The current population of Israel is 8,146,300. Included in that number are a diverse ethnic and religious mix, including 6,110,600 Jews (from all parts of the world), 1,682,000 Arabs, and hundreds of thousands of African migrants or refugees. Left-wing and anti-Semitic activists make bold claims about these African refugees, including that Israel is an "apartheid state" (even though any citizen of Israel can vote, including more than one million Arabs) and that Israel discriminates against non-whites. The purpose of this article is to explore the idea that the Jews of Israel are discriminating against non-whites.
In "Constitutional Law of Israel", author Suzi Navot outlines how the state of Israel has strict anti-discrimination laws that prohibit discrimination by both government and nongovernment entities on the basis of race, religion, and political beliefs. Israel is a state-party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and is a signatory of the Convention against Discrimination in Education.
In April 2012, the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet reported that tens of thousands of refugees and African migrant workers who have come to Israel as refugees and are living in Tel Aviv. Says the article, "The men and teenage boys in have made their way to Israel on dangerous roads. Many are war refugees or political persecution in their home countries. Some people, many of them Christian, had dreams of entering the Holy Land." According to the article, "Tel Aviv's mayor has ordered that Africans do not have to work in companies that are hired by the municipality." The report continues: "Israel has signed the UN Refugee Convention, but very few asylum seekers who are non-Jews receive refugee status. Over the past nine years, only 175 people received refugee status, according to EU sources."
Scholars who have studied the Ethiopian migrant situation suggest that it is similar to the experience of European immigrants who arrived in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (1). The Law of Return, which allows those with one Jewish parent to migrate to Israel, is also frequently under attack despite that it is consistent with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination Article 1, section 3, which allows for preferential treatment of some groups for purpose of immigration, provided there is no discrimination against a specific nationality.
A report written by the Israeli Foreign Ministry describes Israel as a multi-ethnic, multicultural, multi-religious, and multi-lingual society that has a high level of informal segregation patterns. The report states that groups are not separated by official policy, but that Israel has a number of different sectors within the society who are somewhat segregated and maintain their strong cultural, religious, ideological, and/or ethnic identity. The report maintains that in spite of the existing social cleavages and economic disparities, the political systems and the courts represent strict legal and civic equality (2).
The Israeli Foreign Ministry describes the country as, "Not a melting pot society, but rather more of a mosaic made up of different population groups coexisting in the framework of a democratic state."
Israel is a representative democracy with a parliamentary system, proportional representation and universal suffrage. One of the reasons that African migrants go to Israel in the first place is that it is one of the only optimistic places in the Middle East or North Africa where they can actually end up.
One true story illustrates the point: "For those who finally get across the border, the first people they encounter are Israeli soldiers, people like me and those in my unit, who are tasked with a primary mission of defending the lives of the Israeli people. On one side of the border soldiers shoot to kill. On the other side, they know they will be treated with more respect than in any of the countries they crossed to get to this point. The Israeli soldiers who are confronted with these refugees do it not with rifles aimed at them, but with a helping hand and an open heart. The refugees are taken to a nearby IDF base, given clean clothes, a hot drink, food and medical attention. They are finally safe," according to Israeli Defense Forces soldier Aron Adler.
Over the years, Israel has worked to help refugees of various skin colors in the battle against discrimination in the world. Shortly after Israel was founded in 1948, Israel helped in the dramatic rescue mission of nearly 50,000 oppressed Yemenite Jews -- of dark skin color -- in "Operation Magic Carpet". Culturally rich, the Yemenite Jews live within their own communities, mostly near Tel Aviv.
Additionally, about 25,000 Ethiopian Jews came to Israel in 1985 in "Operation Moses." The Israeli authorities tried to encourage the new arrivals to pursue trades where they already showed expertise. To their surprise, the Ethiopian Jews wanted no part of working the land. Many of them had never seen an automobile or television. Some selected more challenging careers like engineering or computer technology while others went to school.
Israel is far from perfect in many areas. But there is more coverage of its imperfections than any other democracy in the world. In 2013, Yityish “Titi” Aynaw was crowned Miss Israel. She was born in Ethiopia but migrated to Israel with her parents, who (like her) are Jewish. Talking about the topic of black refugees in Israel, Aynaw does not beat around the bush:
"I'm not ashamed to say that there is racism in Israel; it's a problem, but it's a problem that Israel is working on and it's something that Israel is trying to fix and it's actually improving," she told one publication. "I don't feel the racism exactly. But my family feels it sometimes." She continues,
"If you feel like you're going to be segregated then you end up being segregated, but if you feel like you're going to be part of the society then you'll be accepted. A lot of the refugees are not refugees of war, they're economic refugees. There are actually places in Tel Aviv where you can't walk around because there is rape and violence and it's a bad situation."
To quote Richard Goldstone, head of the influential Goldstone Commission investigations into political violence in South Africa between 1991 and 1994, "In Israel equal rights are the law, the aspiration and the ideal; inequities are often successfully challenged in court."
Discrimination, intolerance, and racism in the Arab world persist in many forms. Among the groups and peoples who have been denied political and civil rights are Kurds, the non-Arab people whose language belongs to the Iranian group; Berbers, the pre-Arab native people of North Africa; Turkmen who speak their own language; the Christian Copts in Egypt; the Assyrians or Assyro-Chaldeans in Iraq subject to both ethnic and religious persecution; and Jews.
Recent years have strong examples of discrimination in the Middle East and North Africa: the slaughter in Darfur; the massacre of Kurds by Saddam Hussein and their persecution by Syria and Turkey; the Algerian government repression of the Kaybles, and the maintenance of apartheid of the Zaghawa people in the Sudan, especially in Darfur. A reasonable calculation is that over the last twenty years more than 1,500,000 African Christians have been killed or expelled from Southern Sudan, or enslaved by the Islamist regime in Khartoum.
In his book "Race and Slavery in the Middle East", Bernard Lewis recounts that many of the stories in the Arabian Nights portray Blacks as slaves, and as second-class citizens, while Arabs are "white." The Egyptian story is not a pleasant one for a variety of reasons. Under the former governments of Egypt, Coptic Christians -- about 10 to 12 million -- have been treated as second-class citizens and denied senior jobs. Individual Copts and their churches have already been attacked. The Virgin Church in Assiut in Upper Egypt was burned. Copts have been sentenced to prison for allegedly insulting the Prophet. About 200,000 Egyptian Christians have tried to get visas to come to the United States.
In Basra, Iraq, Blacks are treated contemptuously: people in street talk call them abd [slaves]. In Yemen, darker skinned individuals are known as al-akhdam [the servants]. Kuwait has shown similar hostility to blacks. 2,000,000 black African migrants were treated as virtual slaves in Libya. Even though slavery was officially abolished in Mauritania in 1981, around 15% of its population is still enslaved (3).
Israel is a small country. Floods of refugees are a burden on the nation. The social, economic, and humanitarian issues created by this influx of refugees cannot be understated. There are serious security concerns that Israel has to take into consideration -- concerns that other countries do not face.
In short, no refugees will receive special treatment from the government of Israel. They will be treated as all others are treated in the society. Refugees are treated similar within Israel, no matter what ethnic or religious group they are from. It is not easy being a refugee. Jews are all too familiar with the situation.
Israel has yet to come up with the solutions required to deal with this crisis effectively, balancing its sensitive social, economic, and security issues, at the same time striving to care for the refugees.
Today, when African refugees flood Israel's borders in search of freedom and better lives, and some for fear of their lives, Israel extends a helping hand -- but it does not extend special privileges to any group of people. Israel's young and thriving Jewish people and country, built from the ashes of the Holocaust, do not turn its backs on humanity.
(1) Steven Kaplan, "Can the Ethiopian Change His Skin? The Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews) and Racial Discourse", African Affairs, Vol. 98, No. 393 (Oct., 1999), p. 548.
(2) Society: Minority Communities, Israeli Foreign Ministry Website, October 1, 2006. Retrieved in 2014.
(3) Curtis, Michael. Racism in Arab Lands. Gatestone Institute, June 28, 2012. Accessed in 2014. See also: Why Do Black Americans Embrace Arabs And Reject Israel? by Palash Ghosh.