to note here that the prime minister has no official data on which to make this claim since, as reported in my previous post, 85% of the refugees are not permitted to file an asylum application to begin with, and of those who were permitted to file, less than 2% were seriously evaluated.

African refugees caught by the Israeli army after crossing the Egyptian border. Credit: Reuters

The result of this kind of language is to stimulate fear-mongering leading to allegations of true terrorist activity. Knesset member Michael Ben Ari is reported to have told the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee that infiltrators from Sudan were the foundation for Al-Qaeda in the Middle East, and that he “would not let such bases be established in Israel, too.”

When a group of refugees stumbled exhausted and depleted into Eilat after crossing the Sinai desert, the mayor of Eilat, Meir Yitzhak Halevy, included African infiltrators and terrorists in the same sentence and then issued this statement: “In light of this morning’s severe incident, in which dozens of illegal infiltrators penetrated the city of Eilat, its neighborhoods and houses, during which residents were exposed to violence, I turn to you [Defense Minister Ehud Barak] and request that you work in every way possible to protect the residents of Eilat.” It was later revealed that this so-called “incident” involved no violence but that the refugees, some of whom had been beaten and wounded while crossing the Sinai desert, were simply knocking on the doors of houses begging for water and food.

And then there was this from a right-wing website: “And, as recent events show, some of the infiltrators are, as forewarned by Yitzhak Halevy, Islamic extremist terrorists–some of whom are now in Israel waiting to carry out an attack.”

Such baseless claims are reinforced from the top down. Last year Prime Minister Netanyahu referred to the African refugees as a “…stream of illegal infiltrators, who penetrated Eilat, Arad, Tel Aviv – a stream that if we do not stop, can become much stronger. For this reason and for a second reason, which is terror, criminal activity, which we have also located over time, we have organized to stop this activity.”

The result is dangerous incitement which is emerging in demonstrations against asylum seekers. Click here to see a video of one such rally from this past December that was led by two Knesset members in Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park. Better than anything I write, this short video illustrates the vitriol that is being used and the hateful passions that have been aroused in parts of the population.

For understandable reasons, Israelis are particularly sensitive to threats of terror. Despite the facts, the link between refugees and terrorism has been made in the public’s mind. It is reinforced repeatedly through inferences and allusions that pair the words Africans and terror, and that use the terminology of war – penetrating, conquering, infiltrators – when referring to the asylum seekers.

Rabbinic Edicts Targeting Refugees

Incitement is not coming only from politicians. Leaders in the religious establishment have contributed vocally and substantially. In 2010, twenty-five rabbis in Tel Aviv signed an “Edict Forbidding the Rental of Apartments to Infiltrators.” This was followed by a similar edict by six rabbis in the mostly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak. The result was that a coalition of realtors in Tel Aviv, where the majority of Africans live, agreed not to rent apartments to refugees. These rabbinic edicts are still in force. (NOTE: Also in 2010, the chief rabbis of 39 municipalities signed a public letter prohibiting Jews from selling or renting property to non-Jews. This letter was mainly aimed at Arabs but applied to the asylum seekers as well. Some of these publicly funded rabbis later rescinded their signatures after criticism from other rabbinic figures. But the damage was done, and many Africans were evicted or had their utilities cut off by landlords to force them out.)

Yitzhak Halevy, the mayor of Eilat, launched a campaign in 2011 to support this restrictive effort by distributing 1,500 red flags for prominent display on the houses of residents who opposed having Africans living in his city. The mayor told the Haaretz newspaper: “I want anyone who rents his house to infiltrators to feel uncomfortable when he looks at his neighbors and sees the red flags, which express collective solidarity with this struggle.”

What is Behind this Incitement Campaign?

There is no question that the influx of African refugees poses considerable challenges to Israeli society on all levels: economic, social, and demographic. Clearly the responsible course would be a reasoned debate based on accurate data to explore solutions, both international in scope and humanitarian in nature. This has not happened. Instead, policies are being implemented that are punitive, and the rhetoric being used is inflammatory and misleading. So what is going on?

A frequently heard explanation is that racism is at the heart of the matter. This charge gains credibility given the history of discrimination in Israel against Jews of color, in particular the Ethiopians. However, with these black Jews the government has made official efforts to reduce discrimination. With the African asylum seekers the government is leading the incitement campaign.

Although racism is likely playing a role here, that alone is too simplistic an answer. The issue is more complex – and it has to do with the peculiarly Israeli preoccupation with demographics.

