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Donald Sterling's Comments Shed Light on the Underreported Plight of Israel's African Refugees

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The publication of an audio recording that features the white owner of an American basketball team berating his girlfriend for being seen in public with black people has injected new life into a number of important conversations that Americans need to have about race, class and gender relations, among other topics. But one of the most salient sentences in Donald Sterling's diatribe was largely glossed over by the mainstream media; namely, his justifying his own hate by noting that racism is commonplace, and maybe even more extreme, elsewhere: "You go to Israel, the blacks are just treated like dogs."

As the scandal spiraled, this pivotal statement was all but ignored by political pundits, and this was no accident. American media outlets self-police every mention of Israel, for fear of a backlash from the state's vocal supporters in the U.S. This is especially true regarding Israel's treatment of the 50,000 non-Jewish sub-Saharan Africans in the country. For unlike in the case of Israel's protracted conflict with non-Jewish Arabs, which is often framed as a hard-to-understand and harder-to-solve war over territory, here there is no narrative that can convincingly shield the Israeli government from accusations of base racism.

The phenomenon of non-Jewish immigration -- called, simply, "immigration" in the rest of the world -- is new to Israel, having only reached quantities of any significance between 2006 and 2012. During those years, about 60,000 Africans fleeing political persecution, military dictatorships and ethnic cleansing -- mainly from Eritrea and Sudan -- sought asylum in Israel. Every one of them crossed into Israel by foot and immediately surrendered themselves to IDF soldiers patrolling the border, as required by international law: the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.

While many countries make efforts to limit the number of asylum-seekers breaching their borders, millions have managed to refuge in Africa, Asia, Australia, America, and Europe. The Netanyahu government has sought not to constrain the number of non-Jewish asylum-seekers in Israel, but to reduce their number to zero. Outside of Israel, 70 percent or more of Eritreans and Sudanese are granted refugee status. By contrast, Israel has granted refugee status to only two Eritreans, and it has not granted refugee status to even a single Sudanese.

In a transparent attempt to maintain the appearance that it is not deporting refugees back to more of the horrors that they fled from, the Israeli government's policy is, in the words of former Interior Minister Eli Yishai, to "make their lives miserable," until they give up and agree to self-deport. To that end, it does not permit almost any asylum-seekers to work, so that they have no legal way of providing for their own sustenance. In December, the government began to round African asylum-seekers out of Israeli cities and into a vast desert detention center, for an unlimited period of time, so as to further immiserate them.

What little mention Sterling's Israel references received in the American media focused on his comparison between the white Jews and black Jews that live in the country ["There's white Jews and black Jews" / "Are the black Jews less than the white Jews?" / "A hundred percent"]. By doing so, these statements could be dismissed as not wholly accurate, because while black Jews (almost all of whom are Ethiopian-Israelis) are the darkest-skinned, and therefore, the most disadvantaged and discriminated-against population of Jews in Israel, they still retain all of the privileges of citizenship that follow from their Jewishness.

One of those Ethiopian-Israelis, Member of Knesset Shimon Solomon, was so incensed by the incident that he penned a public letter to the National Basketball Association commissioner, urging him to punish Sterling, signing off as "Sincerely, A Black Jew from Israel." But sadly, like too many of his fellow black Jews in Israel, Solomon is complicit in the government's war on African asylum-seekers. All the members of his Yesh Atid party present at the Knesset plenum voted with the rest of the government to strip African asylum-seekers of their freedom and lock them up in the desert detention center.

A sustained propaganda campaign by top political officials has branded the African asylum-seekers in the eyes of the Israeli people as spreaders of disease, and even as a threat on par with nuclear bombs. Although official police statistics continually demonstrate that Africans have a far lower crime rate than native Israelis, the entire community is tarred in the media as inherently criminal, inflaming grassroots racism. As a result, a January poll revealed that 80 percent of Jews now want the government to physically remove all African asylum-seekers from Israeli population centers.

After a Sderot rabbi boasted that he successfully shut down an African church, convinced locals not to rent apartments to Africans, and patrolled city streets in order to drive the Africans out of town, he was invited by a government faction to repeat his 'successes' in Tel Aviv, and given a budget to do so. After a ruling Likud Party member of Knesset incited a thousand-person anti-African race riot in Tel Aviv by calling Africans a "cancer" -- and then apologizing, not to Africans, but to cancer victims, for comparing them to Africans -- Prime Minister Netanyahu promoted her to head the committee that decides the fate of those same Africans.

None of these facts are hidden from the Israeli public as they are hidden from the American public. Just the opposite: in Hebrew, the government proudly announces each new anti-African measure, since they have broad popular support and can be converted into political capital. Now that Donald Sterling has inadvertently exposed the plight of Israel's African refugees to an American audience, as well, will it lead to increased interest in their welfare and to a wider conversation about the treatment of non-Jews in general in the "Jewish State"?

David Sheen is an independent journalist and filmmaker originally from Toronto, Canada who now lives in Dimona, Israel. He first moved to Israel in 1999 and later went on to work as a reporter and editor at the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz.