Israel’s white supremacy and anti-Black racism ensnare African refugees and Ethiopian Jews

This article is published in AlterNet.

Israel portrays itself as a beacon of democracy and tolerance, but the reality is this putative democracy and tolerance apply only to the white population.

Palestinians bear the brunt of this violent structural racism, and have endured decades of illegal occupation, ethnic cleansing and murder. A recent United Nations report acknowledged “Israel is guilty of imposing an apartheid regime on the Palestinian people, which amounts to the commission of a crime against humanity.”

Yet not even all Jewish Israelis are immune from the sting of systemic racism. Jews of African descent, in particular, are far from equal to white fellow citizens in Israel. Ethiopian Jews face intense discrimination throughout society, in a system of white supremacy that mirrors that of the U.S.

Moreover, African refugees fleeing violence and persecution in their own countries are criminalized, subjected to even more horrific treatment and abuse.

A new documentary shines a light on the extreme bigotry that pervades throughout Israel. The film, titled “Anti-Black Racism Reveals Israel’s White Supremacy,” is part of the TeleSur program The Empire Files. It features original reporting and interviews with Ethiopian Israelis and African refugees who have struggled against this bitter oppression.

Extreme Anti-African Refugee Bigotry

“It might come as a surprise to some that Israel is building prison camps for and legislating laws against people fleeing genocide today,” host Abby Martin noted in the documentary, which provides an overview of the extreme discrimination African asylum-seekers face.

Some 45,000 African refugees have sought asylum in Israel. The vast majority (92 percent) are from war-torn Sudan and Eritrea, escaping violence and repression. (Israeli weapons have fueled the brutal war in South Sudan.)

Throughout the world, Worldwide, roughly 80 percent of Eritrean asylum-seekers have been granted some form of protection, human rights organizations note. But in Israel, just four Eritreans or Sudanese refugees (0.07 percent) were granted asylum as of 2015.

Like undocumented migrants in the U.S., African refugees work very low-paid jobs and are heavily exploited economically. They have no labor protections and are easily disposable labor.

And, while African refugees comprise less than 0.5 percent of the total Israeli population, they are scapegoated for many problems in the country (much as Latino undocumented immigrants are carelessly blamed for ills in the U.S.).

Leading Israeli politicians, including right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, vilify African refugees as “infiltrators.” Netanyahu has characterized the asylum-seekers fleeing genocidal violence as “terrorists,” and insisted they pose a “demographic” threat — language often used to demonize Palestinians.

Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai declared in a 2012 interview, in reference to African refugees, “Muslims that arrive here do not even believe that this country belongs to us, to the white man.” Yishai, who spreads fearmongering myths that African refugees are raping Israeli women and spreading AIDs, insisted that he would use “all the tools to expel the foreigners, until not one infiltrator remains.”

Israel’s culture minister, Miri Regev, has referred to the Sudanese as a “cancer.” A poll found that 52 percent of Israeli agreed that African migrants are “a cancer,” and 33 percent support violence against refugees.

Some Israelis have taken it upon themselves to carry out such attacks. An Eritrean infant was stabbed in the head

Israeli police and politicians frequently claim African refugees are responsible for a wave of crime, but in reality, The Empire Files noted that a report by the Israeli parliament’s own research center acknowledged that African refugees are significantly less likely to commit crimes than Israeli citizens.

Yet even mainstream center-left political organizations and activists in Israel are on board with this virulent racism. The production crew of The Empire Files attended a racist anti-African refugee protest in the major Israeli city Tel Aviv, which is often touted as a supposed hub of tolerance and open-mindedness.

An Israeli man who identified himself as a member of the center-left Labor Party declared on camera that African refugees “cannot coexist” in Israel. “They must be removed en masse from here.”

Another woman attended the racist rally with her young child, who was holding a sign that read, “Use a condom!”

“I came here to support … the struggle against Eritreans, to take them back home to Mother Africa,” an Israeli man told The Empire Files. He insisted he was not racist, but said he refugees “should go to any country in Africa.”

Protesters burnt an effigy of the mayor because he allowed children of African refugees to attend schools. Participants also denied that the African asylum-seekers fleeing violence are refugees.

“These infiltrators are filthy, and they bring us only trouble,” one protester said. He acknowledged that refugees have never done anything to him, but noted he is training in self-defense in case they one day do.

“We have enough problems with Arabs,” another man vented. He also claimed not to be racist. “I don’t see them as inferior, but I see them as criminals!” he explained.

Refugees must be forcibly taken back to Africa, the man asserted. When The Empire Files producer Mike Prysner asked how, the Israeli protester replied, “We take them with chains and put them on boats!”

Mass Imprisonment of African Asylum-Seekers

The Israeli government forces African refugees to pick from one of two options: deportation to Africa, where they could face death; or interment in a large prison camp in the blazing desert.

Human rights groups like Amnesty international have made it clear that Israel’s laws violate the fundamental rights of asylum-seekers.

The Israeli has nevertheless persisted. It created a Donald Trump-style, 140-mile fence on its border with Egypt to prevent African refugees from entering. And it constructed the Holot prison camp to hold large numbers of refugees.

The Empire Files interviewed a Sudanese refugee who explained, “A lot of us fled the persecution and genocide from Darfur.” He was thrown in prison, and noted, “If I stayed there, I would be in prison for life.”

