Terra Incognita: How racism crept into my neighborhood
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
African migrants are viewed through the prism of “victims”; their own racism is not usually acknowledged.
Last Shabbat I was walking home with my wife to our apartment in the eclectic
neighborhood of Nahlaot in Jerusalem. Just before we turned the corner to the
alley that leads to our house an African man passed us. As he did he said
“hello” to my wife in Amharic, an Ethiopian language.
He didn’t say hello
as if he knew me or my wife. He just kept walking. His comment might seem like
an odd aberration, after all why would an African man think that a Jewish couple
would speak his language, and why would he simply blurt out some words in
passing. An aberration, except for the fact that my wife is an Ethiopian Jew and
this type of “greeting” has been given to us before from African
As more and more Africans have moved to Jerusalem after finding
their way to Israel, some of them have settled in Nahlaot’s Nissim Bachar
Street. A percentage of these foreign migrants are Ethiopian Christians and
Muslims. Why is it that when some of these men see a mixed couple they decide
that it is their prerogative to say “hello”? They don’t say hello to white women
on the streets in their language. They don’t greet white women walking with
They don’t greet African women who are walking with their
They reserve their “greeting” for what they perceive as
an unacceptable relationship; an Ethiopian woman with a non-Ethiopian man. For
whatever reason, they view “their” women as belonging to them in the same
context that racists in the US South used to talk about “race traitors” and
“miscegenation.” One has to imagine the arrogance it takes for a man to greet a
woman on the street not actually because he wants to speak to her, but rather
because he wants to comment on her relationship status. If the woman was alone
we might call it sexual harassment. If a haredi (ultra- Orthodox) Jew did it to
a secular woman there would be a protest about the “exclusion of
The racism of the migrants is not usually
The African migrants are viewed through the prism of
“victims.” They are called “refugees,” even if in fact they are not seeking
refuge from anything.
Israeli society’s progressive elites like to view
Israel through the prism of the powerful state and obsess over the status of
minorities. That thousands of foreigners began illegally pouring across the
Egyptian border several years ago merely served as a godsend to these
NOW THERE are myriad rights groups devoted to helping the
“refugees” and a whole industry has popped up in Tel Aviv, providing numerous
NGO jobs to those who aid them. Their well-oiled propaganda machine, awash with
money from abroad, has a slavish, knee-jerk devotion to the migrants who they
think can do no wrong.
The racist actions and harassment of neighborhood
residents by the African migrants in Nahlaot is related to the “human rights”
industry that is devoted to helping them achieve their goal: being allowed to
stay indefinitely in Israel. The initial action that brings the migrants to
Israel is an act of illegality and disrespect for the laws and norms of the
The first step they take in the country is one that says “I
don’t have to respect the laws of this country, I have a claim to it and I’ll
cross its borders without obtaining the proper documents.” This is under the
guise of being “refugees,” which might make sense if in fact these migrants
originated in Sinai and were fleeing chaos or persecution there. Except they
aren’t from Sinai, they go to Sinai, with the intention of getting to
It is true they are brutally treated in Sinai, rounded up and
murdered, raped and tortured by the Sinai Beduin, but they don’t go back to
their countries, they stay in Sinai in order to get into the Jewish state. They
aren’t “refugees” when they cross illegally into Egypt, instead they suddenly
seek asylum status only in Israel.
The African migrants seem like
victims. They are poor and face discrimination and harassment in Israel. But too
many of them exhibit no interest in conforming to the norms of the state they
have moved to. If they had even a slight modicum of respect for the culture of
the people here it would never happen that my wife and I would be harassed for
merely walking down the street in our own neighborhood, let alone in south Tel
Aviv or other areas of the country where there are numerous migrants.
isn’t like Israeli society is so perfect and postracialist.
stare sometimes when they see a multi-racial couple. That is unfortunate. But
when staring turns to rude comments there is a wider problem.
those crude comments come almost exclusively from these migrants. That is
because they think they can impose their values, their racist chauvinistic
values, on a place that they supposedly are seeking shelter in. At the very time
Ethiopian Jews are protesting against racism in Israeli society, a parallel
campaign is being waged to give a new group of racists “asylum.”
the anti-racism protestors who travel in their cars from north Tel Aviv to the
area of the Central Bus Station to protest racism against the migrants see this
negative side. Their message is simple: the “refugees” can move en masse into a
neighbourhood, they can sleep in its parks, they can harass the local people,
and laws should never apply to them.
That mentality has engendered an
aggressive trend among the migrants, who know that no matter how they behave, no
one will stand up to them. The mentality of harassment of local people, invasion
of public parks, access to free health care and other scams, would never be
accepted from other groups. Were it haredim squatting in a public park and
harassing women there would be an outcry.
In Nahlaot the migrants have
worn out their welcome.
They wore it out the night they decided to insult
my wife and I on Shabbat. All politics is local, and to be sure I didn’t have
any visceral objection to the migrants before this latest incident. If it had
been the first time, one could chalk it up to an isolated instance of idiocy.
But it wasn’t isolated.
Every time my wife encounters these people they
stare, and their staring has degenerated to acts of harassment. It is time for
the country to ignore the whining of the fake human rights organizations and
demand that migrants respect Israeli culture and values, such that a woman can
walk down the street without being harassed. After all, Israeli society knew how
to confront this harassment when it came from the haredi sector.