Israel defines itself as a Jewish state, a land of refuge for Jews worldwide. How it retains its Jewish character is a source of considerable internal debate and hand-wringing. Arab Israelis, for instance, who make up about 20% of the population, have a much higher birth rate than the average Jewish Israeli. That is a cause of concern for the Jewish majority since at some point the numbers could easily impact the very purpose for which the state was founded, which was to be a Jewish homeland. (The rationale for the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, an event that almost tore the country apart and still affects the national discourse, was mostly based on this demographic concern.)

Demographic worries are not confined to numbers of Jews versus non-Jews. Religious Jewish Israelis, especially the ultra-orthodox called Haredim, also have a significantly higher birthrate. Their percentage of the population is forecast to double in the next sixteen years. Because of the idiosyncrasies of the Israeli political system, the Haredi parties have inordinate influence over Israeli coalition governments. This has dramatically affected Israeli society and the way government budgets are allocated. As a result, there is huge resentment among the majority of Israelis, who are either much less religious or completely secular. Yet the majority is helpless to do anything about it (so far) – and the rapid growth of the Haredi population has them gravely concerned about the prospects of the demise of democracy and a future theocracy in Israel.

Now we come to the African refugees, who are another demographic here with Christians and Muslims crossing the border at the rate of 1,000 to 2,000 per month – and the numbers have been going up fast. Keeping in mind that Israel is a small country (the population is under eight million), 40,000+ refugees in a little over five years from countries that could easily drive out millions more raises all sorts of red flags for politicians and their constituencies. This is the case even for those who are sympathetic to the plight of the refugees. They want to help but they also are concerned about where this is headed demographically.

Add to this mix the rise of far-right ideologies, many based on religious concepts that the Land of Israel is holy, was given by God to the Jewish people, and that “redeeming” it is necessary for the arrival of the messiah – and we begin to grasp the complexity behind the public attitudes.

None of this is to excuse the conduct of the present Israeli government, especially given the long Jewish history of persecution and expulsion. As I pointed out in a previous post, the numbers of asylum seekers pales in comparison to the 220,000 foreign migrant workers, mostly from Asia, who have been legally brought here to work in factories, farms and homes. Replacing the migrant workers with the asylum seekers would absorb those fleeing to Israel for years to come without altering the demographics of the country one iota. This would not necessarily lead to permanent residency since the vast majority of the Africans yearn to return to their native lands where they left behind their cultures and families.

This is just one of the possible solutions to this challenge that Israel could take. Unfortunately, instead the government has chosen a course that reneges on their international obligations and turns its back on the ethical and humanistic dimensions of the Jewish tradition.

The Good News: Support for the Refugees

In contrast to the approach of the government, many private citizens are stepping into the breach, taking matters into their own hands. One pre-eminent example is a Facebook page, Marak Levinsky (Soup for Levinsky in Hebrew), that organizes volunteers to bring bread and home-made soup to Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park every night to feed many hundreds of asylum seekers. (Their Facebook page has 2,400 members that “Like” it.) Several churches do the same four nights each week. And the Lasova Soup Kitchen, in cooperation with the Tel Aviv municipality, has also been serving soup, bread, and hot tea each night for the past month. Recently they erected three large tents to offer shelter for up to 150 refugees at night. Previously, hundreds were sleeping outdoors in one of the coldest and rainiest winters on record (one refugee died in January from exposure).

In addition, quite a few Israeli non-profit organizations, supported by volunteers, help the asylum seekers with social services and humanitarian aid, and fight for them before government agencies, in the courts, and in the media. They include the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC), ASAF, Bnai Darfur, Hotline for Migrant Workers, Mesila, and Physicians for Human Rights. And the US-based Good People Fund is raising money to provide the refugees with a breakfast in Levinsky Park to complement the dinner that is currently the only meal many refugees have. This will partially address the chronic hunger that hundreds of asylum seekers are experiencing in the middle of prosperous Tel Aviv.

Breakfast being served to refugees as part of a two-day pilot program in Tel Aviv's Levinsky Park. The US-based Good People Fund ( is raising money to serve this meal on a daily basis.

In sum, there are cross-currents in Israeli society over this issue. Most recognize that this challenge needs to be addressed and that the status quo is untenable. Parts of society have mobilized to address the humanitarian issue, but without government support the need is overwhelming and the human suffering is severe – and growing worse by the day. Unfortunately, the government is instituting policies to purposefully exacerbate the humanitarian crisis and inflame public opinion by making baseless claims against the asylum seekers. This is troubling, to say the least.

About the Author
Allen Katzoff directed large Jewish educational programs in Massachusetts for the last 15 years of his professional career. Currently he splits his time evenly between Tel Aviv and the Boston area. He is passionate about Israel, especially loves Tel Aviv, but is concerned about the influence of extreme right-wing ideologies on the country and what that will mean for the future.