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Black Israel

Best of 2012 | Black Israel

by Jonathan Tawil / Illustration by Sasan / 28.12.2012

Originally published 04 October 2012

Adam and myself are chilling at a café in Tel Aviv, enjoying our view of scantily clad females walking along the beach promenade on a lovely summer afternoon. Adam is a Sudanese refugee that fled his country for asylum in Israel. He is a student at the IDC, a university in the city of Herzliya. There he studies government on a full scholarship. Adam is a practicing Muslim and lives happily in the Jewish state of Israel. His dream is to liberate his people in his own country someday. Adam tells me the story of how he travelled all the way from Sudan to the Sinai desert territory on foot. He had to use most of his savings to pay off the Bedouin smugglers to transport him to the border of Israel, in the boot of a car.

Once he had arrived to the border, he used the remainder of his cash to bribe a few corrupt Egyptian border patrol officials. They would grant the runaway only a few minutes to make his dash across the border, warning him that as soon as the alarm was raised, the shooting would start.

Like many others, Adam had to run, dodge bullets, and hide to get into Israel. His options of finding asylum in other Muslim countries weren’t even as viable as this.

A friend of mine in the Israeli Army once told me the story of how the border patrol unit he was in, chose to turn blind eye to refugees sneaking across the border into Israel. One day, a higher ranked officer spotted the soldiers’ act of sympathy. He insisted they turn the refugees away. As these Sudanese families made their way back across the border, the Egyptian Army opened fire. Within minutes they were all dead.

But stuff like that never seems to get the media attention it deserves. Anything that happens in this region only appears newsworthy when Israel is the bad guy.

Back home in South African all the foreign affairs interest is concerned with Israel, while just across the way, in Syria, a civil war has already killed more than twenty thousand people. In Iraq, people stopped counting long ago. The slayings in the permanent warzones of Sudan and the Eastern DRC are literally in the millions. But still, we much rather focus on civil rights issues within Israel.

I’m referring here to recent allegations that Israel’s behavior towards African refugee communities in some way mirrors the bad old days of apartheid South Africa. Now, I am South African, born to a Xhosa mother and a Jewish Lebanese father. Back home they call me ‘coloured’. And that definition remains of great significance when it comes to almost all general interactions, to this day in South Africa. “Are you colored?” People always ask. “Are you a thoroughbred or what?” People still feel the need to know these details during light conversation at say a coffee shop or petrol station. 18 years down and it still ‘bladdy’ matters. We must classify each other first to be sure and quick to judge, before we get to really know each other. Or maybe we don’t really need to get to know each other because one knows the other is colored or Indian or black or Afrikaans, so his behavior and personality traits are obvious. People need to make sure I’m not Brazilian first. If I’m Brazilian than I will be seen in a different light. A different kind of human being. Not one of those reckless coloureds from the Cape, who will poke you in the neck with a sharpened bicycle spoke. No, I think we can invite him to lunch.

In Israel, people ask me for my name and the sizing up is generated more from personal appearance and teased out of general conversation. Queries on my race and origins rarely occur during initial encounters. When they do arise, I only feel judged based on who I am or my personality. The weird thing is, despite the complex political situation and the constant state of conflict in the West Bank and occupied territories, Israel is probably one of the rare places on the planet where I do not feel racism at all. Contrary to popular belief, Israel is home to people of all races, cultures and beliefs. All you have to do is take a walk in the city of Jaffa, Florentine, or Neva Tsedek to witness what I mean.

