Tel Aviv—and all of Israel—shook this week after a protest-turned-riot over the question of African immigrants. A crowd of about 1,000 people swarmed the streets of south Tel Aviv last week; shops and cars were vandalized and hateful slogans shouted through the streets.According to reports, the riot was preceded by hateful speeches in the Knesset, and the crowds were whipped into a frenzy by racist speeches by MKs. During a Knesset debate last Monday, MK Danny Danon (Likud) said of African immigrants: “They are all infiltrators. We must drive them all out.” Then Danon and MK Miri Regev fumed in front of crowds in Tel Aviv later in the week, as AFP reports: “‘The infiltrators are a cancer in our body,’ Likud MP Miri Regev told the crowd, as fellow MK Danny Danon shouted: ‘The infiltrators must be expelled from Israel! Expulsion now!'” The crowds became blindly violent very quickly. They attacked at least one (white, Israeli) journalist who was present. “Blacks out!” they shouted. “Send the Sudanese back to Sudan.”Before and since the riot, some MKs have carried on a shocking and hate-filled discussion on immigrants, leftists, and human rights activists. “All human rights activists should be imprisoned and transported to camps we are building,” Knesset Member Yulia Shamalov Berkovich (Kadima) said during a Knesset debate this Tuesday, referring to camps being built in the Negev desert to house African immigrants. Berkovich also said human rights groups are forcing Israelis to “illegally employ infiltrators,” and that they are “compromising the security of the state and its citizens and should be locked up.”MK Michael Ben-Ari (National Union) has defended the speeches of MKs Regev and Danon and the use of the word “cancer” to describe African “infiltrators”.A crowd of 1,000 is small by the standards of these events, but this is cause for concern and outrage, and to their credit, both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres have forcefully rebuked those politicians and protesters who participated in this ugly, racist spectacle. As Haaretz reports, Netanyahu promised to ramp up enforcement but emphasized that hatred is never the appropriate response:
“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,” [Netanyahu] said.
President Shimon Peres said Thursday 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,” he said. “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.”
Peres is right, as are the hundreds of counter-protesters now demonstrating in solidarity with the local African migrant population. Like America and Europe, Israel faces a serious problem in the form of illegal immigration. But the answer in all of these cases is sound policy informed by compassion, and never hatred or racism towards minority populations. As Jeffrey Goldberg puts it from an American Jewish perspective:
I understand that the issue of illegal immigration is a serious challenge for Israel, as it is for many prosperous countries, and I readily understand that these immigrants (the lucky few who make it through the Egyptian gauntlet and the Sinai desert) are a strain on limited resources. But, really? We were strangers once, too, as Jewish tradition teaches. There has got to be a better way…’Fascism’ might be a strong word, and of course Israel is judged by a double-standard (triple-standard, actually), but this is not what should be happening in a country that calls itself a Jewish state.
Via Meadia is not prepared to issue rulings on what is and is not appropriate behavior for a Jewish state, but this kind of behavior is depressing wherever it appears. Human beings who seek to improve their living conditions by moving in search of work are exercising a natural right, and while there are reasons why states may for security or social reasons need to limit and control migration, Israel (and America) should never lose sight of the dignity of all human beings even as we try to enforce immigration laws in an equitable way.