New Submissions Research Paper

Us vs. Them: A Cultural Analysis of Israel’s Response to its African Refugee Crisis

By Zachary Libow

Submitted on 11/29/2017


Between 2006 and 2013, approximately 64,000 Africans crossed illegally into Israel.[1] These asylum seekers primarily came from Eastern African countries, with 73% coming from Eritrea and 19% from Sudan; A small number of asylum seekers also come from Congo, Cote D’Ivoire, and other West African nations.[2] The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees count Eritreans and Sudanese to be the fourth and tenth largest groups of refugees in the world, respectively.[3] Today, less than 40,000 African asylum seekers remain in Israel, living on the margins of society.[4] Despite the United Nations recognizing these people as refugees, Israel refuses to do so. In fact, “Israel has recognized fewer than 1% asylum claims and, since 2009, less than 0.15% — the lowest rate in the Western world.”[5]

Instead, Israel’s stated policy seeks to prevent more asylum-seekers from crossing illegally into Israel and encourage those who remain to leave. In 2012 Israel erected 10-meter high fencing, made with steel, concrete and “a network of razor wires,”across their entire southern border. [6] Ostensibly designed to keep out all security threats like terrorists, drugs and weapons, it primarily guards against incoming refugees.[7] It is virtually impenetrable and highly effective.

In 2012 the Ministry of Justice enacted a policy stating “that any asylum seeker suspected of criminal involvement” or violating the public order could be jailed indefinitely.[8] After wrangling between the Knesset and the Supreme Court, the Knesset enacted the Anti-Infiltration Law in 2013 which stipulates that asylum-seekers are to be “invited” to the Holot Detention Center located in a remote location in the Negev. Persons who do not report to the detention center are imprisoned and then transferred to Holot.[9] While not formally a prison, since those detained are allowed to leave and can only be interred for up to a year at a time, Holot detention center requires its residents to check in three times a day; failure to do so can result in a formal prison sentence.[10]

In effect, residents are interred indefinitely and can only be released should they decide to leave the country. Should they choose to do so, they are given “$3500 in cash and a plane ticket back to their country of origin or an unnamed third country in Africa,” revealed to be Rwanda and Uganda.[11] Those who are released from Holot are banned from Tel Aviv and Eilat,[12] and a third of their paychecks are placed in a deposit that cannot be accessed until they choose to leave the country.[13] Those who do take the money and deport the country find themselves in highly dangerous situations. Upon arrival back in Africa, many have reported that they arrive with no documents and discover they are being smuggled into the country, and forced to pay them off with the little money they have[14].

In 2018, the Israeli government proposed shutting down the Holot detention center in anticipation of deporting the more than 40,000 asylum seekers within four months as of this publication. If successful, it would result in one of the largest single instances of refugee refoulement to date.

How could a nation, whose political history is inherently linked to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, foster such political views on those seeking asylum in their country? This paper will first illustrate this problem, delving into its history and how it has evolved today. It will then explain how the political and religious establishment incites fear and even hatred of  African asylum seekers by disseminating false information about them, justifying the deliberate and systemic discriminatory and inhumane treatment by the government, and encouraging vigilante, mob justice by the public. The paper will conclude with an analysis of the cultural relevance of current conflict resolution efforts.

‘Rapists’ and ‘Infiltrators’

In Israeli political discourse, politicians routinely use dehumanizing terminology, painting asylum seekers as a security threats and economic migrants. In 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stated, “the vast majority of [asylum seekers] are not refugees, but labor infiltrators. In my view, the infiltrators are an existential concern.”[15] Netanyahu is part of the Likud-National Liberal Movement, a secular right-wing political party in Israel. In March of that year, MK Reuven Rivlin, of the Likud party and then Speaker of the Knesset, said:

If these were indeed refugees fleeing for their lives, we would have the moral obligation to leave our border ajar and provide for their basic needs. However, those infiltrators who reach Eilat [a southern Israeli city, home to thousands of asylum seekers] are not refugees in the simple sense of the word. Many of them are not fleeing for their lives, but rather, looking to improve their financial situation.[16]

Some have taken even more vitriolic stance against asylum seekers; MK Miri Regev (Likud) not only said that asylum seekers are migrant workers and not refugees,[17] but that “they are a cancer.”[18] Former Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) has gone so far to say that the “Muslims that arrive here do not even believe that this country belongs to us, to the white man”[19] and that “many Israeli women have been raped by migrant workers ‘but do not complain out of fear of being stigmatized as having contracted AIDS.’”[20]

Such terms often used by the political establishment and the media include “invaders,” “enemies,” “infiltrators,” “cancer,” “national calamity,” “ticking bomb,” “transmitters of disease” and “existential threat.”[21] These terms are not accidental but are instead part of a deliberate strategy to portray these asylum seekers as a security threat and cultivate a fearful environment. Some of these terms convey a deeper meaning than just their connotations that resonates with Israelis. Most, if not all, African asylum seekers in Israel crossed into the country through the southern border in Egypt. The Hebrew word for “infiltrators” is mistanenim, a term which was commonly employed during the 1950’s when Palestinian, Egyptian, and Jordanian intruders entered Israel to carry out sabotage and acts of terrorism.[22] Another term used in political discourse and the media is “illegal alien,” which in Hebrew is shabachim and is typically reserved for “unlawful entry of Palestinians to Israel.”[23] Against the historical context of these words and in conjunction with current Israeli policy, it becomes clear the word choice is designed to instill fear and hate for these Africans into the general public.

Evidently this plan is working quite well. The Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) and Tel Aviv University conducted a survey to gauge the public’s perceptions about various aspects of the country’s migrant crisis.[24] Proximity of living or working near an African asylum seeker does not account for the perception of risk. 60% and 62% of Jewish and Arab respondents respectively felt at risk of being accosted and harassed by African asylum seekers. However, an almost equal proportion of people – 64% of respondents living in areas with many foreigners and 60% in areas without foreigners nearby – reported a high fear of violence despite proximity.

The study identified a high correlation between the degree of one’s conservatism in either politics or religion and their vitriol against Africans. When asked if they agreed with MK Miri Regev’s comment that Africans are a cancer in Israeli society, “81.5% of the Haredim [Ultra-Orthodox], 66% of the religious [Orthodox], 58% of the traditional [Masorti or Conservative], and 38% of the secular Jews agreed with the assertion.”[25] Breaking respondents into political affiliations yields similar results. 86% of Shas voters[26] strongly resonated with Israel’s Africans as a cancer.[27] 73%[28] of the former Foreign Affairs Minister Avigdor Liberman’s ultranationalist party Yisrael Beiteiu agreed as well.[29] Of HaIchud HaLeumi—or “The National Union”—voters, another ultranationalist party[30], 71% of voters agreed.[31] HaBayit HaYehudi—Hebrew for “The Jewish Home”—the far right political party representing Religious Zionist and Modern Orthodox interests[32], saw more than two-thirds of voters agree.[33] And Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s center-right Likud party saw 66% of their voters agree that Africans are a cancer. However, on the liberal political spectrum, less than half from each party agreed: “only 35% of Labor, 32% of Kadima, and 4% of Meretz voters.”[34]

80% of Jewish Israelis and 70% of Arab Israelis oppose an open-door policy toward refugees, and 71% and 61% of Jewish and Arab Israelis, respectively, oppose a similar open-door policy to non-refugee job seekers.[35] The results are peculiar considering the Israeli political establishment and media brand African asylum seekers as, at best, economic migrants. The IDI was unable to determine exactly why Israelis looked more favorably at an open-arms approach to job seekers over refugees, but hypothesized that “possibly the latter are perceived as people who at some point will return to their countries, or are seen as a smaller threat because they are looking for work, and perhaps they are regarded by the Israeli public as more ‘decent’ people.”[36]

The explanation as to why Israelis look more favorably on job-seekers than refugees—despite the fact that African asylum seekers are characterized as opportunistic economic migrants—could be couched in that same description. Israel is a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, and accordingly the way the Israeli government categorizes their illegal African population as either refugees or migrants can have important legal ramifications. According to the Convention, individual governments establish their own “status determination procedures to decide” whether a person qualifies for refugee status according to that country’s legal system.[37] If the country does determine that such a person is indeed a refugee, they are entitled to “benefit from economic and social rights, at least to the same degree as other foreign residents of the country of asylum,” and the respective government must “allow a spouse or dependent children to join persons to whom temporary refuge or asylum has been granted.”[38] Most importantly, however, a country “may not forcibly return [known as ‘refoulement’] refugees to a territory where they face danger or discriminate between groups of refugees.”[39]

