Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions presents Jemima Pierre’s powerful critique of anti-Black violence in Israel and its connections to the oppression of Palestinians. This essay is a very important anthropological contribution to the renewed U.S. Black-Palestinian solidarity sweeping the academy and beyond.
For more information on the upcoming boycott vote at the AAA, Friday November 20 at 6:15 pm, see: Voting at #AAA2015 — What You Need to Know. VOTE YES on Resolution #2.
Zionism, Anti-Blackness, and the Struggle for Palestine
The video begins mid-action. A Black man sprawls on the ground. He seems injured. He tries to move but his efforts are slow, labored, slight. There is blood beneath him, fresh and bright against the polished white floor. On the edge of the frame, people move frantically. The Black man is encircled. Someone holding a gun – he looks like a soldier – steps forward and kicks the Black man in the head. From the bottom right of the screen, an orange bench is thrown, smashing into the head of the Black man. Someone – another soldier? – waves the others back and lifts the bench from the Black man’s head. Another man carrying a book bag quickly walks towards the Black man and swiftly kicks him in the head. His body spins across the floor, leaving a large smear of red blood. The man with the book bag walks away, unhurried. The Black man tries to lift his arm. A large White man places the legs of a tall stool over him. The man appears to be shielding the man on the floor from further attack; he yells at the crowd, flailing his arms, waving people away as they try to advance on the Black man. He is actually trying to keep the Black man from escaping. A person from the growing mob gets in another kick at the almost lifeless Black man on the ground, and the stool is briefly knocked away. The large man quickly replaces the stool over the victim while frantically screaming at and waving away the enraged mob.
I can no longer watch.
Hours after the attack, the Black man succumbs to his injuries and dies.
When I came across the video, it was captioned “Horrific footage of Israelis beating Eritrean refugee falsely accused of being bus station attacker and shot on site.”
His name was Habtom Zerhom. He was twenty-nine years old. He had migrated from Eritrea to Israel seeking political asylum. On that fateful day, he had gone to Beersheba, the capital of Negev, to renew his work visa. He was in the Beersheba’s bus station when an Israeli soldier was attacked and shot by someone the media referred to as an “Arab citizen of Israel.” After the attack, Mr. Zerhom scrambled to get away with the rest of the crowd. But according to official sources, Israeli security forces assumed he was with the attacker and shot him multiple times. Mr. Zerhom was shot, according to Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, “Just because of his skin color.” The mob kicked him and spat on him, while screaming “death to Arabs” and “Arabs out!” reportedly “mistook him for a terrorist.”
The “lynching” of Habtom Zerhom has been reported as an isolated incident, even as there is the occasional, muted recognition that African immigrants and other Black populations in Israel have been subject to dehumanizing discrimination – often propagated by the State of Israel itself. Indeed, incited by prominent Israeli officials, attacks on African migrants and other Blacks have been on the rise. In 2012, for instance, I wrote about a spate of attacks, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, that included the firebombing of apartments and a kindergarten used by Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers, racist protests, and mob assaults (see photo stream here). Some have described these attacks and protests as a coordinated pogrom against Africans. The Hareetz journalist, Ilan Lior, who was present at the anti-African rally in Tel Aviv on May 23, 2012, described his reaction:
I’ve covered terror attacks, funerals, car accidents, and protests. I’ve seen fury, frustration, despair, and sadness in a variety of places and forms. But I’ve never seen such hatred as it was displayed on Wednesday night in the Hatikva neighborhood. If it weren’t for the police presence, it would have ended in lynching. I have no doubt.
In early January 2014, a fifty-nine-year old Israeli man stabbed an eighteen-month-month-old Eritrean girl in the head with scissors as she was being held in her mother’s arms at the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. Once caught, the man told police, “I attacked black terrorists, she’s a black baby.” He then continued, saying of Africans living in Tel Aviv: “I hate them, they’re black and they make a big mess.”
These attacks by individuals and mobs are bolstered by equally disturbing racist language of some Israeli politicians as well as the punitive anti-Black actions by the Israeli state. In 2012, the most vocal of these politicians was Minister of Internal Affairs Eli Yishai, who consistently argued that the country must solve the “problem of the infiltrators,” African immigrants. Like many protesters, he accused African asylum seekers of spreading disease and raping Israeli women. Yishai was also adamant that Israel “belongs to us, to the white man.” In fact, several leading Israeli politicians, many of them from the ruling Likud party headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, addressed a May 2012, anti-African rally in Tel Aviv. At the rally, Likud MP, Miri Regev, stated that, “the Sudanese were a cancer in our body.” Parliamentarian Ben-Ari (who was once a member of the Meir Kahane Movement, banned in Israel and placed on the U.S. State Department’s Terror List) demanded that all “African infiltrators” be deported. Meanwhile, Knesset member Aryeh Eldad of the National Union said that, “anyone that penetrates Israel’s border should be shot.”
Netanyahu has argued that Africans threaten “the social fabric of society” and the “Jewish and democratic character of the country.” While claiming to denounce anti-African violence, his official response was to order the immediate deportation of 25,000 African asylum seekers and to erect a border fence between Israel and Egypt. Moreover, a new law went into effect in June 2012 allowing the Israeli government to hold all African asylum seekers – including women and children – in prison for up to three years without charge. (After intervention by Israeli NGOs against this long-term detention, the Israeli High Court of Justice ordered that this law was revised to reduce detention to no more than twelve months.) The Israeli government in late 2013 began offering the mainly Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers each a cash amount of $3500 and a one way ticket to return to their country of origin – or to a third party country. If they refuse, they are sent to the recently built Holot detention center for African asylum seekers – a sprawling “open prison” in the Negev desert. (Israeli officials summoned the father of the 18 month-old Eritrean girl who was stabbed in the head to the Holot detention center just a few months after the stabbing, and while his daughter was still receiving treatment at the hospital.) Although the Israeli government is now only allowed to hold asylum seekers in Holot for 12 months, it bans the released former prisoners from entering, living, or working in cities such as Eliat and Tel Aviv, places where the Eritrean and Sudanese migrants have community. They also only have two months to renew their conditional release visas. If these asylum seekers have no place to go, or refuse to “self-deport,” they can be sent to Saharonim prison and held indefinitely.
