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Racial Tensions Boil Over In Israel


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the auto industry is bouncing back and at least some of that recovery is thanks to subprime lending. We talk to NPR's Sonari Glinton about which carmakers are floating loans to customers with less than pristine credit. We'll talk about whether that's a problem or not.

But first, we take a look at the rising tensions in Israel between citizens and immigrants. You might have heard that African migrants in Tel Aviv were targeted last week after a protest against African asylum seekers turned violent.

According to reports, protesters cried: Deport the Sudanese and infiltrators get out of our home, as they ransacked shops and attacked African migrants who happened to be passing by. The attacks came just days after Israeli's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called Africans, quote, "illegal work infiltrators," unquote, who threaten the security and identity of the Jewish state. And during the protest a member of the Israeli parliament from the right-wing Likud Party called Sudanese refugees - quoting now - a cancer.

We wanted to find out more about this, so we called Ilan Lior. He is the Tel Aviv correspondent for the Haaretz newspaper in Israel. Welcome to the program. Thanks so much for talking to us.

ILAN LIOR: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You wrote that you've been a journalist for 10 years and you've never seen the kind of hatred that was on display that night last week. Could you just talk a little bit more about why you said that and what you saw?

LIOR: It was just hate with no logic behind it. I tried to explain to the protesters there that I was a journalist, that I was actually there to give their problems a proper stage to express them, but it didn't matter to them. People were not thinking clearly. They just started, you know, running after me, a journalist, and tried to attack me without thinking about it, with no logic behind their actions. They had a lot of anger in them and they decided to let it out almost randomly and, as you said, later it came out on some African migrants as well.

MARTIN: You're not of African descent yourself though.

LIOR: No. I'm not of African descent.

MARTIN: So you're saying that even people like you who are not of African descent, who are not visibly, you know, the target, also kind of came in for a lot of this kind of free-floating anger?

LIOR: It just became very, very violent very quickly, but in order to understand all of that, we must go a bit backwards and explain a bit about the situation there, and it's much more complex than that. The people who live in South Tel Aviv are mainly people from the lowest social economic status. In general, they feel quite neglected by the government and other authorities in Israel and they feel that African migrants, which they refer to as infiltrators, are just another burden on their weak neighborhoods anyhow.

So referring to that evening, it was very easy to inflame this crowd, and the Knesset members who stood on the stage were doing just that. They were inflaming the crowd. It caused a reaction that nobody expected. Even the police wasn't prepared to deal with such outrage and violence.

MARTIN: The U.N. Annual Report on Human Rights released last week said that there are about 60,000 migrants from Sudan and Eritrea who have entered Israel in recent years, but it also said that many of them don't have refugee status and so they can't work legally or access social services legally, so that they're kind of living on the margins. Does that comport with what you've seen also?

LIOR: That's exactly the situation. There are tens of thousands of African immigrants living in south of Tel Aviv. In the past few years, hundreds arrive there every week. Most of them are from Sudan and Eritrea, asking for asylum in Israel. They cross the border from Sinai in Egypt to Israel. They're usually detained for a couple of weeks, maybe three weeks, and then sent on buses to Tel Aviv, and Israel doesn't handle, eventually, their asylum requests. Instead, the country just doesn't deport them. That's the decision the government made. But at the same time, Israel doesn't give them work permits, health care or any other governmental services, and that's exactly what makes this whole situation.

The result is that they wander around the streets of South Tel Aviv all day looking for work. A lot of them are bored. You just see them. They don't do any harm sometimes, but you see thousands of people sitting on benches or on the ground in the parks, just trying to survive, and that's...

MARTIN: Why doesn't the government deport them? I mean, what is the government's stated policy toward these migrants, who I believe consider themselves to be refugees? So what is the government's stated policy toward them?

LIOR: Because of a decision of the United Nations that Eritrea and Sudan are countries that are dangerous to send people back to, Israel doesn't deport them. But at the same time, Israel doesn't give them any rights and that's what causes this situation. The country does do a few steps, trying to get some kind of solution for this situation.

The first step is building a fence along the border between Israel and Egypt. The second one is building the detention center in the south of Israel. The future immigrants are supposed to be sent to that detention center, and other than that, the minister of interior affairs announced that any mayor that will give jobs to infiltrators will be personally prosecuted. His position is the opposite to the position of human rights organizations and to the position of the mayor of Tel Aviv and the chief of police. They believe that we should do exactly the opposite. We should allow the Africans to work and that will improve the situation because they could afford living in Israel and won't need to deteriorate to crime.