This helps illuminate why Israel has taken its peculiar stance to African asylum seekers. Rather than deport them carte blanche, Israeli authorities grant Eritreans and Sudanese a 2(A)(5) “Conditional Release” visa. This visa, which needs to be renewed every two months, “denies them all rights except the right to remain in Israel until their deportation is made possible.”[40] It also precludes the right to work and access to national social and healthcare services.[41] Anat Ovadia-Rosner from the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants nonprofit organization in Tel Aviv says “If you’re not deporting them, you’re acknowledging that there’s a danger to them in their home country. That’s exactly the definition of a refugee. The government’s strategy is to make their lives more miserable and difficult in order to make them despair and then leave.”[42]

In an opinion piece by author Yuval Ben-Ami in +972 Magazine, he notes that “racist and nationalist violence invariably flows from a climate generated by political and religious leaders.  Such arrogant and racist leaders like [Interior Minister] Eli Yishai feel empowered by this hate.”[43] He goes on to say the hate over African migrants in Tel Aviv and Eilat are linked to the violence and discrimination directed at Palestinians due to the legitimacy granted by the Israeli elite and authority figures: “Yishai does not say: make their lives miserable. He says: I, the minister, would like to make their lives miserable. Thus, he creates legitimacy for terrible behavior that will continue to spread. Thanks to him and others like him we will continue to degenerate.”[44]

Us vs. Them: Explaining Israel’s Position

A potential reason as to why Israelis have taken such an increasingly hardline stance against their African asylum-seeking population, despite the fact they make up less than 1% of the total population, is that there is an existential fear that Israel will lose its democracy through demographics. This is manifest primarily in the “realist center-left diagnosis” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.[45] Indeed, this is best summarized through Ehud Barak’s analysis of the status quo: “If, and as long as between the Jordan and the sea, there is only one political entity, named Israel, it will end up being either non-Jewish or non-democratic…If the Palestinians vote in elections, it is a binational state, and if they don’t, it is an apartheid state.”[46] Allowing such an acutely non-Jewish, foreign group to stay in Israel could possibly draw out fears of the end of the Jewish state as they know it.

Perhaps the better explanation is that Israel feels increasingly isolated and oppositional to an increasingly hostile international community. More than 70% of Israeli Jews feel that “the countries of the world make oral demands of Israel that they do not make of other countries that are in situations of conflict.”[47] This sentiment reveals a societal understanding that they feel the whole world is against them.[48] This has strengthened a pervasive ethnocentrism across the spectrum of Israeli society. Indeed, when it comes to Israel’s own African migrant crisis or the wider international refugee crisis, Israelis remain dejectedly apathetic.

However, small minorities from the left are speaking out against Israel’s growing ethnocentrism. Israeli opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, has lambasted the Knesset for not truly espousing Jewish values and doing more to help both African migrants and refugees in general.[49] Unfortunately, he was practically booed off the podium.[50] Yet some Israelis and Jewish organizations abroad refuse to sit on the sidelines. The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an NGO based in Tel Aviv, is providing direct hands-on assistance to refugees “by combining client advocacy with impact litigation, policy initiatives and public outreach to achieve broad-based, systematic improvements in policies and practices ensuring that the human rights of migrants in Israel are respected.”[51]

The 1951 Convention on Refugees was inspired by the massive refugee crisis resulting in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The law has a very unique and personal connection to the Jewish people, and Israel was among its first signatories. However, numerous Jewish organizations and prominent figures both in Israel and abroad notice of the cognitive disconnect between Israel’s history and its current policy. In an op-ed from Haaretz, Judy Maltz notes that:

[in] modern Jewish history it seems natural that Jewish organizations would turn out in response to the biggest humanitarian crisis facing the world today. Which makes the overwhelming apathy of the Jewish state – both of the Israeli government and the vast majority of Israeli citizens – even more striking by comparison.[52]

Melanie Nezer, the Senior Vice President of the Jewish humanitarian organization HIAS in Maryland, says that “as the first signatory to the convention, Israel has a responsibility to uphold its standards” to these refugees.[53] Israel is thus at an existential crossroads; as Israeli politicians continue to fight for Israel’s preservation of Jewish values, they need to reconcile their policy-making decisions.

