It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon. The streets of South Tel Aviv were teeming with people. We first saw a very large wedding party heading towards a park. We then saw hundreds of young men hanging out, socializing, walking, and sometimes just looking for something to do. The shops were closed on this Jewish Sabbath and this multitude had time on their hands. You would not have believed that this was Tel Aviv, Israel: it looked more like a neighborhood from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia or the Sudan. Yet, here it was, in a city on the Mediterranean, a city that reminded many of my delegation of Miami Beach and Los Angeles.
What my delegation saw was only the tip of a very strange and under-addressed iceberg: significant African migration to Israel. Africans, particularly from the Horn of Africa, have been seeking asylum in Israel as they have attempted to escape wars and crushing poverty. The Israeli establishment, sitting on top of the country that likes to describe itself as the only democracy in the Middle East, has been less than sanguine about the appearance of these migrants. In fact, the migrants are frequently described as “infiltrators,” a term that suggests a military operation rather than individuals seeking asylum.
Israel has been locking up African migrants. It has refused to grant asylum to most migrants, instead interning them for indefinite periods of time. The migrants find themselves, much like migrants in other parts of the world, in a twilight zone existence, living underground in order to avoid arrest, but sought after by Israeli employers who, like so many other employers in other countries – including but not limited to the U.S. – seek low-waged, vulnerable workers.
The African migrants in Israel have been demonized in both the mainstream but most especially by leaders of hard, right-wing organizations, who see them as a threat to the demographics of Israel. With 20 percent of Israel being Palestinian (and growing), the presence of the African migrants both scares and infuriates that segment of Israel that believes that their country must be ethnically pure in order to survive.
Over the last few weeks, African migrants have been engaging in organizing and mobilizing to insist upon their human rights. If the Israeli establishment is going to ignore them, then the migrants are prepared to take their case to the United Nations. Nevertheless, someone needs to quickly address the ghetto-ization of the migrants and the desperate poverty that they are facing. As a friend of mine on our trip noted, this situation is explosive and all that needs to happen for a disaster is one problematic step by the authorities and the lid could come off of Tel Aviv.
Both the presence of the African migrants and the unresolved situation of the Palestinians (who remain oppressed by the Israeli system) challenge Israel in its fundamentals. They challenge those who suggest that a democracy can exist in an environment where efforts are being undertaken to remove an entire population, and in the meantime subject them to apartheid conditions, and where those who migrate to Israel in search of safety are met with a characterization most appropriate to alien invaders.
Truth be told, it sounds a lot less like democracy and more like ancient Greece or Rome.
Bill Fletcher Jr. is a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum. Follow him on Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com.