January 15, 2019

News Notes: West Bank Annexation, BDS battle, asylum seekers

1.

In the news: Likud party calls for de-facto annexation of Israeli settlements.

More than three years ago I made the following argument: “It’s not easy to mark the exact moment when a peripheral idea suddenly becomes mainstream. But it’s safe to say that in today’s Israel the worrisome idea of annexing land in the West Bank is no longer marginal or considered as extreme as it once was”. Still, the recent Likud vote in support of annexation does not worry me – at least no more than I was worried three years ago.

Why?

  1. Because it was a political move with no actual consequences.
  2. Because it does not have the support of the more serious leaders of Israel.
  3. Because the word “annexation” means nothing until all other aspects of annexation are clarified.

In other words: saying “annexation” is no more than a simple statement: Israel ought not leave Judea and Samaria. As a statement, it does not startle me. As a plan – it is no plan. Can Israel stay? What will be the price of it? What happens with the Palestinians who live there? Until these question have a clear and reasonable answer, annexation is a childish provocation, not a real threat.

2.

In the news: Organizations that promote a boycott of Israel are no longer welcome there.

There is no reason for BDS activist to come to Israel other than make trouble. There is no reason for Israel not to block the entrance into the country of people whose main motivation is to make trouble. The rest is noise, the rest is political propaganda: “anti-Democratic measure” (it is not, Israeli citizens can still oppose Israeli policies), “the policy of autocracies” (not true – a Democratic has the right to decide not to let certain people in, and most democracies do), “will drive young Jews away from Israel” (tough luck, not everything Israel does is aimed at gaining the approval of young liberal Jews).

The bottom line is simple: you want to harm Israel – don’t expect Israel to accept you with open arms. You want to harm Israel – don’t expect Israel to be sensitive to your hurt feelings.

3.

In the news: Israel offers to pay African migrants to leave, threatens jail.

The debate over how to deal with people who seek asylum in Israel has two main components:

  1. Does Israel have the right to block the entrance, or deport, people it does not want as citizens.
  2. What measures can Israel take to achieve such goal.

That we have trouble having this debate is any sensible way is due to the fact that the two camps having this debate do not believe that the motivation of the other side. There are those believing that the other side – while saying he is for a fair treatment of asylum seekers – truly seeks to rob Israel of its right to keep its entry gate. There are those believing that the other side – while saying he merely wants to keep Israel’s cohesive character – are willing to treat asylum seekers cruelty and inhumanly.

In truth, most Israelis – not activists, politicians, headline grabbers, populists – believe is quite simple: keep Israel cohesive, and don’t open the gates to people disrupting its cohesiveness. But also refrain from being cruel, or racist, or inhuman. To achieve such goal, the main challenge is not one of policy, but rather of mutual trust.

German Jews fear rising antisemitism during Mideast refugee influx

When Judith G. helped out at a refugee centre near Frankfurt last October and identified herself as Jewish, she was spat on and insulted.

German Jews say the case of Judith G., a 33-year-old optician who asked not to be fully named, isn't isolated and underlines concerns many have about the record arrivals of asylum seekers, largely from Muslim countries in the Middle East.

Official figures show German-born far-right supporters commit the vast majority of anti-Semitic crimes in the country, and Muslim leaders say nearly all asylum seekers – who can be targets of hate crime themselves – are trying to escape conflict, not stir it up.

Nevertheless, Jews across Germany are hiding their identity when volunteering at refugee shelters for fear of reprisals, adding another layer of complexity to a social, economic and logistical challenge that is stretching the fabric of German society.

“Among the refugees, there are a great many people who grew up with hostility towards Israel and conflate these prejudices with hatred towards Jews in general,” Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews, told Reuters in an interview conducted in October.

Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed last week that anti-Semitic attitudes among some young people arriving from countries where “hatred towards Israel and Jews is commonplace” needed to be dealt with.

The safety of Jewish communities is particularly sensitive in Germany due to the murder of over 6 million Jews by Hitler's Third Reich, which is marked on Wednesday by the international Holocaust Memorial Day. Today, the German Jewish community numbers around 100,500.

According to a 2013 study by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, 64 percent of German Jews avoid the public display of symbols that would identify them as Jewish. It also found that only 28 percent of them report anti-Semitic incidents.

Such incidents, as recorded by the Interior Ministry, dropped in 2015 but Jews still remember chants by young Muslims proclaiming “Jews to the gas” on German streets in protests against the 2014 Israeli-Palestinian Gaza War.

Concerns rose earlier this year when two suspected asylum seekers from Syria and Afghanistan attacked and robbed a man wearing a skullcap on the northern island of Fehmarn, a crime the local prosecutor treats as anti-Semitic.

“We don't approach the issue of refugees with negative expectations in general,” said Walter Blender, head of the Jewish community in Bad Segeberg, a town on the mainland about 100 km (60 miles) from Fehmarn. “But we are very worried and sceptical, and anecdotal evidence so far showed that we have reason to be scared.”

Preliminary Interior Ministry figures show that far-right supporters were responsible for well over 90 percent of the anti-Semitic crimes recorded last year up to the end of November. People with a foreign background were blamed for little more than four percent, although this category does not reveal their country of origin or immigration status.

