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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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