Racist Hanukkah

Hanukkah, the festival of lights, is not a celebration of racism, but in Tel Aviv on the third night of the holiday, the “Banish the Darkness” anti-immigrant rally turned a religious holiday into a mob scene. Right wing MKs Michael Ben-Ari and Arieh Eldad held a candle-lighting ceremony to demand the exportation of all African immigrants from Israel.

One might think that this is an aberration, but it is not. This was the second annual rally held around Hanukkah. While Jewish children played with dreidels and ate fried foods to celebrate the holiday, stories emerged about Ethiopian Jewish women being given contraceptives as a condition of immigrating to Israel.* However, outsiders are beginning to take note; the plight of these immigrants and the racism in Tel Aviv are depicted in stark detail by a film team from the UK in Vice magazine’s powerful short doc, Last Stop, Tel Aviv.

While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict garners much of the media attention, this tense situation, which mirrors the racial conflicts of the civil rights movement, plays out on Twitter and other social media outlets. I was first introduced to the conflict by a Twitter follower of mine, David Sheen, a documentary filmmaker who’s been chronicling the plight of African immigrants in Israel, including the 2010 edict from rabbis in Tel Aviv that Jews should not rent apartments to asylum seekers.

Meanwhile, AIPAC, CUFI and other American organizations have been very vocal about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and actively soliciting African-American Christian support for Israel. In the face of the worsening racial situation in Israel, how will these outreaches continue without questions and scrutiny? How will they respond when African Americans begin to ask questions about the treatment of African refugees in Israel?

The issue of immigration for many nations, including Israel, is fraught. When the immigration issue becomes racialized, it escalates to a whole other level. Add religion, and the mix only becomes that much more volatile. While the Holy Land may hold a special place in the hearts of many at this time of year, for African refugees it looks more and more like a place where they’re not wanted.

*This sentence has been modified slightly for clarity.  

Anthea Butler [@AntheaButler] is a Contributing Editor to Religion Dispatches. Her forthcoming book, in’The Gospel According To Sarah: How Sarah Palinin’’s Tea Party Angels are Galvanizing the Religious Right will be out in 2013.