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Mya Guarnieri: Xenophobia in Tel Aviv

March 8, 2011

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By **Mya Guarnieri**

engelhardt_photo.jpgThis morning, I woke to the news that a woman had been stabbed to death in South Tel Aviv. Two men—dubbed migrant workers by the Hebrew press, but referred to as “African descent” in the English-language media, suggesting they were probably asylum seekers—were briefly held under suspicion for the crime. They were interrogated and released without being charged.

The story hit me on many levels: I used to live in South Tel Aviv, an impoverished area that is home to migrant workers, African refugees, and poor Jews. During my time there, I volunteered in a black market Filipino kindergarten. I developed a deep attachment for the “foreign” community. I put quotes around the word “foreign” because, as cliché as it might be to say this, I quickly realized that migrant workers and African refugees aren’t foreign at all. I have never met anyone, anywhere in the world, that I have been unable to connect with on some basic level, even if I don’t agree with their politics or decisions.

Try telling that to the Israeli talkbackers who responded to the article. Their comments were screeching, horrifying. Because of this murder, some said, all migrant workers and African refugees should be deported from Israel immediately—as should the left-wingers who dare defend these foreigners’ human rights.

But I’m not here to demonize those talkbackers. While they do bear responsibility for their actions, of course, they are also victims of government manipulation.

This incident in South Tel Aviv comes a few weeks after four Jewish teenagers stabbed a young Palestinian man to death in Jerusalem. The attackers did not know their victim and chanted “Death to Arabs.”

The government’s response? A gag order was put on the incident.

Once it was lifted, Jerusalem police dismissively referred to this racially-motivated stabbing as a “drunken brawl”—despite the fact that witnesses disputed this version of events and the teenagers were indicted for the death. While much of the Israeli media marched lockstep with the state, Haaretz did a decent job of questioning the official line of events.

But most Israelis don’t read Haaretz.

And when a woman is allegedly killed by migrant workers, there is no gag order. The story is all over the news, thick with the word retzach, murder, fanning the flames of xenophobia. (It’s worth adding that, in the case of the Jewish teenagers, even Haaretz follows the state’s lead and uses the sanitized version of the word: manslaughter).

This is how the state of Israel is whipping its people into a nationalistic frenzy, using the media as an effective propaganda tool.

Why should Americans care?

Israel, a county of immigrants gripped by Islamophobia and a rising tide of racism, offers the US a reflection of itself. Because Israel is a smaller state, these forces are concentrated and intense. Right now, the image is hyperbolic. But it’s a frightening glimpse of where America could be headed.

Copyright 2011 Mya Guarnieri

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Mya Guarnieri is a Tel Aviv-based journalist and writer. A regular contributor to Al Jazeera English, her work has also appeared in The Guardian and The Huffington Post. Her fiction has been published in The Kenyon Review Online and Narrative Magazine. She is currently working on a book about migrant workers in Israel.

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