The Israeli daily Maariv recently reported [in Hebrew] that BTS, a mercenary firm run by a former Israeli army colonel and veteran bodyguard, Beni Tal, proposed to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai a plan to violently expel thousands of African migrant workers and refugees living near Tel Aviv’s central bus station.
According to Maariv, Tal told Tel Aviv municipal representatives he would gather intelligence on the African migrant population before sending in hundreds of security guards to cuff them and ship them away on buses or trucks. “This should be a very violent action,” Tal said.
“I have never seen a place so violent, not even in the roughest parts of New York,” Tal remarked. “So we need to bring in guys who are not afraid of anything, put people on trucks, and within six months return the bus station to its residents… This population [Africans] is very problematic.”
Though the Tel Aviv municipality ultimately rejected Tal’s proposal, Maariv reported that a municipal official brought the plan up in a meeting of the Israeli Knesset’s Special Committee regarding Foreign Workers. The representative claimed he raised Tal’s proposal merely to highlight the supposed severity of the situation in southern Tel Aviv.
I have spent countless hours in Tel Aviv’s central bus station and in the surrounding Neve Shaanan neighborhood, where much of the city’s migrant worker population lives. The only people who have ever threatened me there were plainclothes agents from Israel’s Oz Unit, which routinely accosts and arrests migrants around the bus station, and who once stopped me by the bus station to demand proof I was in the country legally.
The neighborhood may be impoverished and overcrowded, but it is hardly dangerous by urban American standards. When a Maariv reporter confronted Tal with the fact that crime in Neve Shaanan was no higher than anywhere else in the city, he protested that the statistics were false, but was unable to produce evidence to support his point.
Some migrants from Africa have arrived in Israel to occupy the menial jobs that Palestinians performed before they were tucked behind a separation wall and Gaza was completely besieged. They are the glue that holds Tel Aviv together, washing dishes, cooking food, cleaning bathrooms, and changing children’s diapers so the city’s Jewish residents can enjoy the First World, Eurocentric lifestyle they have come to expect. Others arrived from Africa fleeing war and civil strife. By some estimates, 60 percent of Sudanese migrants are eligible for asylum status.
David Sheen’s devastating video documentary [above] illustrates how Israel’s draconian approach to African refugees is rooted in deeply ingrained racist attitudes and an official policy of countering demographic threats. Sheen’s report highlights how security concerns were manufactured to establish a pretext for enforcing the state’s exclusivist priorities against those condemned as “infiltrators.”
The recently passed “Prevention of Infiltration Bill,” which mandates a three year prison sentence without trial for illegal migrants, was nothing more than an amendment to the pre-existing 1954 “Prevention of Infiltration Law” enacted after the Nakba to prevent Palestinian refugees from reuniting with their family members inside the newly created state of Israel. As Israeli human rights activist Leehee Rothschild wrote, “At the end of the day, the justification for both the 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law as well was the new amendment is one and the same – the maintenance of the Jewish character of the State of Israel.”
Last month, Israel began construction on what will be the world’s largest detention center. Labeled by none other than Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin as a “concentration camp where people are warehoused,” the prison will sit in the Negev Desert on the grounds of what was once Ketziot Prison, a detention camp for Palestinian detainees staffed by the Atlantic Magazine’s Jeffrey Goldberg. The new super-jail is being erected for the sole purpose of containing migrants and asylum seeking refugees fleeing from Africa.
Describing the desert prison as a “humanitarian solution,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu justified its construction on the grounds that African refugees threaten to “change the character of the state.”
We insisted that Jews should focus their outrage not at us, but at the statements the subjects of our video made, and recognize the extent to which they echoed the rhetoric of leading Israeli politicians, military figures, pundits and rabbis.
American-born Israeli author Gershom Gorenberg argued on his blog that the statements of “a drunken kid in a bar” have no journalistic value, and therefore we were unprofessional (“Racism, Amalek and Videotape ” 13 June 2009).
