The Emmett Till Effect in Israel
Is this justice?
Last Thursday, two Israelis were convicted of brutally beating an African refugee to death, but were spared long prison sentences when the judge agreed to reduce the charges against them from murder to manslaughter and grievous bodily harm, the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz reported.
In November 2016, 20-year-old Dennis Barshivatz and a 17-year-old who cannot be named under Israeli law beat Babikir Ali Adham-Abdo, a 40-year-old Sudanese asylum seeker, for an hour and a half in front of the city hall of Petach Tikva, a Tel Aviv suburb that is a sister city of Chicago, Ill. Barshivatz will serve a maximum of 10 years in jail and will be eligible for release much earlier. The court has yet to determine sentencing for his teenage accomplice.
The killing of Adham-Abdo has evoked comparisons to the Mississippi murder and mutilation of the Chicago teenager Emmett Till in 1955. Just as American racists attempted to excuse Till’s murder by posthumously accusing the black teen of having flirted with a white woman whose path he had crossed, some Israelis allege that Adham-Abdo had brought on the lethal beating he received when he supposedly sexually harassed a group of Israeli teenage girls at the scene.
In the case of Till, the woman he was accused of flirting with admitted over half a century later that she had fabricated the entire claim, and that Till had never made any advances toward her. The allegations against Adham-Abdo were also revealed to be baseless when CCTV footage of the incident was released. The city hall security camera video clearly showed that Adham-Abdo approached the table where the three teens were sitting, spoke to the group for less than 10 seconds, then turned and walked away. Moments later, his assailants set upon him and began to brutally beat him.
Another parallel between the Adham-Abdo and Emmett Till incidents lay in the grievous injuries wrought to their faces. In both cases, their faces were pummeled so badly that they were unrecognizable. Adham-Abdo’s brother was only able to claim the body for burial once he had identified it based on its missing fingers, which had been severed during murderous clashes in Darfur, from which Adham-Abdo had originally fled to Israel to escape.
“We don’t agree to the penalties,” Adham-Abdo’s cousin Moussa told Haaretz. “We thought there was justice in the Israeli courts, we thought Israel was a state of justice. If the victim had been an Israeli, the outcome would have been different. There’s racism here.”
Sadly, Adham-Abdo was not the first African refugee to be beaten to death by a group of Israelis in a public place in recent years. In October 2015, during a shooting attack at the central bus station in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, a security guard shot 29-year-old Ertirean refugee Haftom Zarhum under the premise that he was assumed to be one of the terrorists. The bus station’s security footage revealed that Zarhum was clearly unarmed and crawling on the ground like other innocent bystanders, trying to avoid the bullets of the terrorist attackers.
As Zarhum bled out on the ground, Israelis took turns kicking him in the face and slamming chairs and benches down on him, while other bystanders actively prevented medics from reaching him to treat his wounds. In June 2016, a judge ruled that one of the Israelis who slammed a bench down on Zarhum’s head would not be charged. Charges are pending against four other Israelis who participated in the lynching.
The vicious violence against non-Jewish African refugees in Israel follows years in which Israeli political leaders and religious officials regularly whipped up racist sentiments against them, accusing them of bringing to Israel deadly diseases, violent crimes and anti-state terrorism. Official Israeli government statistics have proven all these smears to be baseless. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s primary justification for expelling the refugees cannot be so easily dismissed: They should not be able to live in Israel, he claims, because they are not Jews.
That the refugees are not Jews is true. Of those who are religious, about half are Christian, and about half are Muslim. The belief that non-Jews have no right to live in the Holy Land has always had some currency among Israeli Jews, but it has become increasingly popular in recent years, with the country’s current chief rabbi now openly preaching that genocidal doctrine.
In 2013, Netanyahu completed the construction of a high-tech fence on Israel’s border with the African continent, in order to end the influx of asylum seekers. In the five years that followed, Israeli authorities cajoled over a third of the community, more than 20,000 refugees, to agree to self-deport, by withholding their refugee rights and promising instead that these will be granted to them in an unnamed African country. Now Netanyahu has warned that any African refugees who don’t agree to self-deport by April 1 will be jailed indefinitely until they do so. The first group to face this choice will be single African men who aren’t yet fathers.
Human rights activists, journalists and liberal lawmakers who have followed up with refugees already forced out of Israel have learned that the government never fulfilled its promises to them, and that they were quickly made stateless once more. Without state protection, the vast majority of these refugees then fled for the European Union, hoping to find asylum there. Many then endured horrific tortures at the hands of Libyan slave traders, or drowned in the Mediterranean in failed attempts to reach Fortress Europe.
Anticipating Netanyahu’s April 1 deadline to self-deport, progressive Israelis have begun to publicly oppose the impending expulsion. In recent weeks, groups of doctors and artists, pilots and teachers have taken out advertisements in Israeli newspapers, articulating their objections to the plan. Liberal rabbis have invoked the memory of iconic Holocaust victim Anne Frank in announcing that they plan to resist by hiding African refugees in their own homes, and some Holocaust survivors have also agreed to take them in.
But despite these expressions of solidarity, Netanyahu has vowed to carry out the expulsion as planned, reaping popular support for the plan that he sowed with years of racist incitement. A poll last month found that two-thirds of Israeli citizens support the government’s plan to round up and deport all the remaining African asylum seekers, who now number only about 36,000, less than 0.5 percent of the population.
On Saturday, 20,000 Israelis and Africans marched in the streets of Tel Aviv, calling on the government to allow the refugees to work legally, and to invest in the neighborhoods they live in, so that their presence is not perceived as a burden to long-time residents. It was a brief reminder that the left still exists, even after a decade of rule by what may have been the most racist governments in Israel’s history.
But it was also an indication of the vigilante violence that could be let loose against African refugees if Israeli racists feel that the government plan to expel them all is in danger of being annulled. According to Israeli news site i24, police detained two Israeli men and seized a gun from one of them after they publicly plotted over Facebook to attend a pro-refugee demonstration and attack the Africans with weapons.