There are about 60,000 African refugees in Israel, the majority are from Eritrea and Sudan. Most are Muslim. Israel has an area of 20 770km squared and a population of about 8 million. It is only 424km from North to South. Jordan, which is predominantly Muslim, has an area of 89 000km squared and a population of 6 million. Sudan’s neighbour, Egypt, has an area of one million km squared. If Israel is so racist, one needs to ask why the refugees cross two large Muslim countries to ask for asylum in the oppressive and racist centre of global Zionism, Israel? Why didn’t they simply cross the Red Sea into Saudi Arabia, one of the richest countries in the world with an area spanning over two million km squared? Why didn’t they settle in Egypt where the traditions, language and religion are at least similar to their own? The reason is quite simple: Only the tiny Jewish state of Israel, has embraced a community of African refugees and allowed them to find sanctuary and work within its borders.

In Sudan, the war and ethnic cleansing of Muslim and non Muslim Africans prevails. Hundreds of thousand of African people are still dying in Darfur, Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile and Kush provinces. A quarter of the world’s Muslims live in Africa. Islam is the largest religion on the continent. Are other African countries really helping to end this conflict and ease this suffering? It’s hard to argue that South Africans and the global community is concerned when the spotlight is always trained on the perceived abuses of Israel and the lucky few, who’ve managed to find asylum there.

In recent months there have been about a dozen cases of rape allegedly perpetrated by members of the immigrant African community. The interior minister made a statement that I consider to be racist. The point is, he’s a prick and most of the Israelis I know don’t think like that. But the world media jumped on the story as yet another example of Israeli intolerance and racism. More supporting evidence for the conflicts in the West Bank and occupied territories. There are racists everywhere in this world, including Israel. Its sad to see a people who suffered a genocide in Nazi Europe reflect the same negative attitudes towards another people. Its fucked, frankly. But then again, the whole world is. The USA aren’t exactly treating Native Americans fairly, or the blacks or Mexicans. I’ve been a victim of American intolerance myself. I’ve been searched countless times in California. Pulled out of the car and shoved into the sidewalk face down. Body searched, car searched and made a fool of in public for no good reason beyond the fact that the colour of my skin makes me a suspect. Quite frankly I think a lot of white people all over the world think of themselves as superior, deep down inside. I’m half white, split down the middle, but black people always accept me as black. And as for the whites, they also accept me as black. But I’m just as white as I am black… maybe even more since I’m fricken white washed by my suburban upbringing and education… I don’t even want to be white, but white people make damn sure I’m black. But I digress.

Sure Israel has racial issues. Today I had an argument in the parking lot at the beach with some mullet that definitely had a racial dimension to it. But it’s not confined to the Jews. My dad took a walk through Jerusalem this winter with his girlfriend who is from Gabon. They went through the Jewish Quarter with no problem but were spat on and verbally abused as they went through both the Arab and Christian Quarters.

The point is that the world is so keen to jump on the ‘Israel is racist’ bandwagon and in the process, we all turn away from our own deficiencies, responsibilities and the starkest of global realities. Why? Because picking on Israel is easy.

*Illustration © Sasan.

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  1. Mai Mai says:

    Nice work Jonathan. I really enjoyed this

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  2. The Dude says:

    More Sasan fire on that image! More please

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  3. Oh come on says:

    “But stuff like that never seems to get the media attention it deserves. Anything that happens in this region only appears newsworthy when Israel is the bad guy. ”

    Umm, no. Major news networks such as Al J and CNN have both covered this topic casting a not-so-charming light on Egypt. Even HRW has wagged their finger at Egypt.



    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q48lX9pnV1Y (al jazeera)


    And there’s a whole lot more too.

    Parts of this article reeks with traces of Zionism. Just because you don’t feel racism whilst in Israel, does not mean it doesn’t exist nor does it erase the gross wrongdoings that the Israeli government has undertaken against thousands of African migrants and asylum seekers by deporting them to countries where their lives are at risk and their futures remain uncertain.

    Why these migrants go to Israel is because of the beneficial economic state of the country and its political stability. You conveniently forgot to mention that these same migrants also migrate to Middle Eastern countries such as Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain.

    Additionally, the war in Darfur is far more complex than Muslim vs. Non-Muslim, or Arab vs Blacks. That’s a gross over-simplification.