Starting from this month, however, the ministry will produce a breakdown that includes a refugee category.

FINGER POINTING

Germany, which took in 1.1 million asylum seekers from mainly Middle Eastern countries last year, saw crimes against refugee shelters quadruple to 924 incidents in 2015 and Muslim advocacy groups warn against finger-pointing.

“The vast majority of people coming here are fleeing war and terror themselves,” said Aiman Mazyek, president of Germany's Central Council of Muslims. “All they want is peace and quiet.”

There is little research on the scale of antisemitism in Arab countries, but a Pew poll from 2011 shows a large majority of people there hold unfavourable opinions of Jews.

Researchers say too little effort is put into teaching Western and German values to asylum seekers, including the country's relationship with Jewish communities.

“There is a lack of a deeper understanding of the culture in many Middle Eastern countries and this results in Western stakeholders being taken by surprise over the fervent anti-Semitism there,” said Wolfgang Bock, an expert in Islamism and Middle Eastern politics.

In Germany, refugees with recognised asylum claims learn about the country's history and values alongside language tuition. But some experts say there is nothing about contemporary political issues, such as relations with Israel.

“Education can't just be about the Holocaust and the Third Reich. Schools also need to talk about the Middle East conflict, antisemitism based on religious argumentation and conspiracy theories,” said Ahmad Mansour, an Arab-Israeli researcher with the European Foundation of Democracy.

But communities across Germany are overwhelmed with processing the hundreds of thousands of asylum applications and are struggling to provide shelter and food to the arrivals.

Some Jewish groups, such as the Berlin-based “Friends of the Fraenkleufer Synagogue”, have taken the cultural exchange issue into their own hands with around 40 volunteers helping out at a local refugee centre.

“We want to send a message to all the Jews who sit at home and build big fences around their synagogues that it's possible and necessary to approach one another, because if we don't try, things can only turn for the worse,” said Nina Peretz, head of the initiative.

When it comes to asylum seekers, Israel has forgotten its roots

These days, with relative ease and without any major obstacles, the Israeli government is pushing a new bill that allows it to detain African asylum seekers for 20 months without proper due process. This bill is only slightly different from the previous amendments to the Anti-Infiltration law, which the Israeli High Court of Justice overturned in September, calling it an “Inherent infringement of the right to human dignity”.  The government is refusing to accept the court's message:  imprisoning innocent people, with the sole aim of deterring other asylum seekers from entering Israel, is a violation of basic rights and liberties.

Israel's detention centre for African asylum seekers opened in December last and is vary aptly called Holot – sands, in Hebrew. Holot is located in a secluded part of the Negev desert, far away from any cities or towns. 2,400 people are currently held there, asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan. Many have never heard back from the authorities after submitting their asylum claims. Those who did, were rejected out of hand.  Those who are out detention, an total of 47,000 people, fair no better. 

You would expect the government of Israel to have heard of the genocide in Darfur. After all, it is raging there for more than 11 years.  You would expect the Israeli government to have the ear and the heart to listen to stories not so dissimilar to the stories that still haunt many Jewish families. But they clearly do not. How else can they explain the fact that not one Darfuri has ever been recognized as a refugee by the state of Israel? 

Instead, the government calls them “infiltrators”. Likkud MK Miri Regev, Chairwoman of the Knesset Internal Affairs committee, has called Sudanese asylum seekers “a cancer in our body”. But they are not infiltrators and they are not cancer. If anything, they are us, seventy years ago.

It seems no one in the Israeli government has ever heard of Eritrea either, a country known globally as “the North Korea of Africa”. In the world, Eritreans get 89% recognition rate of their need for protection. In Israel, only two have been recognized as refugees. For some reason, all the genuine Eritrean refugees went to Europe or North America or are in the refugee camps in Sudan in Ethiopia. Israel seems to get only the ones who “just want to work and get rich”.

Sudanese and Eritreans come from countries where violations of human rights are well documented globally. Yet for years, the Israeli government refuses to acknowledge that they may actually be people genuinely fleeing persecution.  Israel does not forcibly deport them, but it gives no real protection. It does offer them xenophobia, criminalization and detention in generous quantities.

The Israeli government has forgotten the famous biblical dictum: “do not wrong or oppress the stranger, for you a stranger in the land of Egypt.” Its policies and legislation on asylum seekers from African follow a different order of the day, phrased best by former minister of Interior Eli Yishay: “make their lives miserable”. This order roars louder than High Court of Justice's rulings, human rights, and our own history. 

It could have been different. The government could have accepted that the Eritreans and Sudanese are here for now and stop trying to hide them in a detention centre in the desert. It could given them work permits so they can live in dignity and move out of the crowded neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv and by that ease the pressure in those areas. But such steps don’t get the popular vote. And with constant problems security and the economic situation, who cares about a few pesky Africans? There are few left to come to the defense of African asylum seekers in Israel today. It is one test of character and morality that Israel is so far failing miserably. Will things ever change? perhaps only when the State of Israel remembers re-connects to its roots.

Sharon Livne is based in Tel Aviv and works for ASSAF – Aid organizationfor refugees and asylum seekers in Israelhttp://assaf.org.il/en