Monday, December 27, 2010

"We asked for asylum - prison we got"

Dark and grim days. And suddenly, a small moment of hope and encouragement, from people who are not citizens of Israel, and whose status even as temporary residents here is extremely precarious and cast in perpetual doubt. The refugees and asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea, living in the slums and margins of Israeli society, have organized and went out onto the streets, to have their say, loud and clear, and hold a mirror to the Israel of late 2010.

For a long time they were talked about without their opinion being asked, without their speaking for themselves, without anyone bothering to listen to them. As if they had no ears to hear what was said, or eyes to see, and feelings to be hurt.

The Prime Minister said that the refugees and infiltrators who arrive in Israel from Africa via the Egyptian border are a security and demographic risk, and that they steal the livelihood of poor Israelis. The government decided to set up for them a camp somewhere far away in the Negev desert, out of sight and out of mind, where they could "stay" under the courteous supervision of Israel's Prison Service.

In the slums of South Tel Aviv a demonstration took place where the extreme racist Knesset Member Michael Ben-Ari of the National Union Party and the moderate racist Knesset Member Yoel Hasson of the Kadima Party both said in slightly different styles the same thing: that black skinned people walking the streets of Tel Aviv and speaking various African languages are a nuisance and disturbance which should be removed forthwith. And of course they were quick to clarify that this was of course not racism, not at all – it was just a manifestation of self defense and a war for survival by the slum dwellers.

And in the course of this demonstration, some of the refugees in question happened to pass in the street nearby. Quite a few of them know Hebrew - certainly well enough to understand such sentences as "We don’t want these blacks here" and the various pejoratives attached to the word "blacks" in fiery speeches blaring from the loudspeakers.

True, no one present there tried to physically assault the passing refugees. They were just ignored as if they were thin air. In media reports this was emphasized with rupture, as a clear sign of tolerance and magnanimity on the part of the rally's participants. Later that night, some of the miserable and overcrowded apartments where the refugees live got visits from people carrying flammable materials.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai reiterated that the demonstration had been "understandable and justified," and the oh so liberal Yair Lapid explained that no one would have called it a racist demonstration had the refugees been blond Norwegian rather than black Africans. (Why not?) And Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called upon citizens not to take the law into their hands, as the government would soon take steps to remove the black nuisance.

On Friday morning, the refugees broke their silence. They went out on the streets of Tel Aviv, organized and articulate, people who began to take their fate in their hands, chanting slogans and carrying signs, handwritten and printed, in Hebrew and English and in their mother tongues. "We are not infiltrators / We are not criminals / We are asylum seekers / We demand justice / We demand our rights", "We asked for asylum - we got prison", "We did not come looking for work / We escaped oppression and murder." Israeli activists were among them, the human rights of the We are Refugees organization and intellectuals and singers and past and present Knesset Members, Dov Hanin and Zehava Gal'on. But in the rally which took place in the center of the Meir Park, the refugees themselves took center stage - the people who had fled from genocide in Darfur and from a brutal and repressive regime in Eritrea, and who had undergone many atrocities on their long way until they found a refuge – a very temporary and precarious refuge – in Israel, and who spoke out very clearly and movingly. To any who wanted to listen. .

One demonstration does not in itself change the entire situation. These people still have ahead of them a difficult time. They have good reason to fear more persecution in the Jewish-Democratic State, possibly detention camps or deportation back to the hell they had escaped from. But at least, from now on it will be harder to talk about them as if they were not present to hear every word.