While living in Israel, Masa participants engage in all facets of Israeli society. Some volunteers and interns choose to work with the asylum seeker population of Israel. This is one participant's take on the recent asylum seeker protests in Jerusalem.
On December 15th over 150 African refugees from Sudan and Eritrea marched from a detention facility in Israel’s Negev to the Knesset in Jerusalem to fight for their lives. More than 50,000 Africans have come to Israel in the past decade, fleeing civil war, oppressive regimes, and ethnic cleansing. Many were smuggled to the Israeli border by Bedouin kidnappers who subjected them to physical and psychological torture. Upon arriving in Israel, over four hundred such asylum seekers have been imprisoned for their “illegal infiltration” into the state.
I’ve heard stories like this before. We read articles about the plight of refugees and immigrants fleeing from unimaginable horrors; we hear the excuses and political rhetoric that emerge in host states; we know about the complex legal battles these individuals face, the criminalization of immigration, and the extreme racism and xenophobia that greets them when they finally arrive in new supposedly free lands. In certain ways I thought I had become numb to such stories. It seemed distant, far removed from my own life and experience. It was horrible, no doubt, but not something tangible or personal in any way. But last month, my perspective changed.
After living in Israel for four months I have become part of a complex, frustrating, and deeply troubling situation unfolding in South Tel Aviv. Through my participation in a social action program called Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa I have worked with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that serve African asylum seekers, primarily from Sudan and Eritrea. I work in their neighborhood, babysit their kids at a daycare center, accompany new mothers and their children to doctors’ appointments, and teach them English. Through these volunteer placements, organized by the Tikkun Olam program, I have seen a population that works hard in the face of complete uncertainty, a people that supports each other, creating networks and organizations to meet the needs of the community. But I have also seen the racism they face, the obstacles to freedom and economic security, and their struggle towards an uncertain future. The articles published about their plight are no longer just words on a page or troubling accounts of something far away. It is the story of people I have met, the parents of children I babysit, the peaceniks and advocates I have the pleasure of meeting and working with every day.
On December 15th I marched with them. When I arrived at the Knesset I anticipated something far different than what greeted me on that snowy day in Jerusalem. I knew that 48 hours earlier over 150 asylum seekers left the detention center they were being held at in the desert, walked six hours to the closest city, and proceeded north towards Jerusalem, helped along the way by human rights activists and a hospitable kibbutz. When I heard their story I presumed the marchers would be angry, possibly hostile. I know I would have been given their situation. After all, the one democracy in the region, the one place within “walking distance” that was supposedly a friendly host for those fleeing persecution, was keeping them locked up. But that was not what I saw on that afternoon. Huddled together, probably in part for warmth, these 150 detained refugees, alongside their friends living in Israel and the advocates working alongside them, quietly chanted: “We are refugees. We are not criminals.” Chanting this phrase over and over, in both English and Hebrew, they remained calm and collected. I was in awe of their patience and their determination. After fleeing the detention center they could have run for their lives and attempted to find work illegally in Israel or hide out in a friend’s home somewhere in Tel Aviv. But they didn’t. They chose to protest publicly and raise their voices in pursuit of justice. They held signs citing the Torah, reminding Jews to “welcome the stranger.” They quoted activists like Nelson Mandela, and proclaimed that they too, were entitled to basic human rights. With resolution and a spirit, a ruach, unlike anything I have ever seen, they demanded freedom.
What unfolded after was nothing short of a tragedy. Immigration police officers, armed and ready, stormed into the protest and began to break up what was possibly one of the tamest political protests in Israel’s history. I was standing right there as these officers pursued what I can only describe as a racist strategy. If you were black, they grabbed you by the collar or the shoulders and dragged you from the march onto a bus just a few meters away. If you were white you were asked to step aside. Most protestors simply sat down on the wet pavement and waited. The officers would gang up, often three or more to a single person and violently remove them from the scene; they put these young men and women in headlocks, pushed and prodded them, until, after 20 or so minutes, the black faces that had comprised the majority of the march were gone and all that remained were articles of clothing, wet, torn and abandoned signs asking for freedom, and fifteen white Israeli activists screaming “we are refugees.” I stood helpless on the side of the street, in total and complete shock. Where was the law in this? How can such actions be considered moral or humane? What happened to the Jewish values that supposedly drive and define this state? It was the Africans, the Christians, and Muslims in the crowd that reminded us of what it means to be Jewish.
Just two hours later, I had the opportunity to meet with Ruth Calderon, a member of the Yesh Atid party and a strong voice for civil rights in Israel. I visited the Knesset that afternoon with 200 young Jews from around the world as part of the Masa Leadership Summit. When I asked her about the anti-infiltration law that allowed for the detention of the men and women I had just marched with, she told our group that as difficult as the situation is, she supports the detention policy. She explained that Israel cannot be held responsible for all those in Africa who are subjected to economic or political distress; Israel does not have the capacity to house all the world’s suffering. She said that if we let these thousand refugees stay freely in Israel, then another thousand and another thousand will come. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response was to announce that the refugees had two options: stay in detention or return to the lands that had persecuted them. In other words, stay jailed or risk death. Political responses to this situation have continued to shock me. They harken back 65 years to the Jewish pleas heard from Eastern Europe. As Jewish refugees fled for their lives, desperately seeking refuge, most western nations offered similar arguments: we can’t house them, it’s not our responsibility, we sympathize but who are we to get involved?
Israel has to be better than this. We know. We were there. Israel is a state built by refugees, a homeland whose vision is grounded in social justice and freedom. It is time to do more. It is time to stop accepting detention as the best solution. It is time to speak up for the 55,000 refugees currently residing in the State of Israel. It is time to stop making excuses. Israel does not have to take responsibility for all those who suffer, but we must care for those who are already here. Because as those 15 Israelis proclaimed after all the African marchers were detained, WE are refugees. We know the struggle they are facing. And we have to act. Now.