Israel “Making Lives Miserable” for Africans, Hoping They ‘Self-Deport’

Racism against Africans in Israel – Part 1 of 2

Racism against Africans in Israel – Part 2 of 2

Interview with Israeli Activist David Sheen and the “TheRealNews” news broadcaster about “Racism against Africans in Israel”.
Youtube Transcript:
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

Is Israel poised to round up its more than 50,000 African asylum seekers into detention centers in an effort to make their lives so miserable they self-deport? And what accounts for the growing anti-African racism that’s being manifest in Israeli society today?

Now joining us to discuss this in-studio is David Sheen. David is an independent journalist and filmmaker, originally from Toronto, Canada. He now lives in Dimona, Israel. His website is And he’s currently working on the first ever book about anti-African racism in Israel.

Thank you so much for joining us, David.

DAVID SHEEN, JOURNALIST: Thanks for having me.

NOOR: So, David, a lot of people might not be familiar with the current situation for some 53,000 African asylum seekers in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called them infiltrators. He says they threaten the Jewish character of Israel. And he says these are not refugees, these are illegal immigrants who were in Israel looking for jobs. And there’s been a series of laws passed in Israel that makes it easier for them to get, essentially, rounded up and held indefinitely in detention. Give us an update.

SHEEN: Okay. Well, these people really, for the most part, immigrated to Israel starting in 2006. And then in 2010 you have the masses coming in, fleeing persecution, ethnic cleansings in Sub-Saharan Africa. They’re fleeing all over, and countries are taking them in. In Israel you have these 50,000, 60,000.

Now, when they first arrived, the government didn’t want to outright deport them because that would just look so horrible on its human rights record, to send them back to the horrors they fled from. So instead it allowed them in but immediately started making their lives miserable, according to the interior minister—that’s his words—in order—so that they would just eventually give up and go back to the places they came from, to self-deport, so to speak.

So that’s taken many forms. It’s taken the form of Israeli government leaders inciting racism against—calling them cancer, you know, accusing them of committing crimes, of being rapists, and bringing in, you know, every possible slur you can imagine.

NOOR: And we’ve played some of your work on The Real News. There’s been these mass rallies with Israeli political leaders, marching by the thousands through the streets of Tel Aviv and other cities. And then, as you documented, soon after, that’s led to Africans being attacked on the streets.

SHEEN: Certainly. I mean, Africans are attacked in the streets even regardless. But certainly there are these rallies, often led by politicians, and people, you know, physically attacking Africans in the streets.

And in addition to that, you have rabbis who are on the government payroll, actually, who issue edicts forbidding Jews from renting apartments to Africans. So religious leadership, political leadership, grassroots in the neighborhoods, the government’s policy was just make their lives as difficult as possible.

And so now its centerpiece legislation is permitting the government to round them up, sticking them in these desert detention centers.

NOOR: And these are a new set of laws that helped—can you talk about when they were passed and what the significance was?

SHEEN: The original anti-infiltration law was originally passed in the ’50s to criminalize Palestinians who had fled from the fighting that broke out in 1947-48, to prevent them from returning to their homes, so that there would be as few as possible non-Jewish people in the country.

So in 2012, you have the government resuscitating this law in order to now criminalize Africans who’d been entering the country.

Now, once it did that, after a year and eight months, the Supreme Court struck it down, called it unconstitutional, a violation of people’s human rights, saying you can’t jail people that haven’t committed any crimes. And so it was struck down.

But instead of following the Supreme Court decision, the government just legislated a new version of the law, this time worse than the first, which permits it to incarcerate people ad infinitum, forever. And that’s the situation on the ground right now.

They can only hold about 3,000 people in these jails, desert jails. The idea is pack them in there, don’t give them food or vegetables or hot water or, you know, anything besides the container that they’re living in in the cold, and then eventually they’ll become so miserable they’ll agree to leave, and then they can round up another 3,000. And that’ll be some kind of processing that they can just quickly bottleneck people out of the country.

NOOR: And so, in February a record number of African asylum seekers self-deported, some 1,700. So talk about the current situation, what’s happening on the ground today. Why are these people leaving?

SHEEN: Well, it’s clear that the forces in society are stacked against them. Eighty percent of Israelis in a recent poll said that they want all Africans gone. You know, over 60 percent want them all kicked out of the country outright. Another 20 percent want them jailed. So 80 percent want them cleared out of Israeli population centers. Then the government clearly is, you know, pushing them out.

And so with no help from people on the street, just a real handful of Israelis, who themselves are marginalized and hated for supporting the Africans, really, what is their salvation? The courts come to their cause, but then the government disregards it.

So, many people see that I could sit in jail in some foreign country for the rest of my life, or I could die in my home country. Maybe that’s an option.

