Rachel Shabi writes: It’s hard to shake off the image of them staring into space. On benches and dried-out grass in south Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park, small rows of men and women sit in wide-eyed silence. They are in shock. Many of them don’t offer details of their journey into Israel: ‘It was terrible,’ they say, and then stop. Refugees from mostly South Sudan, Eritrea, Sudan and also the Ivory Coast and the Congo, they entered the country through the Sinai Desert’s border with Egypt. ‘There were bad things, very bad things,’ one South Sudanese woman ventures, looking at her solemn seven-year-old daughter: they crossed the border a few years ago, and the girl barely spoke for months afterward.
Refugee organisations report that if people do speak of the journey, it is of unspeakable things: beatings, torture, rape, extortion, and imprisonment. A recent Human Rights Watch report catalogues nightmare cruelties at the hands of human traffickers in the Sinai. One practice is to beat migrants while playing their screams to relatives back home, for money.
When refugees from sub-Saharan Africa survive the trip to Israel, and the trauma that goes with it, they might end up functioning, working in menial jobs and living in overcrowded slums. That they put up with this semi-existence after the tortures of getting to the country tells us only that there is no alternative.
Israel, of course, is not unusual in being panicky over migrants, especially dark-skinned migrants from the ‘developing world’. But when Jews from all over the world migrate to Israel, it is given a Hebrew term, aliyah, or ‘ascent’, to make clear that this relocation is not really immigration but rather a welcomed homecoming. In a nation numbering almost 8 million, there are some 1.6 million Palestinian citizens, who stayed in Israel after the 1948 war that created the nation. Four per cent of the population is ‘other’. Meanwhile, the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in the early 1990s brought close to a million Russian Jews to Israel, though non-Russian Israelis sometimes moan that many of these are not ‘really’ Jewish. However, they are Jewish enough for official Israel, which is obsessively preoccupied with what is viewed as the existential imperative of boosting Jewish demographics.
Many Israelis, now sharing space with some 60,000 refugees from the sub-Saharan region, are making their reluctance known, with hate graffiti, verbal abuse, and demonstrations calling for the eviction of African refugees from the Jewish state. The migrants have been coming since 2005. Given no status, no rights, no work permits, they have crowded into run-down parts of Tel Aviv. In May this year, there were pogrom-style attacks against African migrants, smashed windows and burned buildings — the hate on the street stoked by equally hateful words from government ministers. Miri Regev, of the right-wing Likud party, for example, described the refugees as ‘a cancer in the body’ of the nation.
Rami Gudovitch, an Israeli activist who works with the refugees in south Tel Aviv, has described what he sees as ‘open, explicit and humiliating racism’. The attacks on refugee populations, he said, are ‘physical, verbal, brutal, serious, and endless’. What’s more, he is attacked, too, for siding with the migrants and speaking out about their plight. Watching from further afield, some have wondered how Israel — a nation of desperate, traumatised refugees — could be so unfeeling and closed to another set of desperate, traumatised refugees. But that’s the wrong question. That isn’t how it works.
In creating a Jewish homeland, Israel’s founders sought both a refuge from and an erasure of the brutal history of Jewish persecution in Europe. They wanted to do away with any idea of a scraping, craven, Diaspora Jew and replace it with a strong, confident, ‘new Jew’ belonging to this new nation. Alongside that, of course, was another erasure: of the people already on the land earmarked for the Jewish state — an air-brushing instantly surmised in the early Zionist slogan for Mandate Palestine: ‘A land without a people, for a people without a land.’
Zionism was always a bit obsessed with hygiene, mirroring the way that Europeans — colonisers and settlers of that time — were finicky and aloof about the supposedly unwashed, disease-riddled developing world. Israeli writers such as Amos Oz have described, with dark humour, the germ-averse fretfulness of their forebears upon arrival to then-Palestine, a fear of the ‘dirty’ Orient. But there’s another purity drive in Israel — not to do with grime and infestation. Much of the country’s 64-year history has been a chronicle of its attachment to erasures: to wiping things clean and out of the way. [Continue reading…]