“We thought that Israel is one of the countries that we can survive, as a country that experience genocide in its history,” he continued. “But unfortunately that wasn’t a good thought.”

Protests at the Holot prison camp are repressed by guards. And not only is the Israeli government forcing asylum-seekers into the camp; it is also making sure their lives are miserable.

“They said, ‘You have to make African asylum-seekers’ life hard,'” the Sudanese refugee told The Empire Files. Their goal is to make conditions so bad, African refugees “voluntarily” self-deport.

“The food is really bad,” he explained. So refugees created a market for better food — but Israeli authorities quickly destroyed the market.

“I’m not going to go away,” the man concluded, however. “Because I cannot go home to genocide.”

Systemic Racism Against Ethiopian Jews

African refugees are not the only people in Israel who face such persecution. Ethiopian Jews likewise endure structural racism.

Some 140,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, fewer than 2 percent of the population. More than 50 percent of Ethiopian Israelis live in poverty. Just half graduate from high school. They suffer from widespread unemployment, and earn less than what white citizens make, on average.

The chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel did not even officially recognize the Judaism of Ethiopian Jews until 1973 (25 years after the country was founded), the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews notes. Large-scale migration of Ethiopians did not begin until the 1980s. And, when they arrived, they were subjected to unequal treatment. Like Yemenite Jewish children, many Ethiopian Jews were taken away from their parents and sent to boarding schools.

Among the various forms of discrimination Ethiopian Jews have endured in Israel, perhaps the most startling is the forced sterilization of women. The Israeli government admitted it administered birth control shots to Ethiopian Jewish immigrant women without their consent.

The Ethiopian Jewish birthrate population dropped by 50 percent from 2002 to 2012, likely due to this policy.

Tehune Maharat, an Ethiopian Israeli activist, spoke with The Empire Files about the racism in her country.

People constantly make Ethiopian Jews feel like Israel is “not your home,” explained Maharat, whose cousin was killed by police.

She referred to the birth control that was injected into Ethiopian women as “genocide shots,” and noted “it’s a plain statement by the health ministry that the Ethiopian community must be shrunk as much as possible.”

Maharat even compared the Israeli government’s systematic oppression of Ethiopian Jews to the genocidal Nazi regime’s oppression of Jews.

“It reminds me of the Holocaust era,” she said. “There they also tried to reduce the birthrate and established ghettos, just as here in Israel, there are Ethiopian ghettos, whole neighborhoods of just Ethiopians.”

They “fence us in, as if we are lepers, as if we are pests,” Maharat added. “For racist reasons, nothing else. There’s no other way to explain it!”

For decades, the Israeli government and organizations have even rejected and thrown away Ethiopian Jewish blood donations.

“Our blood has no worth,” Maharat said. “Apparently our blood isn’t as good, our blood is different than others’; it’s different than that of the white race.”

“But apparently it is only good for wars. Because we are good for the army,” she added. “We are the first to enter the battle.”

Like Black people in the U.S., Ethiopian Jews are also subject to harsh policing and incarceration. Ethiopian Israeli youth offenders are three times more likely to go to prison.

“The state espouses equality, justice and multiculturalism, of creating a society of Jews from all over the world. But in practice it doesn’t happen,” Maharat told The Empire Files.

“There are schools with whole classes of Ethiopians,” she continued. “There are kindergartens that are completely segregated: A kindergarten for Ethiopians and a kindergarten for whites.”

“It’s the Black reality in a white country.”

Some Ethiopian Jews who were born in Israel are still under the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, Maharat noted.

“The entire Israeli society, especially at its highest levels, is a racist society!” she exclaimed. “It’s a society with an outlook that, although it is concealed in many ways, it is very rooted in racism. No question. We have to admit it.”

While Maharat was speaking with The Empire Files about the deep-seated racism, a white Israeli man passing by interrupted the interview, shouting, “Nonsense!” He claimed racism is not a problem in Israel, adding, “I have many Ethiopian friends.”

Ethnostate Model for White Supremacists

Abby Martin concluded the film noting, “From warehousing asylum-seekers to discriminating against its own citizens, the treatment of Black people in Israel reveals something very important about the Zionist project: that’s it not just about creating a Jewish-only state, but one that is also based on white supremacy.”

Journalists David Sheen and Dan Cohen also helped produce the documentary. Sheen, an Israeli journalist, has extensively documented anti-Black racism in the country’s government and society.

Given the reality of this far-reaching racism, it comes as no surprise that so many far-right leaders staunchly support the Israeli government. In fact, many white supremacists and neo-fascists have pinpointed Israel as a model for the ethnostates they hope to build.

At a fascist conference in 2015, white supremacist Sam Dickson enthusiastically praised Israel, proclaiming, “The opposition to intermarriage. The creation of their own state. The recreation of their language. This is the greatest triumph of racial idealism in history.”

This explains why leaders of the so-called alt-right, a euphemism for the white supremacist far-right movement growing in the West, are staunch supporters of Israel and the Zionist movement.

Neo-Nazi leader Richard Spencer, in particular, has referred to his politics as a form of “white Zionism.” Spencer openly calls for people of color to be ethnically cleansed from the U.S. He led a chant of “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” (a reference to the Nazi slogan “Sieg Heil!”) at a white supremacist conference in November.

Far-right President Donald Trump has guaranteed unflinching support for Israel as well, as have the coterie of extreme-right leaders on the rise in Europe.