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Concern in Israel over growing backlash against African migrants, Arabs

Hundreds showed up for a demonstration in Tel Aviv's Hatikvah neighborhood against African migrants who have moved into the area in recent years, Dec. 21, 2010. The sign says, "Israeli girls for the Jewish people." (Maariv/Flash90/JTA)

TEL AVIV (JTA) – For the tall 28-year-old from Sudan who calls himself Mike, life in Israel has become a game of survival.

Most days, he earns enough money to buy food for dinner doing odd jobs at construction sites or cleaning houses.

But with voices against illegal immigrants rising in Israel, Mike, an asylum seeker here, is worried that his situation is becoming increasingly tenuous. Just days ago, hundreds of protesters gathered in his neighborhood of Hatikvah in southern Tel Aviv to rally under a slogan he found intimidating: Expel the foreigners.

“I hear they want to clear us out because this is a Jewish country,” Mike said as he stood among carts of tomatoes and yellow peppers at Hatikvah’s outdoor market.

Nearby, as Miriam Sharabi, 67, pushed a cart of groceries, she cursed the African migrants who have come to this working-class neighborhood plagued by poverty and crime.

“We need to get the kushim out of here,” Sharabi said, using the derogatory Hebrew term for blacks. “They are criminals; they steal things,” she said. “They rape women.”

These sentiments are part of a growing backlash in Israel against the estimated 32,000 foreigners who are in Israel illegally, many of them Africans who sneaked into Israel from Egypt and whose numbers have swelled in the past three years. The rising chorus of anti-foreigner sentiment, coupled with recent calls against renting or selling homes to Israeli Arabs, have prompted a national debate about the depth of racism and xenophobia in Israel.

Just last month, there were several attacks against migrants and Arabs in Israel.

In the southern coastal town of Ashdod, attackers threw a burning tire into a one-room apartment shared by seven Sudanese asylum seekers. In Tel Aviv’s Hatikvah neighborhood, a gang of youths hounded three teenage African girls, calling them “dirty blacks” and beating them.

In Jerusalem, police arrested a group of teenagers for allegedly attacking Arabs. In Bat Yam, near the Arab community of Jaffa in southern Tel Aviv, street demonstrators called on locals not to rent or sell apartments to Arabs. Fliers distributed ahead of the rally urged residents to save daughters of the town from dating young Arab Israeli men in Jaffa.

The street demonstration echoed the sentiment expressed in a letter recently signed by numerous Israeli municipal rabbis announcing that it is against Jewish law to rent or sell properties to non-Jews. The letter ended with an exhortation to punish those who disobey the ban with excommunication from the Jewish community.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a video statement posted on YouTube last week, called for an end to the incitement.

“We are a country that respects all peoples, whoever they are,” he said. “Citizens of Israel must not take the law into their own hands, neither through violence nor through incitement.”

Netanyahu said that the government is dealing with the problem of African migration, specifically by building a fence along the Israel-Egypt border and a detention center in the Negev large enough to serve as a way station for some 10,000 migrants awaiting deportation.

A number of lawmakers, public figures and police officials have warned that the migrants pose a major danger to Israel, threatening its Jewish character and bringing disease and crime to the country. Yet a recent Knesset report found that the migrants have a very low level of criminal activity.

Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, said that such remarks promote an atmosphere of intolerance and xenophobia in Israel.

“When the public hears from decision makers that these people are bringing disease and crime and should be deported, then it gives them the legitimacy to say the same things,” he said.

Daniel Blatman, a Holocaust scholar and director of Hebrew University’s Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry, said that the sentiment against the ”other” stems from a sense of hopelessness among Israelis about the possibility of a peaceful future. In an Op-Ed in Haaretz this week that has drawn a lot of attention, Blatman compared the atmosphere of distrust in Israel today to that of Germany right before the Nazis’ rise to power.

“There is this approach that we have to live in a ghetto. We have to close ourselves off to the world, because everything coming from the outside world is threatening us — refugees, cultural influences, peace activists who come here to assist the Palestinians and, of course, the Arab population who live inside Israel,” Blatman told JTA in an interview. “It’s a sort of xenophobia very similar to the one that happened in 1932 after Germany’s defeat in World War I, with no real hope for the future, economic difficulties and political violence.”

The feeling that Israel is being delegitimized on the world stage exacerbates those feelings, according to Blatman. “There is a sense that we have to protect our own home and not protect others,” he said.

Shlomi Maslawi, a member of the Tel Aviv city council from the Hatikvah neighborhood, organized the street demonstration that called for the expulsion of migrants. He said there was nothing racist about it.

“The government has abandoned those of us in the city’s southern neighborhoods,” he said. “As it is, our people live with limited resources. This population is causing deterioration in our already fragile quality of life. This is not about racism, but that our neighborhoods have become more dangerous places.”

Maslawi complained about large numbers of migrants sharing apartments – sometimes 20 in a single unit. He also blamed them for driving up rents in the area.

“People talk about the human side of their story, but what about our people who are scared to leave their homes at night?” he said.

Raphael Gebreyesus, a 24-year-old asylum seeker who came to Israel from Eritrea to escape his country’s lengthy military service, lives in a tiny apartment with two other asylum seekers. Like most African migrants in Israel, they do not have work permits, but rather three-month conditional (and renewable) permits that allow them to stay in Israel while their cases are under adjudication. In the past, authorities did not bother migrants working in menial jobs, but now employees fear they will be fined if they employ migrants.

Yehuda Mizrahi, who grew up in Hatikvah, said that people like Maslawi are exaggerating the role of the migrants in creating the region’s problems. He said that crime in the neighborhood is being perpetrated by the same Jewish Israeli criminals, many of them drug addicts, who long have made Hatikvah a dangerous place.

“What does it matter if a person is black or not as long as he’s a good person?” Mizrahi said. “The problem is the government has to decide what it wants to do.”