[1] Yardena Schwartz, “Non-Jewish Refugees Get A Cold Shoulder,” Newsweek, October 13, 2015,

[2] “Countries of Origin,” Refugees, Hotline for Refugees and Migrants,

[3] United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, World At War: Forced Displacement in 2014, Global Trends 2014 (Geneva: United Nations, June 18, 2015), 14,

[4] “UN ‘seriously concerned’ by Israeli plan to deport African migrants,” The Times of Israel, Nov 18, 2017,

[5] Stuart Winer and Times of Israel Staff, “Freed migrants banned from Tel Aviv and Eilat,” The Times of Israel, August 23, 2015,

[6] Oded Shalom, “Behind the Barrier: Israel’s Fence with Egypt Nears Completion,” Al-Monitor, trans. Sandy Bloom, August 20, 2012,

[7] Shalom, “Behind the Barrier.”

[8] “Detention of Asylum-Seekers,” Refugees, Hotline for Refugees and Migrants,

[9] “Detention of Asylum-Seekers.”

[10] Ibid.

[11] William Booth, “Israeli government to refugees: Go back to Africa or go to prison,” The Washington Post, May 14, 2015,

[12] Jack Moore, “Israel Bans Migrants From Two Major Cities,” Newsweek, August 24, 2015,

[13] “Israel doesn’t need to deport refugees to make them leave,” Hotline for Refugees and Migrants,

[14] Andrew Green, “Inside Israel’s Secret Program to Get Rid of African Refugees,” Foreign Policy, June 27, 2017,

[15] Elizabeth Tsurkov, “Cancer in Our Body”: On Racial Incitement, Discrimination and Hate Crimes against African Asylum Seekers in Israel, trans. Gila Babich et al (Tel Aviv: Hotline For Migrant Workers, January-June, 2012), 6,

[16] Tsurkov, “Cancer in Our Body”, 6.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ilan Lior and Tomer Zarchin, “Demonstrators Attack African Migrants in South Tel Aviv,” Haaretz, May 24, 2012,

[19] Dana Weiler-Polak, “Israel Enacts Law Allowing Authorities to Detain Illegal Migrants for Up to 3 Years,” Haaretz, June 3, 2012,

[20] “Eli Yishai: Israeli Women Afraid to Report Rape by African Migrants Due to AIDS Stigma,” Haaretz, May 31, 2012,

[21] Tsurkov, “Cancer in Our Body,” 4.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 5.

[24] Ephraim Yaar and Tamar Hermann, “The Peace Index: May 2012,” The Israel Democracy Institute, May 2012,

[25] Yaar, “The Peace Index,” 5.

[26] Shas is an acronym for the “Sephardic Guards” in Hebrew and a socially conservative Sephardic Ultra-Orthodox party. For more information see “Guide to Israel’s political parties,” BBC News, January 21, 2013,

[27] Yaar, “The Peace Index,” 5.

[28] Ibid.

[29] “Guide to Israel’s political parties.”

[30] Ibid.

[31] Yaar, “The Peace Index,” 5.

[32] “Guide to Israel’s political parties.”

[33] Yaar, “The Peace Index,” 5.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., 4.

[36] Ibid.

[37] “Protecting Refugees: questions and answers,” Booklets and Brochures, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, February 1, 2002,

[38] “Protecting Refugees.”

[39] Ibid.

[40] “Temporary Protection,” The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants,

[41] Schwartz, “Non-Jewish Refugees Get A Cold Shoulder.”

[42] Schwartz, “Non-Jewish Refugees Get A Cold Shoulder.”

[43] Yuval Ben-Ami, “What is the link between Eli Yishai and Jerusalem ‘lynch’?” +972 Magazine, August 21, 2012,

[44] Ben-Ami, “What is the link between Eli Yishai and Jerusalem ‘lynch’?”

[45] M.S., “Ehud Barak breaks the apartheid barrier,” The Economist, February 15, 2010,

[46] M.S., “Ehud Barak breaks the apartheid barrier.”

[47] “Nearly three quarters of Israeli Jews feel that ‘the whole world is against us’,” Ynet News, June 9, 2015,

[48] “Nearly three quarters of Israeli Jews feel that ‘the whole world is against us’.”

[49] Barak Ravid, Almog Ben Zikri and Gili Cohen, “Herzog Calls on Government to Allow Syrian Refugees Into Israel,” Haaretz, September 5, 2015,

[50] Ravid et al, “Herzog Calls on Government to Allow Syrian Refugees Into Israel.”

[51] “About Us,” The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants.

[52] Judy Maltz, “Why Are Israelis So Apathetic to the EU Refugee Crisis?” Haaretz, September 29, 2015,

[53] Carlos Ballesteros, “Jewish Groups Denounce Israel’s Plans To Deport 40,000 African Asylum Seekers,” Newsweek, Nov 24, 2017,

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