This article first appeared as an op-ed in the JTA. It is reprinted here with permission.
NEW YORK (JTA) — Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister, is no one’s idea of a soft touch. Hawkish on Israel’s settlement policy and a practitioner of a muscular, even bullying brand of diplomacy, Lieberman has a well-earned reputation as a hard-liner, no mean feat in Israel’s current rightist government. So when Lieberman becomes the voice of moderation on an issue, it’s worth a closer look.
This week, the foreign minister criticized Israel’s interior minister, Eli Yishai, for his recent statements against the nearly 60,000 African refugees and asylum seekers who have made their way to Israel over the past half decade. Yishai has gone on record stating that Israel should build more prisons and detention centers to handle this influx.
Other Israeli politicians have inflamed the situation as well. Likud Party Knesset member Miri Regev, inciting a crowd in south Tel Aviv, called the African refugees a “cancer in our body.” After hearing these words, an angry crowd embarked on a pogrom, setting upon African-run businesses and property. The African population was left traumatized and fearful of what would happen to them next. (Regev later apologized for her cancer remark.)
But perhaps the most vicious voice of Israeli officialdom belongs to Danny Danon, a Likud Knesset member and chairman of the Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee. In addition to his legislative duties, Danon is the chairman of the “Deportation Now” movement. In recent weeks he has called for African migrant workers to be removed from Israeli cities and put into detention camps. He has blamed the crisis on “bleeding-heart leftists,” and the human rights and aid groups who assist the refugees.
There is no question that the situation with the Africans in Israel is no longer tenable. Israel must develop a humane and orderly process to investigate who among the Africans are legitimate asylum seekers and refugees, and who are simply economic migrants seeking a better way of life in the only western country accessible by foot from Africa. Israel has no such process now and treats all of the Africans as illegal “infiltrators.” The overwhelming majority of the Africans are from war-torn Sudan and Eritrea; many have escaped the genocide in Darfur. Yet of the 4,603 applicants who sought asylum last year, Israel granted it just one.
Populist politicians around the world use the issue of illegal immigration to spread fear and hatred throughout native populations. Israel’s demagogues aren’t original, but they are dangerous, as evidenced by the recent anti-African violence in Tel Aviv. As Jews know all too well, it’s a short path from hateful rhetoric to violence. When we see it happening, we have an obligation to speak out, and loudly, against it.
The American Jewish community can no longer stand silent in the face of hatred, incitement and violence by Jews against the African refugees, asylum seekers and even economic migrants in its midst. The hate speech employed by Israeli officials such as Yishai, Regev and especially Danon run counter to our communal norms and our Jewish values. Until these politicians cease this approach and adopt a more humane and Jewish attitude to Israel’s Africans, American Jews should make it clear that they are not welcome in our community.
Danny Danon is a frequent visitor to the United States – the next time he comes, he should not be invited to any Jewish organization, synagogue, community center or home. The same goes for Eli Yishai and Miri Regev. These officials have made it clear that Africans are not welcome in their community; we need to make it clear that those who incite violence and hatred are not welcome in ours.