Ariel Schalit/AP
An African migrant drives his car with a shattered window after protesters saw him on their way back from a rally against the flow of African migrants into Israel, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, May 23. Hundreds of people gathered in south Tel Aviv Wednesday to protest against the government's handling of the flow of African migrants into Israel.

Israel, land of Jewish refugees, riled by influx of Africans

Violent riots broke out in Tel Aviv last night as a growing tide of African migrants strains Israel's ideal as a land for refugees.

In an ironic twist, Israel's most tolerant city erupted in violent riots against African migrants last night, eliciting comparisons with "pogrom" attacks on European Jewish communities in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Over the past five years, tens of thousands of African refugees have poured into Israel, particularly into Tel Aviv's more conservative working-class southern neighborhoods. Their presence has fueled a growing moral and policy dilemma that pits the Jewish collective memory of refugeedom against present day fears for the state’s economy and Jewish majority.

"Here is Israel, a country of refugees who gathered here from all over the world after having suffered for hundreds of years from racist persecution, discrimination, blind hatred, pogroms and death camps," wrote Shai Golden, a columnist in the Maariv newspaper, today. "Along come the members of the third generation after the restoration of this nation and they are amassing now against other refugees because of their difference, because of the color of their skin, because of their own economic and social distress, and they are behaving exactly the way the members of the host countries that hosted their parents and grandparents behaved."

In the working-class Hatikvah district of Tel Aviv last night, some 1,000 Israeli right-wing protesters carried placards calling for the expulsion of the Africans – a handful of parliamentarians even called them a "cancer" – and demonstrators smashed the windows of cars with Africans inside, looted stores, and beat others. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today condemned the violence and the remarks of the Knesset members, saying that Israel needs to deal with the problem "responsibly."

The African migrants crossing illegally into Israel from Egypt are seeking refuge from oppression back home but have been left in a legal limbo by Israeli authorities who refrain from deporting them but won’t grant work permits or residency status.

"It's hard for the Israeli government because of our Jewish guilty DNA and considerations of public diplomacy to put illegal Africans on planes," says Mitchell Barak, an Israeli public opinion expert. "There is a debate raging here like ones raging elsewhere, like Mexicans in the US. We want to have compassion, but at a certain point our compassion is detrimental to our own well being due to the high numbers" of African migrants, he says.

The municipality estimates there are 60,000 Africans residing in a city with a population of about 400,000. That statistic, plus the growing calls of south Tel Aviv residents for solutions, has added a new dimension to the debate. Residents of these neighborhoods complain that the government has left them on their own to grapple with a lack of security and a rising crime rate.

In recent weeks, an attack in which two Africans were accused of raping an Israeli minor, as well a pair of vigilante attacks on African residences in south Tel Aviv, has kicked up concern about rising tensions.

The frustration of south Tel Aviv residents is compounded by decades of ethnic bitterness among the working-class Middle Eastern Jews toward the liberal and more elite European Jews, who are seen as sympathizing with the Africans and ignoring the distress of local Israelis.  

"The government has placed a distressed population on the backs of another distressed population," says Shlomo Maslawi, a Tel Aviv city council member from Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, several days before the riots. "I am afraid there will be an explosion."

Shoe seller: 'Take them back to the border'

When Israel was established several years after the genocide of European Jewry during World War II, it was envisaged as a haven for Jewish refugees who were being turned away by countries. Few envisaged that the embattled tiny country would one day become a destination for distressed groups fleeing the blight of developing countries.

While the government says the migrants are looking to take low-end jobs to better their standard of living, human rights activists and the Africans insist that they are desperately fleeing oppression and war at home. But residents of south Tel Aviv say they feel unsafe at night and complain the Africans are starting illegal retail businesses without paying taxes.

"Take them back to the border," says Yehezkel, who sells shoes in an outdoor market in southern Tel Aviv. "Israel is for me, not also for Africa."

In south Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station neighborhood, dozens of migrants spend the days in a public park passing the time sitting on children's jungle gyms or playing soccer. They gather in the park in part because the government has stopped granting work permits.  

"It’s better than Eritrea, but it's not a good life," says Thedros Desta, an Eritrean who arrived three years ago and is among the lucky migrants who got a work permit. "We don’t have any status here."

New border fence under construction

In the past year, Israel has sped up construction on a border fence with Egypt to make it harder for refugees to cross over the Sinai desert. Hoping to deter the Africans, it as also amended its "infiltration" law to call for mandatory incarceration for illegals.

But the fence is still incomplete, and Israel has yet to build a detention facility to house the migrants. Calls by Israel’s ultrareligious interior minister, Eli Yishai, to round up and deport the Africans have been challenged by others in the cabinet. Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, who oversees the police, called on the government to let the Africans work while a solution is found.  

But even some liberal advocates who have called on the government to grant the migrants residency status are acknowledging that the sheer size of the African community is posing a social threat.

"No one except a psychotic racist would deny that the overwhelming majority of Africans here are law-abiding," wrote Larry Derfner, a columnist for the left-wing +972 blog. "But with at least 60,000 here and 2,000 to 3,000 more arriving monthly, all of them crowding into a few neighborhoods of poor, conservative, frightened Jews, they are a threat to the fabric of this society. Given their numbers, there’s a limit to how much compassion Israel can show them. At this point, we have to worry about our own first."

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