Let’s change the conversation about African migrants

There’s really no disputing it; Miri Regev should have known better.  As the former spokesperson for the IDF, one would think that she’d be equipped with the ability to choose her words wisely.  Unfortunately, choosing the word ‘cancer’ to describe the African migrant community within the context of Israeli society was not a wise choice. It was insensitive and she should have been able to predict the backlash that ensued. That being said, if I read one more op-ed about how her comment reflects ‘racism’ and ‘xenophobia’ in Israeli society, I think that I may explode.

Ari Moshkovski wrote a thoughtful piece that speaks the truth when it comes to the commandments that Judaism mandates regarding treatment of the ‘other’ in their land and I would agree with his assertion that the status quo shows that we are not living up to our obligations.  But the frustration that some Israelis feel with respect to the African migrant community is not indicative of racism or xenophobia.  ‘Cancer’ was an ugly word choice but if one takes a moment to stop hurling accusations of prejudice, it’s not so hard to identify with the strife that some Tel Aviv residents, among others, are feeling at the moment.  With the influx of African migrants who do not have a reasonable framework within which to support themselves came a lot of crime, even some violent crime in addition to abundant theft, and fewer jobs available for those who need them.  This is a burden on Israeli society; it’s a fact, it’s not racism.  Racism is the assertion of negative qualities that are a  result of one’s race.  Those of us who are frustrated are not frustrated because there are too many black people in Tel Aviv;  we’re frustrated because our economic situation is affected and our streets feel less safe than they used to.

In the past, I’ve written about issues related to the Charedi population in Israel.  I’ve called their draft-dodging despicable and lack of employment a societal and economic burden.  Am I self-hating Jew?  An anti-Semite?  It would seem a bit ridiculous to assume that my criticism of community norms and frustration resulting from its effect on Israeli society stems from an innate hatred of a specific ethnicity or race.  This is precisely the  assumption that many Israelis and foreign commentators are making due to the rhetoric surrounding the issue of African migrants.  As previously mentioned, people have good reason to be frustrated by the effect of African migrants on Israeli society.  Inferring that they hate black people or outsiders based on their criticism is unfair and it isn’t productive, either.

The truth of the matter is that we have a problem.  The problem is that we are allowing African migrants to cross the border into Israel and we’re not giving them sufficient resources to survive.  It is Israel’s responsibility  to create a framework with which African migrants can assimilate into Israeli society, be an asset to the economy rather than a burden, and be encouraged to function as law-abiding residents of Israel or, alternatively, to turn African migrants away at the border.  Allowing this population to enter Israel and forcing them to fend for themselves is creating chaos and the residents affected by Israel’s lack of a good solution have every right to be upset.   Calling them racists and xenophobes is not only inaccurate, but it’s also distracting Israeli society and the Israeli government from the real issue at hand:  we need a workable solution.

Admittedly, the rhetoric gets ugly and sometimes, ignorance prevails when it comes to expressing this frustration (isn’t that usually the case when Eli Yishai gets involved?).  My husband is originally from Sweden where there is a large refugee population that receives extensive governmental support upon settling in Sweden.  Immigrant and refugee communities are plagued by crime– violent crime included– but in general, Swedes don’t tolerate a mere reference to these communities as problematic.  They call it racism and choose to allow their struggles to burden Swedish society, fearful that they will cross societal boundaries regarding political correctness.  Is this the ideal that we want to live up to? Do we want to put problem solving to an end because we’re too afraid to refer to people by where they come from?

I would hope not.  I would hope that as citizens of Israel, we would spend less time agonizing over political correctness and more time thinking critically about how we can both assist the African migrants in Israel and quell the societal issues that, like it or not, have arisen as a result of this community’s presence.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization.

About the Author
Cori works and lives in Jerusalem with her husband Shalev and baby boy Kaveh. The views expressed here are her own and not those of any organization.