What started as a protest of some 1,000 people in Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighbourhood on May 23 calling for the deportation of unauthorised African migrants to Israel, turned violent as demonstrators attacked African passersby while others lit garbage cans on fire and smashed car windows. Israeli police arrested 17 people during the protest.
The violence and incitement to violence by some speakers has been condemned by Israel’s highest leaders, and many Israelis have taken to the streets to protest against the racist riot.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said:
“I want to make it clear that there is no place for the statements and actions that we witnessed yesterday. I say these things to the public figures and to the residents of south Tel Aviv, whose pain I understand.”
President Shimon Peres said that:
“hatred of foreigners contradicts the foundations of Judaism…. I am very much aware of the difficulties encountered by residents of the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv… The state must deal urgently with the issue of the infiltrators, while meticulously protecting their honor and rights as human beings… Violence is not the solution to the problem.”
The violent protest in South Tel Aviv will no doubt be used by Israel bashers to paint Israel as racist, however, this was not a ‘pogrom’ as some have suggested – it was not sanctioned by the state, the police tried to stop the violence and have made arrests, and it has been rightfully condemned by both Israeli leaders and the leading figures in public life.
Approximately 60,000 African migrants have entered Israel since 2005. Eighty per cent of the migrants are from Eritrea and 5-10% come from across Sudan. While Israel has attempted to adopt a humane approach to asylum seekers by giving them temporary visas, the fact that their numbers have sky rocketed has placed significant pressure on the poor neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv and peripheral cities in the South of Israel.
It is worth noting that the scale of the migration compared to the Israeli population is very large compared to similar problems in other countries – almost 1% of the total Israeli population now consists of unauthorised immigrants from Africa.
Israel is trying to decrease the number of African migrants coming to Israel by building a fence at the Egypt/Israel border, which will likely act as a disincentive to those looking to cross the border. The journey across the Sinai for migrants is notorious for its kidnapping, rapes, murder and organ stealing. Israel is also trying to find places where the migrants can be deported safely and had planned to seek the repatriation of hundreds of South Sudanese, but may put those plans on hold given the latest fighting between that country and neighbouring Sudan.
While many Israelis have sympathy for the plight of African asylum seekers who come to Israel, as noted commentator Jonathan Tobin states in Commentary Magazine, Israel cannot be expected to “solve Africa’s problems” through migration.
“… Unlike the bulk of illegal immigration into the United States, the Africans are not merely a function of an economic cycle in which Mexicans and other Central Americans cross the border to fill low-paying jobs such as farm work. The Africans are refugees from war and famine in East African nations like Sudan and Eritrea, who not unnaturally see democratic and prosperous Israel as a haven from suffering that they cannot find anywhere else in the region. It’s also true that unlike the nations they pass through on their way to Israel, the Jewish state has treated newcomers with compassion…
The Jewish tradition of caring for the homeless and the stranger has created a large degree of sympathy for the African migrants in Israel. But while it was possible for the country to take in the initial small numbers who found their way there, including those seeking political asylum, now that the rate is up to 1,000 new illegals a month, the situation has gotten out of hand. Israel simply hasn’t the ability to care for or employ that many people who have no ties to the place.
Moreover, no matter how immigrant-friendly Israel may be, any nation has the right and the duty to police its borders. As is the case with America’s southern border, there are no easy or simple solutions-people who want to come will find a way to get in. But no nation can be expected to just simply accept such a situation…”
South Tel Aviv residents may have some legitimate concerns, but the demonstrators use of violence and racism is never acceptable and rightfully has been condemned by the Israeli leadership as it navigates a way to deal with its immigration challenges.