Popular classes as a key factor in the struggle against the deportation of asylum seekers in Israel

By Dr. Dov Khenin & Uri Weltmann
June 27, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — In the April 9 elections to the Knesset (the Israeli parliament), the right-wing won a landslide victory, with the various parties of the left finishing with their worst result in history (totalling no more than 20 seats out of 120). While all believed that Benjamin Netanyahu had secured his fifth term as Prime Minister, the crisis in Israeli politics has resulted in him being unable to form a coalition and calling snap elections for September 17. Early polls suggest that the left will not have the upper hand in this next round of elections, and the prospects for progressive social transformations in Israel seem to be very remote. This raises the question: can we even expected to see social and political struggles in Israel that have the potential to deal a defeat to Netanyahu? We answer this question in the positive, since we consider the Israeli reality to be more nuanced than what it would appear to be if we limit ourselves merely to counting votes in the polling stations. The political right in Israel bases itself on gaining support from popular classes within Israeli society through politics of nationalistic intimidation. This has played a key instrumental role in securing victory for the right. Its rise is deeply connected with the weakness of the progressive alternative in Israel. Therefore, we conclude that the key to winning is not through a strategy of defending the existing social order, but rather through a strategy of building a progressive alternative that can engage the popular classes. We do not consider this to be wishful thinking or an abstract formula, since just a little more than a year ago, this very thing happened in Israel: a wave of protest forced Netanyahu to drop his much-prided government plan for the forced deportation of African asylum seekers living in Israel. But before we turn to analyzing the struggle against the deportation of African asylum seekers living in Israel and the lessons that can be drawn from it, let us briefly introduce the general political context surrounding it.

General political situation

The continued occupation of Palestinian territories has resulted in more and more limitations on democratic rights and freedoms within Israel, which have become a constant feature of political life. Not limiting itself to attacks on the Arab minority and its political leadership, the right-wing government of Israel is also bent on inciting against human rights NGOs. It has narrowed the space for criticism of government policies, and pursues a McCarthyite campaign to silence dissident voices in universities and the cultural sphere. But dangers and threats also, dialectically, create opportunities and openings. Israeli society is not one homogenous bloc but rather, like other societies across the world, a stratified and contradictory class society. The majority of Israelis suffer under existing conditions and therefore have an objective interest in transforming the reality in which they live. With a huge military budget and ever-growing allocations of funds to the settlement project, Israeli citizens have been the victims of cutbacks in social expenditure for almost two decades. Among OECD countries, Israel has been ranked as one of the countries with the highest rates of child poverty, poverty among senior citizens, and economic inequality. The housing crisis has narrowed life opportunities for Israelis of all walks of life, the public health system is being deprived of funds and replaced with expensive private health services, and paying for early childhood education continues to be a burden for many families. This reality is riddled with contradictions, which can enable a dynamic of change. We want to focus on such a dynamic which occurred in early 2018, when a government plan to deport African asylum seekers from Israel was met with a broad public response. That response, when armed with a socialist framework, was able to bend the arm of the government and score a victory. Analyzing this case study will serve two purposes. First, to stress the point that even inside Israel — seen from the outside sometimes as an irreparable garrison state — progressive and left forces can triumph over a seemingly powerful right-wing government. And second, to contribute to the struggle over refugee policy which is becoming extremely important all over. Indeed, the issue of refugees and how this question is being taken up by different political actors is becoming a central question in a series of countries. Wars, economic crises, natural disasters and the effects of global climate change have all led to shifting patterns of refugee and migration flows. Thus, the question of immigrants and refugees informs many of the current political debates, including in such powers as Germany and the United States. Up until now, the populist right has proven itself successful in exploiting this political issue, whereas the left has been less so. Therefore, we believe that the case study we present from Israel can be of interest and also of value to progressives and socialists elsewhere.

