David Sheen is an independent journalist and film maker originally from Toronto, Canada who now lives in Dimona, Israel. Sheen began blogging when he first moved to Israel in 1999 and later went on to work as a reporter and editor at the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz. His full-length documentary on ecological architecture, “First Earth”, was translated into a dozen languages and published by PM Press in 2010. Sheen gave a TEDx talk on the topic of the film in Johannesburg, South Africa later that year. He is currently writing a book about African immigrants to Israel and the struggles they face. Sheen’s website is www.davidsheen.com and he tweets from @davidsheen.
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
Is Israel poised to round up its more than 50,000 African asylum seekers into detention centers in an effort to make their lives so miserable they self-deport? And what accounts for the growing anti-African racism that’s being manifest in Israeli society today?
Now joining us to discuss this in-studio is David Sheen. David is an independent journalist and filmmaker, originally from Toronto, Canada. He now lives in Dimona, Israel. His website is DavidSheen.com. And he’s currently working on the first ever book about anti-African racism in Israel.
Thank you so much for joining us, David.
DAVID SHEEN, JOURNALIST: Thanks for having me.
NOOR: So, David, a lot of people might not be familiar with the current situation for some 53,000 African asylum seekers in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called them infiltrators. He says they threaten the Jewish character of Israel. And he says these are not refugees, these are illegal immigrants who were in Israel looking for jobs. And there’s been a series of laws passed in Israel that makes it easier for them to get, essentially, rounded up and held indefinitely in detention. Give us an update.
SHEEN: Okay. Well, these people really, for the most part, immigrated to Israel starting in 2006. And then in 2010 you have the masses coming in, fleeing persecution, ethnic cleansings in Sub-Saharan Africa. They’re fleeing all over, and countries are taking them in. In Israel you have these 50,000, 60,000.
Now, when they first arrived, the government didn’t want to outright deport them because that would just look so horrible on its human rights record, to send them back to the horrors they fled from. So instead it allowed them in but immediately started making their lives miserable, according to the interior minister—that’s his words—in order—so that they would just eventually give up and go back to the places they came from, to self-deport, so to speak.
So that’s taken many forms. It’s taken the form of Israeli government leaders inciting racism against—calling them cancer, you know, accusing them of committing crimes, of being rapists, and bringing in, you know, every possible slur you can imagine.
NOOR: And we’ve played some of your work on The Real News. There’s been these mass rallies with Israeli political leaders, marching by the thousands through the streets of Tel Aviv and other cities. And then, as you documented, soon after, that’s led to Africans being attacked on the streets.
SHEEN: Certainly. I mean, Africans are attacked in the streets even regardless. But certainly there are these rallies, often led by politicians, and people, you know, physically attacking Africans in the streets.
And in addition to that, you have rabbis who are on the government payroll, actually, who issue edicts forbidding Jews from renting apartments to Africans. So religious leadership, political leadership, grassroots in the neighbourhoods, the government’s policy was just make their lives as difficult as possible.
And so now its centerpiece legislation is permitting the government to round them up, sticking them in these desert detention centers.
NOOR: And these are a new set of laws that helped—can you talk about when they were passed and what the significance was?
SHEEN: The original anti-infiltration law was originally passed in the ’50s to criminalize Palestinians who had fled from the fighting that broke out in 1947-48, to prevent them from returning to their homes, so that there would be as few as possible non-Jewish people in the country.
So in 2012, you have the government resuscitating this law in order to now criminalize Africans who’d been entering the country.
Now, once it did that, after a year and eight months, the Supreme Court struck it down, called it unconstitutional, a violation of people’s human rights, saying you can’t jail people that haven’t committed any crimes. And so it was struck down.
But instead of following the Supreme Court decision, the government just legislated a new version of the law, this time worse than the first, which permits it to incarcerate people ad infinitum, forever. And that’s the situation on the ground right now.
They can only hold about 3,000 people in these jails, desert jails. The idea is pack them in there, don’t give them food or vegetables or hot water or, you know, anything besides the container that they’re living in in the cold, and then eventually they’ll become so miserable they’ll agree to leave, and then they can round up another 3,000. And that’ll be some kind of processing that they can just quickly bottleneck people out of the country.
NOOR: And so, in February a record number of African asylum seekers self-deported, some 1,700. So talk about the current situation, what’s happening on the ground today. Why are these people leaving?
SHEEN: Well, it’s clear that the forces in society are stacked against them. Eighty percent of Israelis in a recent poll said that they want all Africans gone. You know, over 60 percent want them all kicked out of the country outright. Another 20 percent want them jailed. So 80 percent want them cleared out of Israeli population centers. Then the government clearly is, you know, pushing them out.
And so with no help from people on the street, just a real handful of Israelis, who themselves are marginalized and hated for supporting the Africans, really, what is their salvation? The courts come to their cause, but then the government disregards it.
So, many people see that I could sit in jail in some foreign country for the rest of my life, or I could die in my home country. Maybe that’s an option.
NOOR: But Israel is—by international treaty, it’s prevented from sending them back to the country of origin, right? So they’re sending them to third-party countries now. Is that correct?
SHEEN: Both. I mean, first of all, what Israel’s doing is, in order to present to the world a face of this is voluntary, they’re sitting people in front of cameras and interviewing them. So is this voluntary? Yes. I am agreeing voluntarily to leave the country, so that they can then show people, well, they’ve already agreed. I mean, according to the United Nations, clearly, anyone who’s in jail can’t agree to be deported voluntarily. But they’re covering their backs that way.
And then in some cases the government is deporting them to third countries. But when you ask these third countries, is this in fact what you’ve agreed to, we’ve signed no agreements, we’ve agreed to nothing, and we haven’t agreed to protect these people’s refugee rights. So Israel isn’t sending them to a place where they’ll be safe; it’s just sending them to any place that’ll accept Israel’s money, weapons, and weapons training in exchange.
NOOR: And one of the arguments that you hear in the Israeli press, and even by Miss Israel, who’s on tour in the U.S. right now—it was actually a Ethiopian-Israeli woman—is that these asylum seekers are dangerous and they’re a threat to peace, a threat to the public, and they’re raping—they’re carrying out these rapes all across Israel.
What’s your response? Is there a legitimate concern for the safety of Israelis?
SHEEN: Well, I mean, the idea that this group of people is somehow collectively responsible for increasing crime, even police statistics in Israel consistently show that Africans actually have a lower crime rate than native Israelis. It’s not zero crime rate. I wouldn’t expect it to be a zero crime rate, especially since the government doesn’t permit them to work. So how are you going to eat, how are you going to have a place to live without permission to work? People are working under the table or petty crime. So I don’t expect a zero crime rate.
But I think you’re more likely to be raped by an Israeli politician in Israel. If you just look statistically, from the president of the country Moshe Katsav to justice ministers sexually harassing, to the chief of police of Jerusalem, I mean, mayor of Kiryat Malakhi, one after the other, top Israeli officials are either convicted of rape or sexual assault or sexual harassment. It’s a very big problem in the country. And I don’t think that the Israeli leadership should be the ones pointing at another population as proportionately, you know, responsible for rape. I think they should look inward and see how to tackle that problem in Israeli society.
NOOR: Well, David Sheen, this wraps up the first part of our conversation, but we’ll continue it in part two. We’ll post both parts at TheRealNews.com. Thank you so much for joining us.