Al Jazeera English, April 13, 2011
James Anei was a 16-year-old boy when he witnessed a massacre, carried out by militias loyal to the government in Khartoum. Terrified, he fled his village in South Sudan.
“You see someone dying in front of you and you know this guy and you know his parents and so you run… because you fear that you will be killed, too,” Anei says.
“I find myself in another place,” he adds, explaining that he was so frightened that he didn’t know he’d been running until he stopped.
Once he realized he’d escaped, Anei headed north. That year, 1999, he arrived in Khartoum. There, he managed to scrape together a living and go to school. Not knowing whether or not his parents survived the massacre, Anei remembers crying sometimes when he saw his classmates with their mothers and fathers.
Eventually, Anei went on to Egypt. But, because he didn’t feel safe there, he crossed into Israel in 2007.
With a smile, Anei recalls the difference he felt between Egypt and Israel the moment he entered the country. “We received water and blankets,” he says. “They made us feel at home.”
But Anei was one of the earliest to arrive in Israel. And things have changed dramatically since then.
The shift is the most obvious, perhaps, in Eilat, the small city in the south where Anei and several thousand African asylum seekers live. Here, refugees find their children barred from municipal schools.
And, in a move that has alarmed both human rights organizations and the local branch of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR), the municipality has hung red flags throughout the city as part of a municipal campaign against African migrants—initiated by employees of the state of Israel and financed with public funds.
I visit Eilat in the wake of several media reports that the 1500 red flags had been taken down. Instead, I find that they were not removed but reduced. Some were replaced by Israeli and municipal flags.
And the sentiments that gave rise to the campaign are still running high.
Shimon Hajiani, the 19-year-old son of Jewish immigrants who came to Israel from Morocco and France, remarks that the state needs to “throw” African refugees out.
“They make problems,” he says.
When asked what those problems are, Hajiani answers, “Rape and robbery. Also they work in the hotels instead of Israelis.”
Eilat’s economy is dependent on tourism. While many African asylum seekers are employed in local hotels, the commonly held idea that they have “stolen” jobs is untrue. These are jobs that Israelis don’t want—which is one reason why government initiatives encouraging Israelis to move to Eilat and work in this sector have failed.
Other interviewees repeated Hajiani’s claim that African refugees are robbing Israelis and raping Jewish woman. But, according to statistics compiled by the Knesset, asylum seekers have a lower crime rate than Israelis. And, in fact, as the community of asylum seekers grows, their crime rate goes down.
I conduct dozens of interviews with Israelis who live in Eilat and not a single one has their facts straight—each and every Israeli I speak with is a victim of misinformation.
Ester Ederi, a 72-year old immigrant from Morocco, tells me it would be fine if Israel took in “100,000” asylum seekers and then closed the doors.
In reality, Israel is home to some 30,000 asylum seekers.
A 29-year-old man, who preferred to remain anonymous, tells me that asylum seekers should be sent back to Africa because “the Filipinos” took his mother’s job as a caregiver. He doesn’t know that a tremendous majority of Filipinos arrive legally, holding visas issued by Israel.
He adds that if the Africans were here “within a legal framework,” he would have no problem with them.
“But there is a legal framework. There’s an application that would give African migrants refugee status,” I say. “The government just ignores these applications.”
He is visibly uncomfortable. “Really?” he asks.
“Yes. Did you know that?”
Like other interviewees, he calls them “infiltrators.” This is a word he’s picked up from the Israeli government and media, not knowing that when Israel speaks to the UN about the issue, it admits that 90 percent of these “infiltrators” are, indeed, refugees.
Every interviewee parrots the government lines, including those of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who calls “the flood” of African migrants a “threat” to the state. Some repeat the words of Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who claims that foreigners bring diseases to the country.
The mayor of Eilat, Meir Yitzhak Halevi, stated at a recent press conference that the “crime rate has risen sharply”—a blatant lie, an obvious incitement.
Anei is now a man of 28. We sit on a half-broken picnic table outside of a small classroom where Sudanese children study English with a European volunteer. In a few minutes, the class Anei teaches—also on a volunteer basis—will begin.
The municipality’s treatment of the children, most of who are barred from local schools, is a rare soft spot amongst some Eilat residents.
Itzik Moshe, 43, owner of a falafel stand and the son of Moroccan immigrants, remarks that Israel needs to respect the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
“We signed this international agreement and we have to honor it,” Moshe says, adding that if the government doesn’t want to be responsible for the asylum seekers, it should tighten up the porous southern border.
Some Jewish critics of Israel’s treatment of African asylum say that our history as refugees—Biblical and historical, ancient and modern—means that the Jewish people have a special responsibility to help those who face discrimination and genocide.
But many Eilatis say we shouldn’t help others. And some, like Simon Ben David—who is organizing a small grassroots organization called “The War against the Infiltrators from Africa”—simply deny that these African asylum seekers are indeed refugees.
Ben David adds, “I believe, as I see in the newspaper, that some of them are from al Qaeda and they’re from Hamas and Islamic Jihad,” referring to several unsubstantiated reports that have appeared in the Israeli press.
When asked if he considers the city’s campaign against Africans to be racist, Ben David simply answers, “Jews cannot be racist.”
While African refugees and their children have been targeted in isolated incidents of violence throughout the country, Eilat remains relatively quiet.
But, as I stand on a sidewalk interviewing Deng Wol, a 37-year-old refugee from South Sudan, a Jewish Israeli pushes past us. And he hits Wol’s leg with a bag of groceries so hard that my recorder catches the slapping sound.
Wol looks shocked. He calls after the man.
“Aiii!” Wol says, grabbing his calf.
The man turns around. He doesn’t apologize. Rather, he says that there wasn’t space on the sidewalk for all of us.
Wol accepts the explanation, even though it’s not true. “Okay, fine,” he says, waving at the man.
Wol gives a nervous laugh and turns to me. “This is not my country,” he says, shrugging.
Many Israelis consider Eilat—a faraway town at the Southernmost tip of the country—an isolated issue. But it seems that the xenophobic sentiments that have taken root there, with both the local and national government’s encouragement, are spreading.
I have seen several red flags hanging from balconies in South Tel Aviv, an area home to low-income Jewish Israelis, African refugees, and migrant workers. Jewish Israelis here have held protests against the presence of foreigners.
The most recent march came in early April, just weeks before the Jewish holiday that celebrates the ancient Hebrews’ exodus from slavery and persecution in Egypt. Protesters, who screamed at Africans that they should “Go home,” held signs that read: “Return [deport] the 200,000 infiltrators and illegals now.”
Guess what color those placards were.
Photo: Mya Guarnieri. Sudanese children, barred from Israeli schools, study English with an European volunteer at a