Social stratification in Israel: refugees and Mizrahis

But first, let us elaborate a little about the situation of refugees in Israel. Almost 40,000 African refugees and asylum seekers live in Israel; most of them have fled from the brutal dictatorship in Eritrea or the civil war in Sudan. Several thousand of these men and women are survivors of torture camps, where they were held captive during their long and difficult escape route. The arrival of African refugees in Israel has been an ongoing process for the past decade. Yet Israeli authorities did not begin to examine asylum applications until 2013. While in West European and North American countries, more than 60% of Sudanese asylum seekers have their requests accepted, and almost 90% of Eritreans, in Israel it is less than 20 — not 20% but less than 20 individual cases. To add insult to injury, the government has been encouraging the majority of the asylum seekers who arrive in Israel to move into poor, working-class neighborhoods in South Tel-Aviv. It has become common practice for asylum seekers crossing the border from Egypt to be detained for a short period and then put on a bus that dumps them in South Tel-Aviv. There, the Sudanese and Eritrean refugee communities have grown during the past decade. It is not by chance that the government has directed the majority of asylum seekers to these neighborhoods. While Tel-Aviv is the richest and most developed city in Israel, for decades South Tel-Aviv has been its backyard. The majority of the more established residents of the South Tel-Aviv neighborhoods are poor Mizrahi Jews (sometimes called Sephardic Jews) — Jews whose families immigrated to Israel from Arab countries, such as Morocco, Iraq or Yemen, rather than European countries, from where Ashkenazi Jews immigrated. Mizrahi Jews in Israel have suffered from systematic discrimination — social, economic and cultural — with their rich cultural heritage denigrated, their children sent mostly to vocational schools that shut them out of higher education and push them into lower-paying jobs, and their neighborhoods turned into slums. We know very well, that under capitalism there is strong affinity between class exploitation and ethnic discrimination, and Israel is no exception to that rule. The infrastructure in South Tel Aviv neighborhoods is crumbling. Housing is of poor quality and deteriorating. Schools are underfunded and of lower quality. Allocation of municipal budgets for development or culture is lacking. South Tel Aviv neighborhoods have become a center for drug trafficking, prostitution and human trafficking. This has been the state of affairs in South Tel Aviv for many years, well before the arrival of African asylum seekers.

Right-wing campaigning

When African asylum seekers began to arrive to Israel, it was convenient for the authorities to have them sent to South Tel Aviv and turn an already severely disadvantaged and socially excluded part of the city into a far more difficult place to live. The political right was quick to take advantage of this situation. Right-extremist politicians turned to these neighborhoods to incite local residents against the African refugees and the human rights organizations who helped them. Other right-wing politicians, at the local and the national level, have attempted to exploit the harsh realities faced by the more established residents of South Tel-Aviv, and portray asylum seekers, not government policies as the source of their problems. This was extremely effective in casting right-wing politicians — those who are the staunchest defenders of capitalist interests and who promote the harshest austerity measures — as defenders of the people and casting as enemies of the people, not those in power who can actually take measures and direct budgets to change the realities that the socially-excluded neighborhoods face, but rather human rights organizations who help refugees and the liberal elites in academia and the media who support their cause. It is important to emphasize that, more often than not, the liberal elites have been turning a blind eye to the suffering of poor Mizrahi residents in South Tel Aviv. This, of course, played into the hands of the right, who positioned themselves not as the source of the problem, but as the solution. The fact that liberal politics, almost by definition, is detached from the material conditions of life of the popular strata, is a fact that right populists exploit to their advantage in different circumstances. Netanyahu played this game as well, and skillfully so. In late 2017, in a much publicized visit to South Tel Aviv, Netanyahu announced that “South Tel Aviv will once again become part of the State of Israel”. Netanyahu, who did not lift a finger during his ten years in office to change the social realities of South Tel Aviv, was suddenly declaring himself to be its big savior. Shortly after it was revealed that a government plan was underway to forcefully deport asylum seekers to an undesignated African country, probably Uganda or Rwanda, whose government was negotiating a deal with Israel based on cash payments for each deportee.

Liberal strategy vs. socialist strategy

A moral outcry followed, with large number of Israelis — mostly young people who were previously not engaged in politics — involved in dozens of efforts directed against the government’s deportation plan. A student initiative called Stop the Deportation joined with more veteran human rights organizations and aid and welfare NGOs who had been assisting asylum seekers for years. More and more people became involved in all sorts of activities. This newly emerging social movement in defense of refugees was a welcomed and noteworthy development. But as long as the rhetoric it employed was a moralistic one, and as long as the perspective it advanced was a liberal one, it was very easy for the right to isolate it and defeat it politically. In politics, whoever determines the question that is being asked can often determine how the political field is arranged. If the question is posed as “Do you support your own people, the poor Mizrahi residents of South Tel Aviv, and therefore side with the deportation of African ‘infiltrators’, or are you an Ashkenazi, elitist snub, who loves the Africans more than you love your own people?” then the government will naturally win. To defeat this we needed to rearrange the political field, by changing the question and stating that we are not a force that stands outside of our people, but are a part of it, and by insisting on the idea that this is not a struggle of the people against the refugees, one in which we side with the refugees, but rather a struggle of the government against the people, and we are the people. But the populist right equation could not be turned on its head as long as the mainstream of the anti-deportation movement continued to ignore the actual problems, fears and hardships of the poor residents of South Tel Aviv . The movement was doomed to defeat as long as it continued to view them as a staunch bloc of reactionaries rather than as victims of the existing reality; as long as every poor Mizrahi resident of South Tel Aviv was cast into the basket of “deplorables” rather than being seen as equals whose life is of no less interest to us than that of the asylum seeker and who can be a potential ally to our cause. But the movement was not defeated. An important key to our success was a new initiative spearheaded by Mizrahi feminist women who have been active in their South Tel Aviv neighborhoods for years. This initiative, called “South Tel Aviv Against the Deportation”, was led by Shula Keshet, a veteran Mizrahi community activist. At the beginning it was a very small group, but it had a big message: They stood against the deportation of African asylum seekers, recognizing the false demagogy of the government, and stating that their neighborhoods have been suffering from years of neglect and exclusion, well before the first refugee set foot in South Tel-Aviv. Not limiting themselves to solidarity with their African neighbors, they pointed to the strong economic powers that were pushing for the deportation. South Tel Aviv is undergoing a rapid gentrification process, with old buildings being emptied of their residents and torn down to make room to new luxury apartment buildings, affordable only to the rich. To make room for these high-rise luxury towers, a process of forced home evacuations and foreclosures is underway in many South Tel-Aviv neighborhoods, with longer-term Mizrahi residents being driven out by real estate interests and market forces.