    And on the whole, when it comes to refugees and asylum seekers, developing countries host the most number of asylum seekers. Kenya has given asylum to a lot of East African refugees & IDPs.

    Perhaps you just need to expand your sources.

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  4. sabron sumat says:

    While there is truth to what you say. you overlook as many apologists do that Israel is effectively a colonial state. Not a post-colonial state as Brazil or even South Africa is but a colonial one. comparisons to Syria, or north Korea or Iran are spurious. Whatever their failings, these states are not colonial ones.

    Another point (you do not make it) to keep in mind is that Israel is an ethnocracy. Iran is too, more or less, but the differences are two-fold: There has been a Persia for centuries and there persian ethnicity is a fact. Regardless of religion, a persian is a persian, Shlomo Sand has proved that many contemporary jews do not come from levantine stock. More importantly, Israel, unlike any state in the World, is reserved for people that may or may not choose to make aliyah; meanwhile people that have lived on the land for centuries are denied their rights. And you might want to google the words demographic time bomb for an understanding of the way even Mizrahim have been subjected to policies aimed at controlling their birth rates so that they would not come to vastly outnumber Ashkenazim. Your class background plays a significant part in forming your perception of Israel.

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  5. Isaiah Thomas says:

    Allow me to be the first to start the slow clap!

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  6. Excellent says:

    A really great read.
    Thanks, puts a new face on the endless fucking news cycle about Israel.

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  7. KaslaSlice says:

    So, what you’re saying with this is that racist and intolerant government policies should be tolerated because, hey, everyone’s a bit racist anyway, and those guys over there are way worse than us over here.

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  8. Roger Wilco says:

    Whats the story really?… black, white, jew, muslim, christian, who gives a hoot anyway. Live and Let Live….let the light shine through..Peace out!

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  9. Dylan says:

    @KaslaSlice: The author is not stating in any way that racism should be tolerated. What is being highlighted is that Israel is bombarded with constant criticism while other countries, such as Syria, get away with murder, quite literally. The point is not that Israel should not be criticized for its wrong doings – it should. But constantly focusing criticism on Israel causes two problems: Firstly, the real picture is replaced by the imagery and impressions that all this criticism lead to. Israel is thought of as a colonial racist state, yet Adam in this article, a Muslim Sudanese refugee, would rather reside here than in neighbouring Egypt or Jordan. Secondly, focusing on Israel causes us to forget the issues in other states. Burma, The Congo, Somalia, Nigeria, Iran, and now Syria are all places where human rights are abused and there is violent conflict involving murder and rape. Israel receives much more attention than these states. The point is that people must not jump on the media bandwagon and lose sight of the real picture. That’s all.

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  10. Anonymous says:

    Nice one Sasan!

    How about sending this to the main stream newspapers ? – It would be interesting to see if they would publish it.

    Most of our perceptions are shaped by the media. Israel is no exception and as far as the middle east is concerned, the media love the underdogs in a spat (read Palestinians). A bit of a David & Goliath story – Its what sells.
    Unfortunately Israel and its citizens are not nearly as good at PR as the Arab/Muslim world and its one war they loose hands down.

    Most of the world believes that Israel was created after WWII as a result of the holocaust. In fact Jews have been tied to the land for more than 5000 years and over this time have been under the rule of all the great nations in history incl. the Romans and Persians.
    The “no right to the land” stories are all part of the Arab world’s delegitimization of Israel and its a PR war they are winning. If enough people believe it to be true, it becomes true!

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  11. Oh come on says:

    Ha! Thanks for not publishing my comment.

