Critics of Israel have long argued that the methods and policies used in its occupation of Palestinian land constitute a racist system of apartheid, as in South Africa or the American South. Defenders of Israel of course deny this, usually responding that Arabs in Israel can vote and are members of the Israeli government, (of course, there were many nonwhites within the apartheid South African government as well, but never mind) among other things. More fundamental criticisms of Israel's nature as a settler state invite accusations of anti-semitism.
Recently, however, members of the Israeli government have been much more open and forthright in their racism - this time against the Sudanese and Eritrean refugees and migrant workers. Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu has described African migrants in Israel as "illegal infiltrators" that threaten "our existence as a Jewish and democratic state." Knesset member Miri Regev, a member of Netanyahu's Likud party, described refugees as "a cancer in our body" while addressing a mass rally that would shortly devolve into a riot targeting an African neighborhood in Tel Aviv.
Interior minister Eli Yishai was even more open during an interview with the Israeli daily Maariv. Speaking about the African migrants, Yishai said "Muslims that arrive here do not even believe that this country belongs to us, to the white man." Most of the African migrants in Israel originate from Sudan and Eritrea.
Following this interview, some right-wing media organizations in Israel frantically attempted to spin Yishai's words, claiming that they had been mistranslated by Haaretz, one of Israel's leading newspapers. They claimed that the full context of the quote had not been given.
However, Yishai's other comments on African migrants are telling. He has referred to South Tel Aviv, an area with a considerable African population, as "the garbage can of the country", and has repeatedly claimed that refugees and migrants are behind a massive crime wave, including rapes of Israeli women. This is not borne out by data from the Association of Rape Crisis Center in Israel or the Israeli police. Perhaps to explain this discrepancy, Yishai said that Israeli women who have been raped by migrant workers choose not to report the crimes "our of fear of being stigmatized as having contracted AIDS." In response, William Tall, the representative in Israel of the UN High Commission for Refugees reminded Yishai that there was no AIDS epidemic in the African migrant population of Israel.
In the past, Yishai has lambasted the UN for failing to solve Africa's problems, and forcing Israel to shoulder the burden instead. In making such a claim, Yishai either ignores or has forgotten Israel's long-running involvement in Africa, involvement that includes interests in African "blood diamonds" to interventions in Somalia.
Most relevant to a discussion of racism in Israel are the many years of Israeli-South African cooperation during the apartheid period. The two nations were so close that Israel offered to sell nuclear weaponry to South Africa - while many Israeli weapons were produced with uranium from South Africa. The Israeli government has tried to obscure and deny these connections in recent years, but the documentary evidence remains.
Looking at Israel today, what can we see? We see a state with a segregated system of roads. We see a state whose Ministry of Education creates civics lessons discouraging any relations between Jewish girls and Arab boys. We see a state where public remembrance of past crimes is criminalized. We see a state engaging in globally-condemned de facto annexation of territory acquired by conquest. We see a state where dissenters are threatened with death and told they deserve to be raped. We see a racist society that is growing less doubtful about its defects by the year.
Of course, some people see the only democracy in the Middle East.