‘The rapist was not a foreigner’

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Residents of the Hatikva neighborhood watch an anti-migrant protest held in mid-March. (Photo: Ben Hartman)

A young Israeli man lurked after a teenage girl walking home in the Yemenite Quarter close to midnight Saturday. As the girl made her way up the stairwell of her apartment building on Hakovshim street the man pounced on her and a struggle ensued. The woman began to scream, awakening her mother, who came to the stairwell, causing the would-be rapist to flee into the night, police said.

Speaking to a Tel Aviv police spokesman about an entirely different subject Sunday – the deployment of 50 Border Police officers in south Tel Aviv – the spokesman made a point of volunteering that the would-be rapist from Saturday night “was not a foreigner, he was Israeli, not a foreigner”. Only four days earlier, Tel Aviv crime reporters spent the better part of their day writing about the rape of an 8-year-old girl by a Sudanese man who broke into her family home and sexually assaulted the girl before stabbing her mother in the leg. The man was then beaten and tied up by the girl’s father, reportedly a martial arts enthusiast, adding to the dramatic story line.

Every article in the Hebrew press dealing with the incident wrote the man’s nationality or “a foreign national” in the headline, indicating that the man’s status as an African migrant provides more relevance and severity to the story.

They’re right, even if it is a self-fulfilling prophecy or a chicken and egg situation. Is his nationality written in the headline because it’s relevant to the crime itself or does his nationality become important once it’s written in the headline? Is it news-worthy to report his nationality in the headline because paired with his crime it could cause further tension or violence in south Tel Aviv, and to what extent is such tension the result of the magnifying lens put on these acts when committed by African migrants, and not by Jewish Israelis?

Any African migrant arrested for a crime of brutality – a rape, an aggravated assault and robbery – becomes part of a far larger context. He becomes a central player in the worsening crime rate in south Tel Aviv, the government’s failure to deal with the illegal migration problem, the lack of a sufficient mechanism for checking asylum claims, the continued neglect of the southern neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, and generations of class resentment between working class Mizrachis and the Ashkenazis of north Tel Aviv. This creates a situation where one writes a headline or subheading mentioning the assailant’s nationality, at times with the full knowledge that such a clarification would probably not be made in the United States or Europe, where a headline reading “Mexican rapes teen in apartment break-in” would be seen as racist and have little chance of seeing the light of day.

But are all rapes created equal? Is the man’s nationality not news-worthy when such crimes committed by African migrants represent one of the main points of discontent for Israelis living in south Tel Aviv?

In between the locals and the new arrivals from Africa stand the police, who appear to be genuinely concerned about the violence that such crimes may ignite. Last December, much was made of a decision by police to not publicize the rape of an 83-year-old woman by an Eritrean man, fearing that it could spur new violence in south Tel Aviv. The headline that morning in Ynet, and later that day in Walla were basically the same: An 80-year-old woman was raped near the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, in a case that the police are “hiding from the public”.

The Ynet story continued that usually in cases like this the police will send out an announcement to the press, but that in this particular incident, police kept a lid on the case for 10 days, with an unnamed police source saying that the decision to keep quiet about the investigation was made because “they don’t want this story to inflame things” in south Tel Aviv.

This wasn’t the first time such a decision was made, but probably the first time that such a decision was deemed newsworthy in and of itself. Police also didn’t notify crime reporters last April, when Molotov cocktails were thrown at buildings housing African migrants across the Shapira neighborhood, with one Tel Aviv District spokesman saying the police didn’t see it as necessitating a press release. In both cases, it appears the decision was made to allow police to investigate the case quietly, without igniting the already tense environment between Israelis and African migrants in south Tel Aviv.

Reporting a suspect’s nationality as a news-worthy detail in and of itself is problematic and should not be done lightly. That said, it would be foolish to act as though violent crimes committed by African migrants and reported on by the Israeli press, do not have the ability to ignite an already loaded powder keg.

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