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  12. Anonymous says:

    Great piece Jonathan. Loved it. <3

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  13. Ruth Guillaume says:

    Great piece Jonathan. Loved it…. 😀

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  14. Siya says:

    Wheres Beta Israel? If you’re going to talk about racism in Israel you have to mention the plight of the Ethiopian Jews. This whole article is defensive, it feels likes he’s trying to shift focus onto other nations. Syria doesn’t get an easy ride. the West is looking for any excuse to blitzkrieg the fuck outta them. watch CNN or BBC to see that. Just because 1 man decides he prefers Israel to any other neighbour state is not indictive of anything larger. There are about 2 million Sudanese refugees in Egypt. And the shit about the interior minister’s statement…his answer to that is that the guy’s a prick? A governemental minister offical statement and that’s his answer. Haibo

    Kaslaslice is right all he’s saying is they’re bad but everywhere is bad so lets leave Israel alone

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  15. Anonymous says:

    Siya, I would hate it if foreigners took the opinions of the ANC to also be my thoughts and ideas. I therefore think one must be careful in believeing that government opinion is automatically the opinion on the people. I understand that the people vote for the government and so the governments opinion SHOULD be the same as the opinion of the people. But the fact of the matter is that most people in South Africa do not agree wholeheartedly with the opinions of the government. I have heard some comments some South African ministers say (“Garlic and potatoes will cure aids”) and I cringe. I am sure many Americans heard comments that Bush said and cringed.
    The article is defensive. He is trying to illustrate that Israel should not be under constant attack in the media as this distorts reality. So, yes, the article is defensive. Well done for noticing 🙂

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  16. Anonymous says:

    the people and the state always differ because every state is made up of lying cocksuckers seeking power. what the israeli state does in the gaza strip or the west bank does not necessarily correlate to how people deal with foreigners. the israeli people are highly educated people and they get it. now, whether israel is a legit state is an entirely different question. in my opinion, they should have given the jews wisconsin and the world would have been a better place. but no, the promised land of sand and boulders is far more important for a bunch of crazies looking into past instead of the future.

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  17. Siya says:

    A government is empowered by the people, Israel’s policies are the people’s policies. Anon homes, I support the ANC(shock!, the white middle class scandalized) as do the millions of people who vote for them. People vote for their governments because they believe in them and their policies.Same with Apartheid South Africa. It’s a reflection of the people’s current values. Yes I did it, Israel and Apartheid…

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  18. Yoh says:

    A black man supporting Israel…Shat! Uncle Tom anyone…

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  19. Anonymous says:

    Siya – that’s bullshit. Wake up.

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  20. Haibo! says:

    @Yoh. Don’t you think thats a bit of a racist remark there? “A black man supporting Israel”. Is it according to colour on whom one supports? Plus, no one is really “supporting” anyone in the article. It is an unbiased reality being shared by the writer.
    Oh and FYI, there are plenty Ethiopian “blacks” that live in Israel and attend the Israeli army with full support. Eish.

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  21. Clinton says:

    Whatever your views…this is a kif article. Granted – This chap does gain street cred due to his own background. The ME situation (vis a vis Israel and its friends and foes) is fucked up and as much as we would like to think its black and white apartheid as in SA this article highlights that it is really 50 shades of grey.

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  22. Sam says:

    If you’re a refugee or migrant in a foreign country and you have some complaints, no one is keeping you there, go where you feel you’ll be happier. Different races and cultures aren’t meant to mix together in harmony just because politicians preach that they should. It’s an absurd notion and they politicians in questions simply want your vote. Go where you’re wanted and if your not wanted anywhere, you probably need to improve yourself until you are.

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  23. Anonymous says:

    sam you are an idiot. i am surprised you know how to read.

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  24. this has got to be a joke says:

    This article is biased. It gives not thorough description to the prison camps being built in the deserts for african immigrants. No description of the protests against, and bashings and vandalism of african immigrants and their homes/businesses. Muslim africans don’t stay in the UAE because immigrants (sometimes even the legal ones) are deported, jailed and sometimes even killed. Way to go, compare yourself with the highest standard!
    Rather than defending the rascist actions of one nation, encourage the defence of abused people all over the world.

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