Yet not even all Jewish Israelis are immune from the sting of structural racism. Jews of African descent, in particular, are far from equal to their white fellow citizens. Ethiopian Jews face intense discrimination from a system of white supremacy that bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Israel’s closest ally, the United States.
African refugees fleeing violence and persecution in their own countries, meanwhile, are likewise criminalized, subjected to even more horrific treatment and abuse.
A new documentary shines a light this pervasive bigotry. The film, “Anti-Black Racism Reveals Israel’s White Supremacy,” is part of the TeleSur news program The Empire Files, and features original reporting and interviews with Ethiopian Israelis and African refugees.
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 notes in the film.
Some 45,000 African refugees have sought asylum in Israel, the vast majority (92 percent) from war-torn Sudan and Eritrea. Throughout the world, 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) had been 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 prove easily disposable labor.
While African refugees comprise less than 0.5 percent of the total Israeli population, they are scapegoated for many problems in the country. Leading Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, vilify African refugees as “infiltrators.” Netanyahu has characterized asylum-seekers fleeing genocidal violence as “terrorists,” and insisted they pose a “demographic” threat — language often used to demonize Palestinians.
Referencing African refugees, Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai declared in a 2012 interview, “Muslims that arrive here do not even believe that this country belongs to us, to the white man.” Yishai, who spreads noxious myths that African refugees are raping Israeli women and spreading AIDS, insisted he would use “all the tools to expel the foreigners, until not one infiltrator remains.”
A poll found that 52 percent of Israelis agreed with Israel’s culture minister, Miri Regev, that Sudanese migrants are a “cancer,” and 33 percent support violence against refugees.
Israeli police and politicians frequently claim African refugees are responsible for a wave of crime, but 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.
Even mainstream center-left political organizations and Israeli activists aren’t immune to this virulent racism. When the production crew of The Empire Files attended an anti-African refugee protest in Tel Aviv, a city that is often touted as a hub of diversity and open-mindedness, an Israeli 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,” he said.
“I came here to support… the struggle against Eritreans, to take them back home to Mother Africa,” another Israeli told The Empire Files. He insisted he was not racist but said refugees “should go to any country in Africa.”
Protesters burnt an effigy of the mayor because he allows children of African refugees to attend schools. Participants also denied that the African asylum-seekers fleeing violence are refugees at all.
“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 learning self-defense in case they 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 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 desert.
Human rights groups like Amnesty International have made it clear that Israel’s laws violate the fundamental rights of asylum-seekers.
Israel has nevertheless persisted, creating a 140-mile fence on its border with Egypt to prevent African refugees from entering.
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 [in], as a country that experienced 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 that African refugees will “voluntarily” self-deport.
“The food is really bad,” he explained. When refugees created a market for better food, authorities destroyed the market.
“I’m not going to go away,” the man concluded. “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 are also the victims of 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 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. 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.
The Israeli government admitted it had 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 as a result of 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,” Maharat explained. She referred to the forced sterilization 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 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.”
Like black people in the U.S., Ethiopian Jews in Israel are 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.
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.”
Despite its societal racism, many far-right leaders in the U.S. 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.”
Leaders of the so-called alt-right, a euphemism for the white supremacist movement growing in the United States and across the West, are staunch supporters of Israel and the Zionist movement.
Neo-Nazi leader Richard Spencer has referred to his politics as a form of “white Zionism” and 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!” at a white supremacist conference in November.