Gorenberg even asserted that because some of the people who appeared in our video were American, their racist opinions had no little or no connection to the Israeli situation. At the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Ron Kampeas, who has disclosed that he purchased an apartment with an Israeli-government subsidized loan in a Jewish colony in occupied East Jerusalem, wrote that it’s “time for [Blumenthal] to grow up and put [his talents] to good use.” (“Best take so far on Blumen-journalism,” 5 June 2009).
Meanwhile, YouTube and Vimeo banned Feeling the Hate, while the Huffington Post’sRoy Sekoff refused to allow us to publish it, claiming in an email that it had no “real news value,” as though the soft core porn that accounted for the content on his and Arianna Huffington’s (now AOL owned) site each day did.
The most recent attack occurred on 11 February on King George Street, just blocks from the warren of seedy bars where we filmed Feeling the Hate. There, a group of drunken religious nationalist youths attacked Hussam Rwidy, a 24-year-old Palestinian from East Jerusalem, stabbing him while they allegedly chanted “Death to Arabs!” Rwidy and his friend, Murad Khader Joulani, staggered into a nearby restaurant drenched in blood and begging for help. Hours later, Rwidy was pronounced dead (“The final moments of the martyred Husam Rwidy,” Wadi Hilweh Information Center — Silwan, 20 February 2011).
“A drunken brawl gone bad” was how several reports described the killing of Rwidy, parroting statements by the Jerusalem police that his death was the result of a fight. The two main assailants were initially indicted for manslaughter before overwhelming evidence forced Israeli government prosecutors to charge them with premeditated murder. As with the reaction by prominent Israeli media figures to Feeling the Hate, the racist behavior of Jewish nationalists was downplayed as a product of intoxication, if not dismissed altogether, while the incident was portrayed as an aberration. Any reflection about the trend of racial murders inside Israel was officially discouraged (“Murder of Palestinian highlights Israeli judicial discrimination,” 972mag.com, 23 February 2011). And so the band plays on.
With Feeling the Hate, we edited an hour of footage into a four-minute video that focused on the hatred many Jewish nationalists in Israel and the United States felt towards President Barack Obama. Our unreleased footage contains statements by the same kids about Palestinians. The political science major who said “I know my shit” but didn’t know who the Israeli prime minister was told us that the Palestinians should all be transferred to a small corner in the West Bank and kept there in a virtual cage. The boisterous young man with the mesh hat who remarked, “We don’t want any Nazi shit, Obama!” defended Israeli Foreign Minister Avidgor Lieberman’s proposal to strip citizenship from “disloyal” Palestinian citizens. These drunk kids in bars had a coherent, if very simplistic, ideological basis for their racism. It is called Jewish nationalism.
Because Jewish nationalism is an exclusivist project that defines everyone who exists outside the Zionist spectrum as a potential threat and an obstacle to the ultimate ambitions of Israel, racism directed against Obama and anti-Palestinian racism form a seamless thread. This thread connects automatically to the African and Asian migrant workers who Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called “a concrete threat to the Jewish and democratic character of the country” (“Netanyahu: Illegal African immigrants – a threat to Israel’s Jewish character,” Haaretz, 18 July 2010).
It is no coincidence that migrant workers in Israel are increasingly targeted alongside Palestinians in racist vigilante attacks. They are seeking a place in a country that views the removal of non-Jews from as much territory as it can gain control over as a national goal (“Police: Sudanese men stabbed by Israeli gang,” Ynet, 12 February 2011).
While young rightists attack migrants in the street, the government may warehouse some migrant workers in what Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin has called a “concentration camp” in the Negev Desert (planners from the Israeli Prison Service described the camp as an “accommodation center” in official material) (“Knesset Speaker: Racist rabbi’s letter shames the Jewish people,” Haaretz, 9 December 2010).
Though Rivlin condemned the plan, he has simultaneously endorsed a $1.5 billion shekel proposal to build a wall along the border of Egypt. “The goal is to ensure Israel’s Jewish and democratic nature,” Netanyahu said about the proposed wall.
