Refugees in Tel Aviv. Photo by Trillia Fidei-Bagwell
The projector rolled a movie of a fair, white Jesus walking amongst his disciples. A Sudanese man spoke into a microphone, giving this on-screen Jesus a language incongruent with and probably more appropriate than his white skin. “If someone strikes you on the right cheek,” he intoned softly in Arabic, “turn to him the other also.” About two hundred Sudanese and Eritrean men, women, and children stood watching in the middle of a park in South Tel Aviv. And I watched them, and Jesus, and the Sudanese voice of Jesus, and the handful of my fellow Jews sitting with me, and I sat dumbstruck and overwhelmed.
This was a few weeks ago. I had spent the day learning about refugees and asylum seekers in Israel, going around South Tel Aviv and Jaffa talking to activists and aid organizations about what has been happening since 2005, when African refugees began crossing into Israel following increasingly harsh and violent treatment by the Egyptian government and army. According to estimates, there are currently around 35,000 African refugees and asylum seekers living in Israel. On Sunday, the Knesset passed a law designating these asylum seekers as “infiltrators.” This new law seeks to deter asylum seekers from crossing the border into Israel. Among other harsh measures, it is designed to create a situation where asylum seekers, who cross the border in an illegal fashion, will automatically be put into a specially designated prison for 3 years without trial. Now that this law has passed, the trajectory of asylum seekers and refugees in Israel will become significantly bleaker. However, even before the new law, it was already rather bleak:
Most of the people I saw in the park, like the vast majority of the refugees now coming into Israel, probably fled from Darfur, South Sudan, or Eritrea, following mass violence or genocide. They probably arrived in the Sinai, where they paid smugglers around $10,000 to get them across the border into Israel. However, it is likely that these smugglers tortured them and extorted the refugees’ families for six months prior to “helping” them across the border. While crossing, they were almost definitely under fire from Egyptian soldiers who have directions to shoot at Africans attempting to seek asylum in Israel. After crossing the border, perhaps these asylum seekers had bullet wounds and were taken to the hospital by Israeli soldiers.
After being treated, Israeli officials probably gave the asylum seekers a permit to stay in the country on the condition that they leave as soon as possible.
This permit, certainly, specified that they are not allowed to work in Israel, that they are not eligible to receive medical attention from the Israeli public system (not even follow-up care to what they received upon arriving in Israel), and that they are not eligible for any public services. Whether or not the asylum seekers themselves are told, the Israeli government has likely made clear why these types of permits are necessary: We do not want them to stay here, the government says. Yes, we have to save their lives. But, we can’t save the world; we can’t take on all of the world’s problems. And besides… what will happen in twenty years when these people want to get married, when they want to receive social security payments? Its 30,000 now, but that becomes 1,000,000 pretty soon. What will happen to the Jewish nature of the State? It’s better that we give them nothing, make things hard and then they will leave. Because, you know, they aren’t Jewish and, you know, they can’t be citizens and, you know… it’s just better that they want to leave. We don’t want them to die, but we don’t want them to live here either.
The asylum seekers were then, it’s safe to assume, put on a bus to Tel Aviv, dropped off in that South Tel Aviv park with the white Jesus and the black voice of Jesus, and told by the soldiers, “Here are your African friends. Good luck.”
And then, these men, women, and children sit in the park. Pretty soon, they will likely try to find people they know from home who are also now in Israel. They will probably look for work and seek medical treatment for ailments and injuries they “picked up” on the journey. They will almost certainly look for a place to sleep and try to figure out how to eat. They will, very likely, connect with one of the Israeli aid organizations (like ASSAF or Physicians for Human Rights) and, even more likely, with the strong, informal organizing of the refugee community. They will, I assume, start to build their lives: make friends, find lovers, think about their family and their past lives at home, and dream about the future. Some will probably not find work, or homes, or medical treatment, or manage to live normally after the physical and psychological damage of their pasts. Some will probably be homeless and hungry and depressed. But many of them will figure out how to live and operate in this country, they will build lives that function despite the obstacles. They will build businesses and social networks and strategies for circumventing the bureaucracy. However, because their permits say they can’t work, because they don’t have access to medical treatment, because they are widely discriminated against and hated, because even those who don’t hate them will often treat them with suspicion or objectifying curiosity, because the government’s policy is intended to make them want to leave, they will have a hard life here.
But for now, they sit in the park watching white-Jesus walking in green pastures. And they listen to black-Jesus, this time the voice of a man from Sudan speaking in Arabic, “…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Jesse Rothman | ACRI intern in 2011/12
Jesse (20) recently graduated from Carleton College with a degree in Political Science/ International Relations. He is extremely excited to be working at ACRI this year as a NIF/Shatil Social Justice Fellow.