Friday, May 25, 2012

Israelis must shun racism, not African migrants

I live in south Tel Aviv. I live in Little Africa. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else in this city. It is an oasis of multi-ethnicity in an otherwise insular and homogenous society, where one is just as likely to hear Tigrinya as Hebrew, where African lilts accent English rather than American or British twangs.

In my part of Tel Aviv, some of the veteran residents, themselves long-ostracized by the so-called Israeli elite, have begun to take the law into their own hands to rid the country of African "infiltrators."

What began this year as a series of ugly protests that would have made any proponent of human tolerance cringe in discomfort if not outright disgust, has grown increasingly violent over the last few months, culminating this week in a full-blown lynch reminiscent of the early days of Nazism and the Civil Rights movements, complete with burning cars and looted stores. It was a pogrom in every sense of the word that we as Jews would understand.

The racism that has engulfed Israeli society cannot be ignored, lest we wish to destroy ourselves. History has taught us what becomes of society that dismisses such actions as the work of a marginal handful; what becomes of a society that refuses to recognize hate by its name.

Nobody was killed in the May 23 riots in south Tel Aviv. No innocent African refugee or migrant has yet been killed in Tel Aviv by an Israeli civilian, but how are we to prevent that nightmare from becoming a reality?

The fabric of Israeli society is woven of vast and diverse ethnic groups, descendants of all corners of the world. The language of Israeli society is accented by dozens of dialects, accents, historical memory. Israeli society is by nature the ingathering of the exiles, a microcosm of multiculturalism within a single people.

But to Israeli society, a wider sense of multiculturalism - outside of Jewish culture - is a foreign concept. Non-Jews in Israel have suffered from discrimination since the founding of the country. And while it may seem obvious by now that Jews comes in all shapes and colors, in practice, many citizens of the Jewish state have yet to accept that.

When the first Jews from Arab nations began trickling into Israel, they were momentarily embraced as long-lost Jewish brothers, and then promptly disregarded as primitive low-class refugees. When the first Ethiopians began arriving in Israel, they were momentarily embraced as long-lost Jewish brothers, and then promptly shunted into the fringes of society, the new target of racism. When the Soviet "refuseniks" were trapped behind the Iron Curtain, they were momentarily embraced as long-lost Jewish brothers, but once they arrived found themselves fighting to belong.

I am not afraid to live alone in my neighborhood. When I came to Tel Aviv seven years ago, well before the migrants and refugees began moving en masse in to this neighborhood, I was afraid to walk these streets. It was a street filled with drunks and addicts, with dodgy characters, where just because of my size and gender, I was an immediate and natural target.

Seven years later, the real-estate inflation in the north of the city has given legitimacy to the street where I now live. Now there are cafes, art galleries, sushi bars and a music school, alongside Eritrean restaurants and stores. Now my street it is livable. Now there are young people, families – and yes, many of them are black. My street feels safe. It is home. I am not afraid to walk alone down the street at night.

I am afraid, however, to live alone in a hateful society. I am afraid to live alone in a country where my government supports discrimination and racism. I am afraid to live in a state founded precisely as a refuge for the survivors of extermination, which now condones the "distancing" of anyone who is not the same: anyone who is not Jewish; anyone whose skin is darker; anyone who has no other home, no other refuge, no other place to have an income and a comfortable life.

I am as afraid to live in the Israel of 2012 as any right-minded German should have been in 1938, or as any right-minded American should have been in the 1960s.

I am afraid that the hate of a marginal handful, encouraged by lawmakers and policy, will be accepted as the norm in this society so fearful of the other.

I am afraid what will happen if more people do not speak out against this racism.

I am afraid that it may be too late.

Originally published in Haaretz

No comments: