Spreading Racism and Xenophobia

The national intimidation campaign against foreigners must be stopped from the top down.

The disease is malignant and metastatic, spreading with alarming speed. From Safed to Eilat, through Tiberias and Bnei Brak, one city after another is declaring: I am racist.

Renting apartments to Arab students is forbidden in Safed and Tiberias, migrant workers are being thrown out of their apartments in Bnei Brak, where their electricity and water is cut off as well. In Eilat, "black market labor" isn't wanted. This is no longer just the bad old hatred of Arabs, in the name of fear and security; it's now become distilled, violent xenophobia as well.

A stormy silence hovers all around. There is no government in Israel, no one to explain who those Arab students are and what rights they are entitled to, or who those Africans are, who we're so eager to hunt down and drive the hell out.

In the state comprised of refugees and survivors, humanity has come to an end. The public discourse on the fate of the aliens focuses only on evil solutions, each one more monstrous than the next. One says let's build a fence, the other says let's construct a massive prison compound, a third says deport them immediately - or at least eventually.

Listen to the leaders, not one of them has a single word of compassion for these people. Nothing. The fact that they are human beings, and ones in distress, has been forgotten. It is not even a consideration.

Two seminal events should be recalled at this point. September 1957. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower sends the 101st Airborne Division to Arkansas to protect the nine black students of Little Rock Central High School, after the state governor, refusing to honor a federal court order, prevented them from entering the school. The rest is history - a history of increased equal rights for black people in America.

The second event took place here, in June 1977. The Israeli ship Yuvali rescues Vietnamese war refugees lost at sea. Prime Minister Menachem Begin, a terrifying rightist at the time, makes his first decision as leader - to bring the refugees to Israel and naturalize them. In their wake, two more groups of refugees are brought here. Begin remembered then what has been forgotten today - that we are Holocaust refugees. And the rest is history - one of racism and growing xenophobia across Israel.

We have no Eisenhower to send the 101st division to defend the downtrodden, democracy and the rule of law. Nor do we have another Begin to remind us whence we came and on what grounds Israel was established. Instead we are left with Benjamin Netanyahu. Begin rescued refugees from the high seas, Bibi is building them a fence and a prison camp.

The manifestations of racism and nationalism in Israel's cities and reflected in the Israel Democracy Institute's recent survey, as reported in Haaretz yesterday, can still be excused and explained somehow. There is xenophobia in Europe today as well. But the leadership's silence, its collaboration in these developments and its proposals to solve the "problem," cannot be forgiven or overlooked.

Where is the education minister when we need him? Where are the teachers, to tell the students and their parents who these people we want to imprison and deport are? To explain why they fled here, what they went through on the way, the fate that awaits them after they're deported, and what it is that leads a desperate youngster to walk 40 days or 40 weeks across the desert.

The bottom has dropped out completely. This state was established as a shelter for Jewish refugees. Some of the Africans knocking on our door are refugees as well. They may not be Jewish, but their religion or the color of their skin does not change the fact that they are persecuted. More than Europe, more than America, Israel should be leading the way in taking them in.

The hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish immigrants from Russia that we absorbed have not spread diseases, corrupted our daughters or damaged the character of the state. Why? Because they are white, like us. They did not taint the purity of the nation or the state. Nor did they have any effect on the sinister beliefs spreading from Safed to Eilat - that our stock is superior and woe betide anyone who tries to integrate into it. Well the truth is, we are not superior, and we have room for the other - even if he's Arabic or black.

The national intimidation campaign against foreigners must be stopped from the top down. The incited people of Safed and the nationalists of Eilat must hear another message as well, a humane one. But there is no one to convey it. Every decent Israeli must ask himself if this is the kind of state he wants to live in. A state can have an immigration policy, but it must not become racist or persecute aliens, especially when that state is called the State of Israel.