In May 1992, teenager Helena Rap was stabbed to death on Bat Yam’s promenade by a Palestinian. Thousands of Bat Yam residents took to the streets in violent protest for five days. They looted, damaged property and attacked anyone who looked to them like an Arab. Baruch Marzel was also there. He was later given an eight-month conditional sentence for his part in the rioting. The stabbing took place just before the general elections. Pictures from Bat Yam were inserted into Labor’s election campaign, and Yitzhak Rabin promised the voters he would “take Gaza out of Tel Aviv.” After being elected, in 1993 he did exactly this, and then later Ariel Sharon took Tel Aviv out of Gaza.
But the problem was not solved. Less than 20 years afterward, Bat Yam is again the scene of hate demonstrations, along with Tel Aviv’s Hatikva suburb, and again Baruch Marzel and the followers of Kahane make their presence known – never missing an opportunity to fish for votes in murky waters. But this time the demonstrations are not against Gaza residents. They are against asylum-seekers from Africa, who replaced Gazans in Hatikva. They number just 20,000 and pose no security threat, but to the establishment and the man on the street they are a “demographic threat” to the Jewish state, and a social menace.
So the government decided to build an “open detention center” for asylum-seekers and their children, who have been dubbed “infiltrators” – a term previously reserved for Palestinians in the 50s and 60s. Internal Security Minister Aharonovitch has already made bold declarations about the rate of crime among them, while health experts note the high percentage of contagious diseases rife among Africans. Some 60 years ago, Jewish immigrants from Arab states were sprayed with DDT. Some of them live in the Hatikva suburb today. They were the blacks of that period, but the new generation in the neighborhood is unaware of that – or chooses to forget.
What is the link between taking Gaza out of Tel Aviv and the “infiltration” of Africa into Tel Aviv? As is known, the vast majority of Gazans who once worked in Israel supplied the society with cheap labor, returning home each evening or each weekend without making any special demands on the state. They worked in all those dirty jobs Israelis didn’t want – in restaurants, construction and agriculture. Thus in 1967 Israel not only gained territories and new markets but also a ready supply of cheap labor – and became a regional power. The high prices to be paid – the loss of legitimacy and the loss of a Jewish majority – were not yet apparent to the eye.
But this idyllic state of affairs didn’t last long. With the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987, the Palestinians became a “security problem”. Israel’s economy, which had become addicted to cheap labor, was in a quandary. Since Israelis were not going to go back to manual labor, and forcing the ultra-Orthodox to work was out of the question, then Labor Minister Ora Namir approved the import of “foreign workers” (migrant labor) under conditions that amount to modern slavery. This began slowly in the same year that the Oslo Accords were signed, 1993, but the trickle of migrant labor soon became a flood. The new laborers were easy to use, cheap and available 24 hours a day; they had no political demands and were not Muslim. Most importantly, their stay in Israel was limited to five years. They could be used and discarded at will.
Israelis quickly became hooked, and wanted more. According to rough estimates, there are some 100,000 migrant laborers in Israel legally, and another 150,000 “illegals” who remained in the country after their allotted period was up. Many have married and had children whose mother tongue is Hebrew, and by humanistic and civilian standards, they should have been granted full citizenship. However, these migrant laborers who have made Israel their home are grabbed in the middle of the night and thrown back to a country that is no longer their home. Families are split up by force, and children grow up under the constant fear that government agencies will catch them.
Why has local anger been turned against the African asylum-seekers, and not against the Thais or Chinese workers, for example? Firstly, it is because the latter are generally unseen. They live on the premises of their employer, in backyards and disintegrating caravans. Secondly, they bring enormous profits to the manpower agencies which import them, and to their employers. Thirdly, they have saved the state enormous sums which it would otherwise have had to invest in agricultural subsidies and in developing a nursing infrastructure.
This is not the case with the new asylum-seekers. They arrived independent of any binding agreement with the state, and did not pay $10,000 to manpower agencies with ties to various Knesset members. They are black. In addition, they wander about freely and rent apartments at inflated rates in the destitute, neglected quarters of Israel’s cities. This doesn’t prevent hotels and businesses in the south from employing them under exploitative conditions. However, the fast increase in numbers has gone out of control, and there is no shortage of racists like Baruch Marzel and Michael Ben Ari to spark violence. All this looks very bad to the outside world, and again Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rolls his eyes heavenwards, asking his fellow citizens to show restraint and allow him to manage affairs in his own way.
There are also migrant laborers in Europe. However, whoever stays and settles with a family has a right to citizenship. In some states, the entry of migrant laborers is even coordinated with local trade unions and is limited to fields in which there is a genuine shortage of labor power. These migrants are not bound by any agreements and receive wages in accordance with local labor laws. In most European countries, migrant labor constitutes some 2-3% of the local workforce, while in Israel it constitutes some 10%, and in agriculture and homecare this figure reaches some 50%.
Global capitalism, which moves millions of people from poor countries to rich countries, does not go well with the need to maintain a Jewish majority, which requires a closed, autarchic economy wherein non-Jews are enclosed behind barbed wire and walls. The idea of a Jewish state is also dependent on subsidies for Jewish society and the prevention of socioeconomic gaps within it – directly contrary to the logic of the free market and today’s reality.
In the struggle for a Jewish majority, Israel doesn’t know what it wants. It wants to be rid of the Palestinians, but not to give up the occupation. It wants “foreign workers” but doesn’t want them to hang around here. It wants to be democratic but limits the rights of the Arab minority. Israel is caught in internal contradictions without a strategy to solve them – except burying its head in the sand. As a result, it is slowly losing its Jewish majority and being pushed to racism against a growing number of groups. Day by day, Israel is losing its legitimacy in the international community.
Translated from the Hebrew by Yonatan Preminger