And the fourth measure that the Israeli government is trying to take these days is making a deal with an African country - they're not revealing which country - that will be willing to accept all asylum seekers in return for money that Israel will give that country.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about violence directed at African migrants last week in Tel Aviv. We're talking about this with journalist Ilan Lior. He's a journalist with Israel's Haaretz newspaper. He covered the protests in Tel Aviv last week.

You know, American Jewish groups have urged Israel to protect these migrants and also to tone down the rhetoric that you were talking about, some of which the Anti-Defamation League says veers into racism. And I wanted to know how that advice is being received.

LIOR: Well, not only American Jewish groups - there are a lot of organizations here in Israel helping the asylum seekers every day, and those organizations are trying these days to encourage both sides, Africans and the local residents, to reside peacefully until some kind of solution is found.

At the same time, members of the Knesset from the left and the right wing, including the prime minister and the chairman of the Knesset - during the last few days, they condemned the racist remarks and the violence toward the Sudanese and the Eritrean citizens, saying that we must say that there is still a lot of tension in South Tel Aviv and it seems that things might deteriorate from here, and that's why the police sent extra units to that area in order to prevent any kind of violence from both sides.

MARTIN: Speaking of the rhetoric, the member of parliament whom we cited earlier, Miri Regev, apologized for her comments, but she said - for calling the Sudanese immigrants a cancer - she said she didn't mean to insult cancer patients, but she did not reference any of her comments about the Sudanese immigrants. I'm just wondering how her colleagues feel about this, or is that sentiment sufficiently widespread that it shouldn't be surprising that a member of parliament expressed herself thusly?

LIOR: There are some right wing members of the Knesset - several of them attended this demonstration - that have a very extreme and even aggressive position towards the African immigrants. Regev tried to explain that it wasn't incitement on her behalf, but you're right that she didn't apologize at any stage to the Sudanese people after she said they were like cancer spreading in the Israeli body, and those words unfortunately indicate what some people living in south of Tel Aviv think and some members of the Knesset as well.

But I must emphasize that this is not what the majority of the Israelis think. Israelis are not against Sudanese or Eritreans. At least most of them aren't. Most people agree that their entrance to the country is a failure of the government and the second failure is that after they entered there was no plan how to treat them. Some of them are refugees and others are just immigrants that seek work, but only few have work permits, accommodation arrangements or health care insurance, and the rest are treated as illegal immigrants and therefore have no rights and that's what's causing the whole problem, because Israel doesn't really check and decide who is a refugee and who isn't.

Everybody that comes from Sudan or from Eritrea is treated the same way. They are not deported from Israel, but they live here with no rights and you can imagine what happens with a person that can't work, doesn't have any health care. He's just in a daily struggle for survival and that leads to these consequences that we see now.

MARTIN: You know, Israel is also home to a large number of Ethiopian Jews. Many fight in the Israeli army, you know, are integrated into, you know, the institutions of life in Israel now. Are they feeling some of this resentment as well?

LIOR: Here and there you hear about difficulties relating to the Jewish Ethiopian community in Israel. Things aren't always going smoothly for them as well. They do suffer from time to time from racism, to tell the truth, but it's completely different. They are considered by everybody in Israel - they are considered Israelis, and saying that, you must understand that the violence last week was aimed at black people and it could have easily been Ethiopian Jews attacked instead of African immigrants. It was just random. The people that attended that demonstration just acted violently towards any black person around them.

MARTIN: Does Israel have any kind of precedent for dealing with this? It sounds like a very kind of painful issue in the same way that, you know, the United States, being a nation of immigrants, has struggled with various waves of immigration in a way that for some people, you know, evokes earlier periods in their history. I note that a presenter on Israel's army radio likened the attacks to attacks on Jews in earlier periods of European history, and I wondered whether that point of view has resonance as well.

LIOR: Some people warn that these are first signs of dangerous racism that might lead our whole society to a very bad place. Others say that it's an exaggeration and it's only a relatively small crowd and you shouldn't take it out of proportion. They claim that most Israelis reject that kind of behavior and those statements against Africans, but there is definitely a discussion about it and people make those comparisons here in Israel as well.

MARTIN: Ilan Lior is a journalist with Israel's Haaretz newspaper. He was kind enough to join us from Tel Aviv. Ilan, thank you so much for speaking with us, and will you please keep us posted?

LIOR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.