A week ago, Israel’s African migrant community came under a sustained mob attack, including vandalism, looting and firebombing. These events, and their aftermath, provide further evidence of the inherently racist nature of political Zionism.
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 The 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 the 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.’