The treatment of African migrants is as much about race and Blackness/anti-Blackness as it is about asylum. In fact, we can get a better sense of the vitriolic nature of anti-Blackness by seeing the responses of some Israelis to other Israelis who protest against anti-African violence. For example, in a video shot right after an anti-African rally, a lone Israeli woman who disagreed with the racism and xenophobia of the protestors is brusquely insulted and threatened by the crowd. In front of children, men and women protesters shouted: “A Sudanese man will rape you in the ass,” “May your daughter be raped,” “May your mother be raped,” and “She wants some nigger dick.” Similarly, Israeli human rights organizations assisting migrants have received threats of arson and rape. The marshaling of the typical anti-Black stereotypes of hypersexuality, criminality, and disease, and now “terror,” and the increased violence and incitement against Black/African asylum seekers, reflects a disturbing trend. But the recent reports that Jewish Ethiopian women were forcibly injected with long-acting contraceptives (which has ultimately decreased the Ethiopian Jewish population by 50 percent), and that Ethiopian Jews remain severely marginalized in Israel, confirms the depth of anti-Blackness in Israeli society. Significantly, it underscores, if not exposes, Zionism as an explicit racial project.
The rise in this crude form of racism and anti-Black violence seen in the attack on Mr. Zerhom are not unrelated to the ongoing dehumanization of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. By now, we know all too well the ongoing trauma of the Palestinian people through displacement and military occupation: the expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians during the founding of Israel (“al-Nakbah”); the siege of Gaza and its separation from the West Bank; the dual system of laws that allow the indefinite detention and imprisonment of children (some in solitary confinement), students, politicians; dehumanizing checkpoints; the forced immobility of students and scholars; the rewriting of history texts; home demolitions; destruction of olive trees; and most recently the full out bombardments and summary executions of Palestinians, young and old, men and women. The recent report by the Task Force on the American Anthropological Association Engagement on Israel-Palestine carefully documents some of these practices, confirming that the Palestinian people continue to suffer through an occupation buttressed by a legal apparatus that impacts all areas of life and that depends on violence against the living—and the dead.
The Zionist dehumanization of Palestinians and its culture of anti-Blackness depend on the same system and, as scholar and activist Angela Y. Davis reminds us, “its outbursts are not isolated incidents.” Indeed, Davis’s words come in the context of a renewed U.S. Black-Palestinian solidarity movement, one that builds similar work dating back to the early 1960s. During the summer of 2014, as Israel waged yet another military assault on Gaza, young Black people in Ferguson were protesting the killing of Michael Brown (as well as the posthumous desecration of his body and dehumanization of his person) and battling racialized state sponsored violence and repression. Many in the Black-Palestinian solidary movement point to the fact that Palestinians were among the first to voice solidarity for protestors in Ferguson. At the same time, a delegation from the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson visited Palestine and the Occupied Territories. Protestors in the U.S. also revealed that U.S. police have traveled to Israel for seminars in “counterterrorism techniques,” that include combat training and tours of border checkpoints, military facilities and surveillance. On a trip to occupied Palestine, Black community organizer Cherrell Brown acknowledged that the struggles of U.S. Blacks and Palestinians are not the same but remarked that “many parallels exist between how the US polices, incarcerates, and perpetuates violence on the black community and how the Zionist state that exists in Israel perpetuates the same on Palestinians.” As the lynching of Mr. Zerhom reminds us, Black people living within Israel –asylum seekers, documented residents, and citizens – can easily become victims of the ethno-supremacist Zionist edifice.
My support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement against Israeli cultural and academic institutions (not individuals)3 emerges in this context of solidarity through similarity and difference, and out of an understanding of the life and death matters of state sponsored racialized violence transnationally. As a Black anthropologist with cultural, political, and research concerns in communities of African descent, I know too well the ways that global structures of race and power operate to control, destroy, debase, punish, and dehumanize. I understand that anti-Blackness in Israel is but a symptom of the broader culture and practice of Palestinian disenfranchisement. Even as I recognize that anti-Blackness exists in most societies4, I stand in solidarity with the Palestinian right of self-determination. As a U.S. citizen whose tax dollars are used to support a violent racial state that refuses to comply with international law, I say “not in my name!” And as a human being concerned with social justice and equality for all, I cannot look away5 – and I cannot stay silent.
- Jemima Pierre is Associate Professor in the Departments of African American Studies and Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. ↩
- I am grateful to Peter James Hudson for his incisive commentary on this essay, and to Robin D.G. Kelley for his generous feedback. ↩
- This includes my full support for the Resolution put forth by the Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions. Please note that the resolution explicitly calls for the boycott of institutions and not individual academics. ↩
- And of course there is also the community of Afro-Palestinians who are subject to the same Israeli occupation as other Palestinians, but who also experience forms of anti-Blackness. ↩
- The inspiration for this piece comes from two placards held by participants in the Black Solidarity with Palestine video, “When I See Them, I See Us.” Dr. Angela Y. Davis’s sign read: “Racism is systemic. Its outbursts are not isolated incidents.” Dr. Robin D. G. Kelley’s sign read: “I really have no choice, I can’t look away.” ↩