Since 2005, Israel has seen a drastic rise in asylum-seekers and migrant workers from African countries, mainly Eritrea and Sudan. Many of them came from their home countries, through Egypt, and were smuggled across the border into Israel, risking torture, rape, and abuse. They number now upwards of 50,000 and live mainly in Eilat and South Tel Aviv, where I lived for five months. These refugees come from war-torn countries and are a protected group under international law. They came to Israel looking for freedom and economic opportunity and a place to raise their children, and Israel grants many of them temporary visas which they have to renew every three months. These people, however, generally are low-income and their communities in Israel have high crime rates, which contributes to their negative image among their Israeli neighbors.
There have been protests against the so-called “infiltrators”, including one in May of 2012 in Tel Aviv’s Hatikvah Quarter which turned violent, in which protestors battled with police forces and attacked stores owned by foreigners. Afterwards, foreigners reported that they were afraid to walk in the streets. While their violence is heinous and inexcusable, their general frustration is understandable. There has been inaction on the part of the government, and that has led to a feeling of stagnation among those who live in these communities. Along with these frustrations, there are very real issues of crime and safety. And the concerns are also demographic; many of those protesting these “infiltrators” claim that they pose a demographic threat to Israel’s Jewish majority. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai disputed that in 2013, saying “Can 50,000 people be a demographic threat? That’s a mockery…The truth is they will remain here. They are human beings and I must take care of them.” For now, the refugees are still here and still seeking asylum.
There have also been demonstrations in support of the refugees; some of these protested the detention of asylum seekers from Africa without trials. Needless to say, views on what should be done with these refugees are mixed and varied, as they usually are in an opinionated culture like Israel’s.
During this past year, I had the pleasure of volunteering for an organization called Unitaf, established partly by the city of Tel Aviv and private donors. Unitaf runs kindergartens for the children of African refugees and migrant workers. These children, around six thousand of them, most if not all of whom were born in Israel, are status-less and therefore not entitled to government benefits. While their parents work or search for work in the mornings and late into the evening, many of them have nowhere to go. In the past, one woman from the community would run her own babysitting service in her home, sometimes taking care of twenty or even thirty children. It was cheap and simple, but the conditions in these kindergartens were unsafe and unregulated; there have even been cases of infant fatality in these unsupervised kindergartens. UNITAF kindergartens brought these women who would otherwise be running babysitting services out of their apartments to actual kindergarten facilities and gave them the supplies and space to adequately care for these children. In South Tel Aviv, there are two main schools; one in the Central Bus Station and one in a non-descript building further up Levinsky Street.
I worked in that nondescript building somewhere in South Tel Aviv, helping to look after thirty or so children with three other women. I was there for only two hours a day; playing with the children, teaching them a little Hebrew or English, or playing guitar for them. Their teachers, the other women, were there from seven in the morning to as late as six in the afternoon. I never really got to meet any of the parents, but I could tell they wanted what any parent wants for their child; a good, healthy, safe place to be while they try to make a living and put food on the table. And their kids just wanted to be loved and get attention, as all children do. I have never felt so loved and so wanted as I did when I first walked in every morning. I realized somewhere between my funny faces and their laughter that kids are the same everywhere and, really, so are their parents. Jewish, Palestinian, Eritrean, Sudanese. We all want to be loved, and we all want to love. Some kids just want to be held for just a moment, to be told everything’s going to be all right. I remember one boy used to pretend to fall down just so I would pick him up and, for that moment, all my attention was on him, which was all he ever really wanted. They couldn’t even remember my name; they just called me “Aba”; father.
The saddest part about working there was realizing how far behind they would be compared to their Israeli counterparts. Surrounded by so many languages every day, and lacking proper education, they learn to read and to speak much later than other children. They hear their parents’ language at home, their teachers’ broken English at school, and Hebrew everywhere else. They speak this sort of combination of all three, or don’t really speak at all. Kids who were six years old couldn’t speak in full sentences in Hebrew or English; it’s possible they could speak their parents’ language at home, but I never heard it.
Still, even with these difficulties, they will be, as a whole, much better off in Israel than they could be in their home countries. They are fleeing forced conscription, war, and persecution, and looking for a safe place to raise their children and make something of themselves. They come as refugees seeking a home, something the Jewish people can painfully empathize with. Never have I felt as proud of Israel as when I saw these children being given a chance when they would have none otherwise; never have I felt so ashamed as when I heard fear-mongering Knesset Members disgrace Jewish values and themselves by referring to these asylum-seekers as “infiltrators”; it was like they had forgotten the St. Louis, a boat of eight-hundred Jewish refugees that was turned away by every country in the world, before returning to Europe and to Hitler’s Final Solution. “Love, therefore, the stranger…” demands the Torah. “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” It is like they have forgotten the basic morals of humanity that Judaism stresses. They include in their numbers such names as MK Danny Danon and new Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, and their hate is un-Jewish.
Like many aspects of Israeli life, the refugee issue is multifaceted and complicated. Like most nations, Israel is still figuring out how to balance the practicalities of nation management and the ideal to which she aspires; the harshness and difficulty of reality and the values that speak to our humanity. The most important lesson to learn is that there are people behind every label; that behind every story are human beings of worth and value. And once we realize that, reality might not seem so harsh and our road to our ideal may be easier to reach than we thought. In the meantime, we may look to Mayor Huldai’s vision for inspiration. “They are human beings…” he stresses. “And I must take care of them.”