Do black lives matter in Israel?
Eritrean asylum seekers shout slogans as they protest in Tel Aviv, Israel against racism and the government's intention to detain and deport Eritrean asylum seekers. The signs read: "We are all refugees," "Blacks are not criminals", and "Enough with the racism." | Ariel Schalit / AP

While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to be the most pervasive divide within Israeli society, there are other problems—racial ones—splitting people. Being dark-skinned in Israel is a challenge. Blacks in Israel are regularly the victims of racism and are viewed as a threat by authorities and politicians.

Racist comments made by Israel’s top political and religious leaders are rampant. On March 17, in his weekly sermon, one of Israel’s two chief rabbis, Yitzhak Yosef, used the term “monkeys” and the Hebrew equivalent of the N-world to refer to black people. Such comments are not infrequent; back in 2003, Israel’s other chief rabbi, Yisrael Lau, on his very first day in office, used the N-word to describe black athletes. One government minister has referred to black immigrants as “a cancer.” Officials typically refer to them as “infiltrators.”

Ethiopian Jews, among the poorest people in Israel, face police brutality and discrimination from employers on a daily basis. Ethiopian model Tahunia Rubel called Israel “one of the most racist countries in the world.” And according to research conducted by Dr. Erez Siniver, when entering the workforce, Ethiopian Jews earn up to 40 percent less than Arab-Israeli citizens.

Fentahun Assefa-Dawit, executive director of Tebeka, a legal aid organization supporting Ethiopian Israelis, says, “Some people [in Israel] have this notion that anyone who comes from a different country, especially a [developing] country, is incompetent, especially when we have dark-colored skin…. There are a lot of people, unfortunately, who are either ignorant or racist.”

Back in January 2014, an Israeli man walked up to an African refugee carrying her one-year-old baby in downtown Tel Aviv and brutally stabbed the baby in the head three times. Apprehended by police and asked why he had attacked the toddler, the man responded, “They say that a black baby, blacks in general, are terrorists.” He was not sentenced to jail time, because he was deemed to be mentally unstable.

In another case, in February 2018, two Israelis were convicted of brutally beating an African refugee to death but were spared long prison sentences when the judge agreed to reduce the charges against them from murder to manslaughter and grievous bodily harm.

As too many cases demonstrate, in Israel it sometimes seems as if it is impossible for black persons to earn the status of victim; instead they and any claims they make about racism are viewed with suspicion. On March 19, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a public speech that the arrival of non-Jewish African refugees was “much worse for Israel than severe attacks by Sinai terrorists.”

Israel’s justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, posted on Facebook recently: “Israel is too small and has its own problems. It cannot serve as the employment agency for the African continent.”

The government has a plan in the works to deport more than 40,000 African refugees: They are to be given $3,500 and a plane ticket out of the country. If they don’t take the offer, they will be locked up.

It seems like Israel must have been inspired by U.S. President Donald Trump. In January, Netanyahu praised Trump’s executive order to build a wall that would prevent undocumented migrants from Mexico from entering the United States. A month later, he announced that Israeli authorities have initiated the deportation of thousands of African immigrants: “We have expelled about 20,000 and now the mission is to get the rest out.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has criticized Israel’s policy on African migrants and recently called on the country to consider alternatives to its current warehousing of migrants. Netanyahu made a bargain with the U.N. to resettle half of the African migrants in Israel to western countries. But he then “zig-zagged,” as Israeli media termed it, canceling the deal, leaving thousands who are undocumented facing an unknown future.

Even prominent pro-Israel voices in the U.S. like Alan Dershowitz and Abraham Foxman are cautioning the Netanyahu government to ease up on its plans. In a letter seemingly more concerned with Israel’s public image than with the plight of those to be deported, they recently wrote: “We fear that a mass expulsion could cause incalculable damage to the moral standing of Israel and of Jews around the world.”

The hostility towards blacks in Israel is not new. For the past several years, the government has been placing thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese migrants in hardscrabble detention centers in the Negev desert. The aim seems to be to make life so intolerable that they will leave on their own.

With orders to fly the planes deporting the refugees, many Israeli pilots are taking a stand against Netanyahu’s mission to expel the Africans immigrants. They have publicly declared that they will not “deport refugees to their death.” Some have made public declarations on their social media accounts. “I have joined many of my good friends in declaring that I will not fly refugees to their deaths. I won’t take part in that barbarism,” El Al pilot Iddo Elad wrote on his Facebook page.

“Out of all people we, the Jews, must be attentive, empathetic, moral, and leaders of public opinion in the world in how we treat the migration of refugees who have suffered and continue to suffer in their countries of origin,” Captain Yoel Piterbarg wrote, as cited by Israel-based online magazine, +972.

A recent poll showed that the majority of the Israelis that live in proximity to the African refugees—in the Greater Tel Aviv area generally, and in the slums of South Tel Aviv specifically—oppose the deportation.

Netanyahu’s plan has also sparked outrage among human rights groups, Holocaust survivors, and academics.

Hundreds of Israeli rabbis have pledged to hide African asylum seekers in their homes as part of the Anne Frank Home Sanctuary Movement founded by Rabbi Susan Silverman. In Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, Frank and her family temporarily avoided being deported to the death camps by hiding with the help of non-Jews in the 1940s.

“We’re told 36 times in the bible to take care of the stranger. That’s absolutely a Jewish value,” said Silverman, a rabbi from the liberal Reform stream of Judaism.

To fight discrimination and stop the government’s plan to deport them, black immigrants painted their faces white and protested in Tel Aviv recently. With desperation obvious on their faces, they wanted their voices to be heard after living in Israel for years and working in low-paying jobs that many Israelis shun. Leaving the country now isn’t on their agenda.

African asylum seekers painted their faces white at a demonstration recently in order to draw attention to the Israeli government’s racism. | Courtesy Romy Haber

“We don’t know what is waiting for us [in Rwanda and Uganda]…. We prefer now to stay in prison [in Israel] instead,” Teklit Michael, a 29 year-old asylum seeker from Eritrea living in Tel Aviv, told Reuters.

Tesfum Goitom, 27, having heard horror stories from friends facing destitution back in Rwanda, said, “I am really afraid…I am all the time worrying that they will expel me. I prefer going to prison here. That way I’ll at least save my life.”

None of these troubles keep Netanyahu up at night, of course. He continues to claim that Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers who agree to go to a “third country,” known to be Rwanda or Uganda, will be able to live and work there legally. But in fact, a +972 magazine investigation earlier this year in those two states, where most asylum seekers deported by Israel have been sent so far, proved that not only are they denied legal status, but they are often pushed out of the country within days of arriving.

The government claims that deportations are meant “to protect the Jewish and democratic character” of Israel, but the modern state of Israel has served as a safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution and was largely built by immigrants. Mass deportation of refugees, then, would seem to be an apparent contradiction to the founding values of the Jewish state.

As in the U.S. and much of the Western world, Israel is consumed with a debate between those claiming they are concerned with “illegal” immigration and border security and those who demand compassion and humanity in dealing with refugees. But no policy that relies on such open racism, discrimination, and violence can be justified. Killing Palestinians continues to be masked in the name of “security concerns,” but how can Israel explain away the deportation and the inhumane treatment of African immigrants searching for a better life?


Romy Haber
Romy Haber

Romy Haber is an 18 year-old Lebanese writer and freelance journalist studying political science and journalism.