A Rhetorical Pogrom

Published on Haaretz

The rhetorical aftermath of last month’s appalling attack on migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv, following a rally in which Knesset members fed the crowd’s anger, has manifested ongoing ugliness, including suspected arson in Jerusalem.

Public officials have been competing to make the most outrageous accusations against the Africans, and to incite the public against the aid workers and rights activists trying to help these desperate people. If we listen to the words of these legislators, we must wonder if they have any Jewish collective consciousness or memory.

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At the protest itself, which devolved into a rampage against local shopkeepers, journalists and passersby, Likud MK Miri Regev notoriously told the crowd that “the Sudanese are a cancer in our body.” Jews have been called a cancer by our Islamic extremist enemies, but more famously by Adolf Hitler, who termed them “a cancer on the breast of Germany.”

As the former spokeswoman for the Israel Defense Forces, tasked with parsing out precise language for national messaging on a daily basis, Regev should know to weigh her words carefully. Is it conceivable that she almost directly quoted Hitler and didn’t know it?

Interior Minister Eli Yishai claimed last week that many Israeli women have been raped by migrant workers, “but do not complain out of fear of being stigmatized as having contracted AIDS.” There have been alleged rapes and these must be dealt with by the police. But Yishai’s unsubstantiated claim that there have been large numbers of sexual assaults contains all the elements of classical sexual fear-mongering: dark and insidious foreign males who cannot control their libido, helpless female victims, and the threat of blood contamination of the host group by foreigners. This defamation was directed against Jews for eons before the Nazis adopted it as a staple of Der Stuermer and primers for young Aryan girls, and was later attached to African American males by white supremacists in the United States.

On a visit to the Sinai border, National Union leader Aryeh Eldad called for “anyone crossing the border – a Swedish tourist, Sudanese from Eritrea, Eritreans from Sudan, Asians from Sinai” to be shot. He backtracked later, but I find it hard to believe that Eldad cannot hear the echoes in his words of the shoot-to-kill policy of “neutral” Swiss border guards when Jewish refugees fled for their lives from Nazi Germany.

The most bizarre comment is perhaps the most telling. MK Yulia Shamalov Berkovich, of Kadima, argued that since the rights workers helping the refugees are probably also against settlers, Israel should “lock up all the human rights people and transfer them to the camps that we are building” in the south. Her comments evoke any number of dictatorial regimes, and expose the right-wing fantasy of jailing anyone who disagrees with them, in this case activists and aid workers refuting government attempts to criminalize and demonize innocent refugees and job seekers. The street has been drinking in the anti-leftist propaganda for the three years since Netanyahu came to power, and when the mob in the recent Hatikva riot attempted to beat up journalists, they cursed the latter without cause for being leftists sympathetic to Palestinians.

How in the world did the flight of tens of thousands of African refugees to an imagined sanctuary in Israel become a left-right issue? Now that government leaders have told Israeli Jews it is acceptable to despise African migrants, right-wing legislators, including Kahanists and National Unionists, who seem to hate all goyim equally, found a golden opportunity to increase the antipathy toward their other favorite bogeymen – rights activists and leftists – by linking them to the migrants.

This association of leftists with an issue lacking any direct connection to the politics of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict perhaps explains our prime minister’s unwillingness to show leadership and call out his colleagues except in the most tepid terms. Fellow Likudnik and Knesset Speaker Ruby Rivlin, by contrast, had no trouble expressing his disgust, but he belongs to the vanishing breed of right wingers who believe both in a democratic republic and Klal Yisrael.

The heroes of this saga include groups like the Hotline for Migrant Workers and Assaf: the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, which provide legal aid, advocacy, and counseling for the displaced Africans, and the volunteer doctors and health professionals who staff the Refugee Clinic in Tel Aviv. Any sane government would be lionizing these selfless souls.

What deep reservoir of hate provoked Berkovich to want to round up her political opponents, Yishai to make reckless denunciations, Eldad to propose shooting sprees, and Regev to channel Hitler?

Elected representatives enjoy the power of their positions, but bear responsibility to recognize the power of their words. They are duty bound to refrain from xenophobic lies and rabble-rousing hate speech. None of this should distract us from our government’s failure to address a problem that has spiraled out of control on its watch. But our leaders’ rhetoric, and their sinful and draconian plans for the refugees reveal that they have neither good ideas nor any sense of shame.

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