Immigration sparks class showdown

By Nathan Jeffay, February 10, 2011
A Jewish - and legal - immigrant from Ethiopia arrives at Ben Gurion

A Jewish - and legal - immigrant from Ethiopia arrives at Ben Gurion

In Israel, concern about illegal immigration has mostly been driven by nationalism. "In the past 100 years, the Jewish people has built here a Jewish state. Within 10 years, infiltrators could cause this to go down the drain," declares Yaakov Katz, a politician with the right-wing National Union party and chairman of the Knesset's Committee on Foreign Workers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it slightly more delicately last year when announcing steps to curb illegal immigration. "There is broad agreement that we need to protect the state of Israel and its future as a Jewish and democratic state," he said, referring to the fear that the growing presence of African immigrants poses a threat to the Jewish majority in Israel.

There is a strong lobby that opposes Mr Netanyahu and Mr Katz's logic, saying that as a state of many former refugees, Israel has a special responsibility to care for asylum-seekers.

But while both sides of the argument have focussed on the national picture and on political ideology, public discourse is now shifting towards the local and
revolving around social class.

In late January more than 100 people gathered outside the notoriously smart Tel Aviv home of Defence Minister Ehud Barak, protesting against what they see as his inadequate action to stop the influx. But more significant than the fact they were standing there was their traversing of the city's north-south divide to get there.

They were residents of the depressed Hatikva neighbourhood in southern Tel Aviv, travelling to the city's smart northern district. Of the 35,000 illegal immigrants who have arrived in Israel since 2005 most have headed to Tel Aviv, and they have concentrated themselves in Hatikva, living in flats bought up by quick-buck landlords who have divided them up into small sections.

The protesters were pointedly going to the area where Israel's political elite tends to live with an accusation that it cares little if Hatikva, traditionally a Jewish working class area, changes and goes what they consider downhill, while it would be a different matter if the illegal immigrants were moving in next door to Mr Barak and his ilk.

The political significance of this fresh focus in the immigration debate cannot be overstated. The claim of being a marginalised locale which is ignored by the elite was precisely what put the need for the defence of Sderot on the national agenda. The nationalistic objection to illegal immigration seems, to many Israelis, too long-term to be relevant and tinged with racism. Hatikva's protesters - perhaps also driven by prejudice - prove that there are other powerful forces at work.

Last updated: 12:47pm, February 10 2011