Morane Barkai
Last updated: 16 July, 2012

Can Facebook protect ethnic minorities?

"A social activist who was the young girl’s tutor, posted the story on Facebook, which was then picked up by other activists, local celebrities, and networks of all types," writes Morane Barkai.

Israel is facing societal problems of all kinds, be they racial, economic, or political. This trend is accompanied by a growing hostility and violence, at times promoted by the state, towards marginalised segments of society: the Israeli-Palestinians, the refugees, and the ultra-orthodox. In this atmosphere, Facebook is quickly turning into a platform for mass-denunciation of state-corruption and civil-rights abuse.

The Israeli government has recently put the mark on African immigrants and refugees, adopting policies that many find excessive. A number of abuses has been recorded, published and massively distributed on Facebook, subsequently forcing the local authorities to review certain actions.  

The most publicised case involved the arrest of an eleven year-old girl together with her family at the end of June, as a preliminary step to their deportation from the country. The family comes from North Sudan, which means the parents and two children are refugees and their deportation is illegal. Moran Mekamel, a social activist who was the young girl’s tutor, posted the story on Facebook, which was then picked up by other activists, local celebrities, and networks of all types. The post, shared, liked, and commented upon by hundreds of Facebook users, prompted a reaction from the office of Eli Yishai, Israel’s Interior Minister, who later ordered the release of the family.

More recently, a post was published in the beginning of July, recounting the ordeals of Jajao Bimero, a young Israeli of Ethiopian origins. According to Bimero, he and his friends were brutally beaten up by police officers as they were leaving a nightclub, for no reason, apart from the colour of their skin. The policemen, who were actually called to intervene in a brawl that took place further away, kicked, slapped, electrically-shocked and pepper-sprayed these young people. They also yelled racial abuse at Bimero as he was lying injured on the road. A few days later, the young man filed a complaint, but only after his story was shared on Facebook and “liked” by tens of thousands of users. Ultimately, the police reacted and promised to follow up the complaint.

These largely publicised cases add up to many less known ones, in which social media are used to right institutionalised wrongs and support victims of racial attacks. Their contribution can be smaller, but also lasting, such as the mobilisation of assistance and the collection of donations to rebuild Divine day-care, catering mostly for the children of refugees, that was destroyed by Molotov bottles in the racial riots that rocked Tel-Aviv at the end of April; or the organisation of a weekly soup-kitchen catering for the homeless refugees in Tel-Aviv’s Levinsky Park.

Israeli Facebook groups are being used to name and shame officials who act illegally or offensively, but the activity of social media is not restricted to words alone, as the active mobilisation for Divine day-care and for the refugees of Levinsky Park shows. It seems, then, that Facebook provides many Israelis with alternative means to express their opinion and take action against what they view as unjust.

It is encouraging to see that Israeli civil society is alive and kicking, but it is also important to put this social media activism in perspective; first and foremost because social media is widely used to promote racial hate and extremist opinions. The networked mobilisation that served to free an eleven year-old refugee and her family from imprisonment and save her from deportation, is operating along-side other networks that endorse a white-only and strictly Jewish Israeli state.

Finally, the Facebook activity also appears as a last resort in a political system that seems to be increasingly hermetic, arbitrary, and inaccessible to civic appeal. As politicians from the coalition foment ethnic tensions and police forces adopt illegal methods, the pervading feeling is that apart from online voluntary action, no rampart exists against injustice and oppression. This is hardly a good sign for the state proclaiming itself to be the only democracy in the Middle East.

The views in this article are the author’s and do not neccessarily reflect those of Your Middle East.