NOOR: But Israel is—by international treaty, it’s prevented from sending them back to the country of origin, right? So they’re sending them to third-party countries now. Is that correct?

SHEEN: Both. I mean, first of all, what Israel’s doing is, in order to present to the world a face of this is voluntary, they’re sitting people in front of cameras and interviewing them. So is this voluntary? Yes. I am agreeing voluntarily to leave the country, so that they can then show people, well, they’ve already agreed. I mean, according to the United Nations, clearly, anyone who’s in jail can’t agree to be deported voluntarily. But they’re covering their backs that way.

And then in some cases the government is deporting them to third countries. But when you ask these third countries, is this in fact what you’ve agreed to, we’ve signed no agreements, we’ve agreed to nothing, and we haven’t agreed to protect these people’s refugee rights. So Israel isn’t sending them to a place where they’ll be safe; it’s just sending them to any place that’ll accept Israel’s money, weapons, and weapons training in exchange.

NOOR: And one of the arguments that you hear in the Israeli press, and even by Miss Israel, who’s on tour in the U.S. right now—it was actually a Ethiopian-Israeli woman—is that these asylum seekers are dangerous and they’re a threat to peace, a threat to the public, and they’re raping—they’re carrying out these rapes all across Israel.

What’s your response? Is there a legitimate concern for the safety of Israelis?

SHEEN: Well, I mean, the idea that this group of people is somehow collectively responsible for increasing crime, even police statistics in Israel consistently show that Africans actually have a lower crime rate than native Israelis. It’s not zero crime rate. I wouldn’t expect it to be a zero crime rate, especially since the government doesn’t permit them to work. So how are you going to eat, how are you going to have a place to live without permission to work? People are working under the table or petty crime. So I don’t expect a zero crime rate.

But I think you’re more likely to be raped by an Israeli politician in Israel. If you just look statistically, from the president of the country Moshe Katsav to justice ministers sexually harassing, to the chief of police of Jerusalem, I mean, mayor of Kiryat Malakhi, one after the other, top Israeli officials are either convicted of rate or sexual assault or sexual harassment. It’s a very big problem in the country. And I don’t think that the Israeli leadership should be the ones pointing at another population as proportionately, you know, responsible for rape. I think they should look inward and see how to tackle that problem in Israeli society.

NOOR: Well, David Sheen, this wraps up the first part of our conversation, but we’ll continue it in part two. We’ll post both parts at Thank you so much for joining us.

Youtube Transcript:
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

Secretary of State John Kerry recently made headlines when he criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for insisting Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a precursor to peace talks.

Now joining us in studio to discuss this is David Sheen. David is an independent journalist and filmmaker originally from Toronto, Canada, who now lives in Dimona, Israel. His website is, and he’s working on the first book documenting Israeli anti-African racism.

Thank you so much for joining us.

DAVID SHEEN, JOURNALIST: Thanks for having me.

NOOR: So what’s your response to this statement by Secretary of State John Kerry and the timing of this? What is the significance of it?

SHEEN: It’s really interesting to hear an American high-level official walk back, because a position of the government, originally they fully supported Netanyahu’s demand that Palestinians and Arab leaders acknowledge Israel is a Jewish state. Perhaps they’ve recently come to understand the full significance of such a declaration. On the face of it, you know, why would anyone have a problem with that? Well, let’s parse that. What does it mean to declare that a state is Jewish? In Israel, what it’s meant for the last 66 years is that there are citizens-plus and citizens-minus. There’s citizens who have extra rights and privileges by virtue of them being part of a ethnic group, Jewish ethnic group, and there’s people who are stripped of rights and privileges for not being part of that. And, sure, if there is some kind of two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, that would still leave 20 percent of the country who isn’t Jewish. And what will be their fate? Does the government of Israel have the a priori right to discriminate against them? Palestinians are raising these points. As well, you have other populations of non-Jewish people, whether it’s people who have come from the Far East originally to work, and some have started families, whether it’s asylum seekers from Africa. Clearly there will always be non-Jewish people. You can’t have an ethnically pure country–or I would hope that we’re not trying to go back to that model of an ethnically pure country. What happens to ethnic minorities? And so this formulation would give the government a so-called blank check to continue and maybe even ramp up its policies of discrimination against non-Jewish citizens. And perhaps the Obama administration has finally understood that, and so they’re walking back that position.

NOOR: And in the first part of the interview we talked about, in length, the treatment of African asylum seekers in Israel. Put that in the context of how Israel treats Palestinians, and if you can, expand on that.

SHEEN: Sure. Well, okay. In Israel, sure, the government has been framing these asylum seekers as only economic migrants, meaning they’re only coming to the country to make money; none of them or a very fraction–less than 1 percent of them are true refugees.

