ďIsraelís treatment of black Africans entering the country shows that itís a racist state......Ē

Published: 7 August 2012
Briefing Number 315

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Summary:Israel faces criticism for its treatment of black Africans entering the country.  This Briefing is intended to provide context:

- The influx of black Africans into Israel is huge and unprecedented, and presents complex challenges which any country would struggle with

- It is impossible to establish by which country’s standards Israel is being judged

- Mainstream Israeli leaders have offered humanitarian support, and strongly condemned populist outbursts of racism against the Africans

- The African influx poses a security threat, because of the desire of Islamist groups to infiltrate into Israel via Sinai, and Israel is entitled to take precautions

- Many black Africans are actually fleeing Arab racism, in the Horn of Africa

Background:  Around 60,000 black Africans have entered Israel in recent years, mainly from Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan.  They are not Jewish, and have mostly entered on foot, via the Sinai desert and the inadequately secured southern border with Egypt.     

Israel faces criticism for its treatment of these black Africans.  And indeed, there are tensions inside the country.  Many politicians and policy-makers in Israel are unsure how to deal with the unprecedented challenge posed by these non-Jewish migrants who have no ties and no affiliations whatsoever to Israel.  How many of them are legitimate asylum seekers fleeing persecution, and how many of them are so-called “economic migrants”?  Should they be permitted to stay for the short or medium term?  What international legal obligations does Israel have towards them? And what ethical obligations apply, based on Jewish tradition and values?

Regrettably, some on the Israeli religious-right have made crude public statements inflaming hatred towards the black Africans. 

Furthermore, while efforts have been made to accommodate the huge numbers, Israel is often accused of housing them in inhospitable prison-style detention centres, or leaving them to sleep on the streets, in parks and other open spaces. 
Meanwhile, there have been several attacks on Africans, including homes being set on fire, and abuse and physical assaults in public places.

These events prompted one leading Jewish figure in the UK to lament recently that Israel was betraying the vision and universal values of the biblical prophets in its treatment of the black Africans. 

Here are some points which are intended to place the situation in context:

  • This influx of people is huge and unprecedented, and any country would struggle to cope:  Any country would face real challenges in such a situation.   60,000 black Africans entering Israel in the space of three years is the numerical equivalent of 520,000 entering the UK, 560,000 entering France, 2,900,000 entering the USA or 690,000 entering Germany.  None of these countries would readily be able to handle such an influx.   Many migrants would be turned back at that country’s border.  And if arriving by ship, their vessels would be turned over to UN relief agencies.  It’s necessary to appreciate the sheer size of the challenge Israel faces
  • By which country’s standards is Israel’s conduct being judged?  In many situations it is challenging to distinguish between refugees fleeing from persecution and so-called “economic migrants”.  At state level there is invariably some form of discrimination in all countries facing mass migration.  And at grassroots level, there is racism wherever such events occur.  Israel is criticised for its treatment of black Africans.  Would they receive better treatment in any European countries?  The answer is no.  In the USA? Again the answer is no.  Would they receive better treatment in any Arab country? The answer is an emphatic no.  Israel is being judged by its critics against an abstract standard which no other country could realistically fulfil.  Indeed, far from demonstrating the racism of Israeli society, it could be argued that the fact that the black Africans are looking to enter Israel actually demonstrates the country’s humanity, openness and tolerance. 
  • Mainstream Israeli society has offered humanitarian support, and strongly condemned the outbursts of racism against them:  Despite all the difficulties, Israel’s government has taken many steps to treat the black Africans with dignity and respect on their arrival.  Furthermore, Israeli volunteer groups and NGOs are active in areas like South Tel-Aviv to house, clothe, educate and guide black Africans.  And there have been widespread public condemnations  (including from Prime Minister Netanyahu) of the outbursts of anti-black racism in Israel from certain politicians.  Furthermore, a significant criminal trial is currently underway in which two Israelis are accused of trying to set fire to a home of Africans. The accused have been widely condemned.  It is therefore simplistic, unfair, and simply inaccurate to portray Israel collectively as swept along by a tidal wave of racism.  This is not the case.    
  • A security threat:  In addition to the humanitarian and logistical challenges,  Israel faces a genuine security challenge from the influx of black Africans.   Al-Qaeda and its splinter groups and affiliates in East Africa, as well as Islamist groups operating in the Sinai peninsula, make no secret of their fanatical desire to attack Israel – the Zionist entity – and they may be trying to infiltrate Israel by means of black Africans entering from the south.  It would be the height of irresponsibility for any Israeli government to welcome these migrants with open arms, without needing to apply rigorous security checks against them.  It is Al-Qaeda and the various Islamist groups that have forced Israel to do this.
  • Many of the black Africans are fleeing Arab racism in the Horn of Africa: and elsewhere: Finally, it should not be forgotten that many of the black Africans entering Israel are fleeing from alleged persecution by Arab groups eg in Sudan and southern Egypt.  The influx into Israel does not demonstrate the racism of Israel, but the anti-black racism which is widespread in some Arab-dominated societies.