Claims of a frontier battle

Far-right Europeans and Israelis: this toxic alliance spells trouble

By , Wednesday 6 June 2012 12.15 EDT

Last month, demonstrations against African refugees in Tel Aviv turned violent. Protesters looted shops, broke windows and firebombed buildings, including a nursery. Days ago, arsonists torched the home of 10 African migrants in Jerusalem, injuring four, and leaving the unequivocal graffiti: “Get out of the neighbourhood.”

On Monday, Israeli TV reported that Haifa’s council had warned local businesses that they risked losing their licences if they employed African refugees, and that shopkeepers in the southern town of Sderot were refusing to serve migrants. Israeli statistics show some 60,000 African migrants have entered the country in the past seven years through the Egyptian Sinai desert – many of them asylum seekers fleeing repression or war in Sudan, South Sudan and Eritrea. Israel, much like Europe, seems consumed with worry about being “swamped” by developing-world refugees – although, perhaps in part because of its location, the fears in Israel sound more visceral. So far, Israel’s approach has been to build a steel fence on the Egyptian border and a giant detention centre in the south, and to pass a law that allows the detention of migrants for up to three years. Since its creation, fewer than 150 people have been recognised as refugees in Israel.

The crude response from politicians has been as disturbing as the scenes on the streets. Last week, the interior minister, Eli Yishai, said: “Most of those people arriving here are Muslims who think the country doesn’t belong to us, the white man.” He has also described the refugees as rapists and criminals. Weeks ago, Miri Regev, a Likud member of the Knesset, referred to Sudanese people in Israel as a cancer. Former TV presenter and emerging politician Yair Lapid last month lambasted some Knesset members as “inciters” leading a pogrom, and wrote: “I wonder how they have the nerve to call themselves Jews.”

The sight of Jewish Israelis – sons and daughters of refugees – echoing, pretty much window-smashing act by act and racist line by line, scenes from historic anti-Jewish pogroms in Europe, isn’t an easy one. Nor is the uncomfortable reality that hatred of refugees is so easily stoked in Israel. Having for years practised a policy of separation between Jews and subjugated Palestinians both in the occupied territories and within Israel, the country has incubated a form of casual racism and puritanical appraisal of the “other”, in which anti-migrant sentiments can flourish. Last month, the Israeli historian and commentator Tom Segev told AP: “What disturbs me most is the racist atmosphere. For several years now, Israel society has been moving in that direction.” At one protest against migrants last year, an Israeli demonstrator explained her hostility: “They aren’t Jews. Why should they be here with us?” The language itself is a giveaway: protesters, politicians and reporters alike have labelled African refugees as infiltrators – the same fear-inducing, security-conscious term used to describe Palestinians. No wonder, then, that the Prevention of Infiltration Law, introduced during the 1950s to stop Palestinian refugees returning, has just been amended to apply to Africans.

Meanwhile, gut-level anxiety over demographics are everywhere – rabbis and ministers are warning that migrants, just like Palestinians, will use a sort of birth-rate-bombing tactic in Israel, outnumbering the Jewish population and thereby sinking the nation.

The rhetoric may be ramped up, but far-right Israeli ministers are basically repeating the anti-immigration, anti-Muslim sentiments of rising far-right parties in Europe. That isn’t a coincidence because, perversely, the two have recently found common cause. In the past few years, Israeli ministers have played host to far-right European leaders and made clear the shared values on the supposed menace of Islam and (especially Muslim) migrants. Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Freedom Party, is one of several far-right figures to have visited Israel and met hard-right ministers there. During one trip, Wilders met the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and spoke of Israel as a front line in the fight to counter Islam. “If Jerusalem falls,” he warned, “Amsterdam and New York will be next.”

This affiliation is great news for Europe’s far-right parties, who seek to sanitise their image, and whose history of antisemitism has been a block to gaining mainstream acceptability. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a research group, has warned that far-right parties in Europe are on the rise in part because they’ve opportunistically buried antisemitism in favour of an apparently more palatable stance against Islam and Muslim migrants. How lucky for them that Jewish Israeli politicians are helping them with that.

No doubt it’s comforting for Israel’s far right to find allies that lip-synch claims of a frontier battle. But when the people who perfectly understand you are also the ones with a history of violently hating you, it’s time to worry about what exactly is in this relationship. Israel’s current attacks on African refugees are bad enough, but if this outbreak even partly signals a dovetailing agenda between European fascists and far-right Israeli nationalists, that’s a toxic arrangement – and trouble for migrants, Muslims and Jews everywhere. or

Photograph by Cara Spencer – Skinheads meet Hippies (London 1969). or

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