Israel is currently witnessing an unprecedented surge of racist sentiments.

On Wednesday 23 May, immigrants were attacked in Tel-Aviv. Responding to calls from Likud party leaders, hundreds of protesters partook in violence against African asylum seekers. A dozen migrants were injured as they walked in the streets. Houses were ransacked and shops pillaged. [1]

On Monday 4 June, a flat housing ten African workers was set alight, injuring four people. A message to “clear off” had been scrawled on the walls in Hebrew.

The violence has been focused on the black community. According to official figures, there are 60,000 asylum seekers in the country.

On Sunday, the Israeli paper Maariv published an interview with the Israeli Home Secretary Eli Yishai in which he stated that “Muslims that arrive here do not even believe that this country belongs to us, to the white man (…) I will use all the tools to expel the foreigners, until not one infiltrator remains, and will make no exceptions to this.” [2]

Describing illegal immigration as “a cancer for the nation [3] the government began work on a huge wall stretching 240km along the border with Egypt.

On a visit to the site, the MP Aryeh Eldad stated that “Anyone that penetrates Israel’s border should be shot, a Swedish tourist, a Sudanese from Eritrea, Eritreans from Sudan, Asians from Sinai. Whoever touches Israel’s border – shot.” [4]

Admitting that it was not feasible to shoot anyone climbing the fence “because of the risk of legal repercussions”, the Minister commented that the best method of dissuasion would be long-term imprisonment.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just ordered ministers to “accelerate efforts to deport South Sudanese, Ivorian, Ghanaian and Ethiopian citizens”.

A new law has come into force authorizing the detention of illegal immigrants for up to three years without any legal proceedings. The law also states that anyone found to be aiding or sheltering an illegal immigrant will be liable for a five to 15 year prison sentence. Furthermore, it is now possible to sentence migrant workers to imprisonment for crimes such as graffiti or bicycle theft. Meanwhile the Saharonim detention centre is reaching saturation point and there are plans to increase its capacity from 2,000 to 5,400.

In addition to this, the authorities are in the final stages of completing a detention centre in the Negev desert for migrants and asylum seekers. With a capacity of 11,000 it will be the largest in the world. [5]

Israeli society is today facing a stark re-evaluation of the limits of a system whose legitimacy is based upon religious and ethnic criteria.

On Monday 28 May, the State general prosecutor dropped legal proceedings against the Rabbis DovLior and Yaakov Yossef, who publicly supported a racist theological text Torath Hamelek (the King’s Torah). [6] The book deals with the conditions under which non-Jews can be killed without breaking any religious laws. It was published in 2009 and co-written by Elitzur-Hershkowitz and Rabbi Itzhak Shapira. [7]

According to this text, the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” applies “only to Jews who kill other Jews”, and “it is legal to kill babies, even during peacetime”, if one believes them to represent a threat in the future. Shapira states that he is merely drawing on the Torah, and that the State does not have the capacity to rule on sacred texts.

These are not isolated or marginalized examples. Rabbi Yaacov Yossef is the son of Ovadia Yossef, the leader of the Shas party and religious mentor to Benjamin Netanayahu. Israeli society is witnessing a violent upsurge of obscurantist xenophobia. This shift has been vehemently criticized by several senior ex-officials of the security and military forces, who see the current leaders as ‘messianists’ who are leading the country on an increasingly racist trajectory. [8]

Katy Stone

[1"African asylum seekers injured in Tel Aviv race riots," by Conal Urquhart and agencies, The Guardian, 24 May 2012.

[3"Israel prepares mass deportation of South Sudanese refugees," by Tomer Zarchin, Haaretz, 24 May 2012.

[4"MK: Shoot everyone trying to cross Israel border," by Gili Cohen, Haaretz, 3 June 2012.

[5"Huge detention centre to be Israel’s latest weapon in migration battle," by Phoebe Greenwood, The Guardian, 17 April 2012.

[6Contrary to claims made by an article in Le Monde, the offending rabbis are not the authors of the work “La justice israélienne renonce à poursuivre les auteurs d’un ouvrage jugé raciste,” Le Monde, 28 May 2012. Readers will note that the article in Le Monde is a re-working of an article from the ‘Agence France Presse’. The paper and the Agency did not pass comment on the ‘racist’ nature of the publication which for them remains a subjective term.

[7"The Murder Midrash," by Kamoun Ben-Shimon, The Jerusalem Post, 19 October 2010.

[8"Israeli generals revolt against Israeli obscurantism," Voltaire Network, 9 May 2012.