Her words rang hollow, not only because her party had co-sponsored many of the racist and anti-democratic bills winding their way through the Knesset (see “Can’t we all just get along — separately?” — David Sheen’s disturbing 24 February 2011 interview in Haaretzwith Kadima lawmaker Shai Hermesh on the “Communities Acceptance Law”), but because she has personally fanned the flames of extremism through her words and actions.
After the Israeli assault on Gaza in winter 2008-2009, Livni boasted, “Israel demonstrated real hooliganism during the course of the recent operation, which I demanded” (I Lost Everything,” Human Rights Watch, 10 May 2010).
Now that some Jewish Israelis are “going wild” against Palestinians inside Israel, and demonstrating “real hooliganism” in racial attacks, does the opposition leader think she has the moral authority to condemn them? If the hooliganism starts in Gaza, where will it end?
Last summer, while living off of Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda Street, we regularly taped interviews with locals. After the murder of Rwidy, we decided to compile some of those clips into a short video so viewers could get a sense of the atmosphere we lived in. Now everyone can meet a few of our neighbors, like the Birthright Israel alum who believes that if Palestinian resistance becomes too acute, “you gotta just annihilate them.” Or the Canadian lone soldier who joined the Israeli Army’s Kfir Brigade, a notoriously abusive unit that serves exclusively in the Occupied Territories, who believes he’s defending the Jews “from terror, and such,” and that there is no such thing as the occupation (“Kfir brigade leads in W. Bank violations,” Haaretz, 11 May 2008).
Living among droves of heavily indoctrinated extremists on Ben Yehuda Street was not always a pleasant experience. But then again, had either of us been a Palestinian, it might have been impossible. Though many might want to ignore this fact, after Rwidy’s murder, it is increasingly hard to dismiss.
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin is cursed with a penchant for intellectual honesty
In a little noticed article on page 19 of the September 1 edition of Maariv, the Speaker of the Israeli Knesset, Reuven Rivlin, assailed the actors and artists who have refused to perform at the theater in the Jewish settlement of Ariel. As a proud advocate of Greater Israel and professed friend of even the most fanatical members of the settlement enterprise (see his remarks at the recent funeral of murdered settlers in Kiryat Arba), Rivlin’s attack would not have been significant if he hadn’t revealed some uncomfortable facts in the process.
Seemingly lost in his anger at the lefty artists, Rivlin conceded that the founders of Israel, the cream of the kibbutznikim, had carried out a campaign of ethnic cleansing to a massive degree. “I say to those who want to boycott – Deer Balkum ['beware' in Arabic],” Rivlin said to Maariv. “Those who expelled Arabs from En-Karem, from Jaffa, and from Katamon [in 1948..] lost the moral right to boycott Ariel.”
So according to one of the most powerful politicians in Israel, the official story of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which denies that Palestinians were forced from their homes in 1948 (they “abandoned their homes…at the request of Arab leaders,” the ministry’s website claims), is false. The Nakba happened after all. But in Rivlin’s view, those who carried out the Nakba no “moral right” to oppose settlement activity because they stole more from the Palestinians than the settlers intend to steal.
As it is said, there is no honor among thieves.
Here is a complete translation of the Hebrew-only Maariv report (thanks to the great Aki Orr for translation assistance):
Rivlin castigates the boycotting artists (“Ma’ariv” Sept. 1, bottom of page 19)
Rubi Rivlin, Chairman of the KNESSET, yesterday viciously attacked Israeli artists, players, and writers, who imposed a cultural boycott on the town of ARIEL, due to its location beyond the “Green Line” [in territories conquered in 1967]
“I say to those who want to boycott – Deer Balkum [“beware” in Arabic] Those who expelled Arabs from En-Karem, from Jaffa, and from Katamon [in 1948..] lost the moral right to boycott Ariel” said Rivlin to “Ma’ariv” yesterday.
Rivlin described the artists’ call for a boycott as “lacking intellectual honesty” adding that those who settled in Ariel and other places in Judea and Samaria [the official Israeli name for the occupied West Bank] did so “due to the orders of society, and some may say – due to the orders of Zionism.”