A game changer

The emergence of this small but very important initiative had the potential to shift the conversation around the issue of deportation. But for this potential to be realized, what was needed was an organizational capacity and a political perspective that could together help promote this change= the orientation of the anti-deportation movement. These was provided by the grassroots movement Standing Together, whose role in this regard was central. Standing Together is a grassroots people’s movement of Jewish and Arab activists that organizes locally and nationally in Israel around campaigns for peace, equality and social justice to build power and transform Israeli society. Formed three years ago, the movement was behind some of the biggest mobilizations of the Israeli Left in this period. Standing Together frames reality through a socialist lens and is able therefore to see the interconnected nature of the various political questions in Israeli society — the questions of occupation and peace, of racism and equality, of neo-liberal austerity and social justice. Standing Together quickly came to realize that to turn the populist right equation on its head, the South Tel-Aviv Against the Deportation initiative had to be at the forefront of the struggle. Standing Together convened large, open meetings in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and elsewhere, inviting the general public to become involved in a new campaign called “With South Tel Aviv - Against the Deportation. These meetings, attended by hundreds of people, outlined the new strategy that Standing Together was suggesting: Pull the rug from the under the feet of the right by breaking the seemingly natural connection between supporting deportation and supporting South Tel Aviv. Hundreds of banners were hung from windows and balconies all across the South Tel Aviv neighborhoods, with the slogan “South Tel-Aviv Against the Deportation”. Within a short period of time, the entire public mood in South Tel Aviv neighborhoods changed, with more and more of these signs springing up on people’s balconies and homes. This had a tremendous impact. Whereas before, the most dominant feature of these streets was graffiti by right extremists calling to deport all Africans, now the message was different. The public conversation began to shift. People, including in the media, began to realize that a big part of the residents of South Tel Aviv were actually against the government plan to deport the Africans. Standing Together also took it upon itself to counter another argument of the populist right: the one that claimed that everyone who opposed deportations was necessarily an elitist, snobbish, rich Ashkenazi who lived in the more affluent neighborhoods of North Tel Aviv, and who opposed the deportations because of their disregard for the lives and interests of the poor, socially-excluded residents of South Tel-Aviv, and their hypocritically “love” for Africans from afar while not having to live in the same neighborhoods as them. Standing Together activists began canvassing in the North Tel Aviv neighborhoods, knocking on doors and talking to people on the streets and in shopping centers. Activists signed people up to a public call in which they stated that they welcomed refugees in their North Tel Aviv neighborhoods and demanding that their municipal taxes go to repair infrastructures and develop South Tel-Aviv neighborhoods. Thousands signed this public call, which received publicity and showed that contrary to the demagogy of the right, the real elite, whose interest is against that of the people of South Tel Aviv, is not the middle class or upper middle-class people of North Tel Aviv nor African asylum seekers, but those in power — at the municipal and in parliament — who have the capacity to change priorities and invest in South Tel-Aviv but who couldn’t care less about the lives of those who live there, instead choosing to incite and whip up anti-refugee hysteria as a distraction from their anti-popular policies. These efforts culminated in a rally of more than 20,000 people in the heart of South Tel Aviv. This was in sharp contrast to the pro-refugee rallies of previous years, which were held in the center of Tel Aviv. This rally was held in the neighborhoods where refugees and socially excluded longer-term residents of South Tel Avi lived. Whereas speakers were previously liberal academics or film and theater celebrities who support human rights, this time it was people — mostly women — who lived in these neighborhoods, including refugees and Mizrahi activists. Whereas before rallies were organized by professional human rights NGOs, this time around the rally was led by South Tel-Aviv Against the Deportations, with the organizational support of Standing Together and others.


Through a grassroots campaign, and by reframing the strategy of the anti-deportation movement and how the mass media portrayed the question, the pillars of the government’s deportation plan began to collapse. What was supposed to be an easy win for Netanyahu turned out to be much more politically complicated, as the opposition to the deportations grew, even among sectors of society he counted on to be on his side. Politicians from center and center-left parties that initially backed Netanyahu realized which way the wind was blowing and came out against the deportations. Even inside Netanyahu’s coalition cracks appeared around this question. All this culminated in his capitulation in a press conference in early April, where he announced the scrapping of the plan to forcefully deport the asylum seekers to Uganda and Rwanda. This was a complete 180 degrees reversal of his own position from a few months ago, and a huge victory for the anti-deportation campaign. Although pressure from the extreme right continues to prevent real solutions to the problems facing African refugees in Israel, the deportation plan was taken off the table, at least for the moment. There are lessons to be learned from this experience. Instead of limiting ourselves to moral arguments and an elitist-liberal discourse, we were able to turn the tables on the populist right’s plan through a left-wing socialist policy. Instead of yielding to the conservative tendencies of the popular classes, we chose to engage the progressive potentials that exists among them. The analysis presented here, as well as the experience of other great movements for social transformation, teach us that creating politics that can mobilize a wide stratum of popular classes is still the key to success for progressives all around the world. Even on issues on which the right wing feels that it has the upper hand, such as refugees, immigration and borders, a left-wing strategy rooted in the interests of the people can be victorious. Dr. Dov Khenin served for 13 years as a Member of the Knesset, until stepping down before the April 2019 elections. He is a human rights lawyer and an activist in the anti-occupation peace movement and in social struggles in Israel dovhanin@gmail.com. Uri Weltmann is a member of the national leadership of Standing Together, a Jewish-Arab socialist movement struggling for peace, equality and social justice in Israel uri.weltmann@gmail.com. An earlier version of this article was published originally in the website of Transform! Europe Network