The real reason, however–and the government openly says it is–they’re a threat to the Jewish character of the state. Now, why is someone, just by virtue of being a different religion, a threat? Only if you’re obsessed of there being some kind of ethnic purity or cultural purity would you call individuals who have committed no crime a threat. And that’s the case. And Africans are merely the most–the population that only most recently borne the brunt. But for decades Palestinians have been called a demographic threat; merely by being born and not being Jewish, they’re considered a threat.

NOOR: And they also have higher birthrates than Israelis do.

SHEEN: Mhm, mhm, although birthrates change over time consistently since the establishment of the state. And it should also be noted that Israelis, compared to other so-called industrialized nations, have a relatively high birthrate, even among the Jewish population, but the Arab birthrate is even high. So there’s this fear that one day Arab–non-Jewish people in Israel could outnumber the Jewish people, and then, if they ever become a minority, they could become a persecuted minority. And that’s the idea. And because of that, there’s efforts to engineer the population and ensure by any means necessary that the percentage of Jewish people in the population never dips below a certain percentage that no one’s really ready to name. But that seems to inform much of the government’s policies.

NOOR: Now, defenders of Israel always point to the fact that Israel is the only democratic state in the region. Is what you’re saying challenge that, the premise of that argument?

SHEEN: Mhm. Well, I don’t think there’s any pure democracy or pure non-democracy. But certainly, in my humble opinion, Israel cannot be called a pure democracy, in the sense that it’s an ethnocracy. It doles out rights and privileges to people on the basis of their ethnic affiliation. And that’s always been the case. And there’s dozens of laws which discriminate, whether it’s allocation to land or the right to take a spouse or have your spouse be naturalized. There’s myriads of ways in which non-Jewish people are discriminated against.

So, clearly, you know, it’s only come to the fore now because of this issue of African asylum seekers. But Palestinians have been talking about it for decades. And while the American government continues to sign off on this Israel as the only democracy in the region, but increasingly that’s hard to claim, even for Israel’s strongest supporters.

NOOR: Now, Palestinians have called for the boycott, divest, sanction movement in the face of this. But we were just talking about the African asylum seekers. Now they have an Israeli public that’s turned against them by a vast majority; Israeli politicians, Israeli laws that singles them out for indefinite detention, for deportation. What are the African asylum seekers–what are they calling for? And do they really–what kind of hope do they have that they can remain in this country if they choose to stay and partake in the economic activity that they are–and also be safe from the violence they’re fleeing?

SHEEN: Mhm. Well, the demands of the African asylum seekers are very simple. They’ve just–asking for the government to openly and transparently examine their cases on a case-by-case basis and say, you know, for people who aren’t refugees, they’ll have to go back to where they came from. But for people who do qualify under international standards, then they’ll have to be receiving refugee rights. And if Israel does not want to give those refugee rights, then it must endeavor to negotiate with other countries who commit to giving those refugee rights. Israel hasn’t done that, and it doesn’t want to do that. It’s happy to send teams of people for PR purposes to help out in Haiti or, you know, when people are suffering from natural disasters or war-torn countries. But when it lands on their own doorstep, they want to wash their hands clean of the problem because they don’t want non-Jews in the country. That’s problematic.

In terms of what people aspire to, sadly, as you’ve pointed out, many Israelis want them gone, sadly. And so other asylum seekers are saying, okay, if we have our rights fulfilled in another country, we’re willing to move on. You know. But at the same time, what does that portend for people like myself who live in Israel? What kind of country is it that we’re left with if our own government is willing to kick out people who have fled for their lives merely because they don’t have Jewish blood? I mean, is that a kind of country that people want to live in?

NOOR: And Haaretz recently ran an editorial in which they criticize Netanyahu, saying Netanyahu speaks of the obligations required by Jewish moral values, he speaks incessantly about the nation state of the Jewish people, but he’s forgotten what it means to be a Jew, harkening to the experience of the Jewish people as refugees and being persecuted and not having a place where they could be safe and be free. Final thoughts?

SHEEN: Yeah. Of course it’s a source of great shame. You know. I would hate to have to look into the eyes of my own ancestors, who fled persecution and were persecuted and paid with their lives, often in horrible ways, to have to look them and say that the government that supposedly claims to represent Jews is now turning people away purely by virtue of–or on the basis of them not being Jews. I would be embarrassed if I was Prime Minister Netanyahu to have to answer for that. If your sense of Jewish security is based only on packing as many Jews as possible into the smallest space possible and removing as many non-Jews as possible from said space, then if that’s all you’ve left of Judaism for us, then you’ve left an incredibly poor heritage to pass down to the next generation of what this Jewish culture is supposed to be about.

NOOR: David Sheen, thank you so much for joining us.

SHEEN: Thanks for having me.

NOOR: You can go to to watch both parts of our interviews with David Sheen. You can follow us on Twitter @therealnews. Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnoor.

Thank you so much for joining us.

Racism against Africans in Israel

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