On the last day of August, Benjamin Netanyahu, dressed in a wide navy suit and flanked by security guards, toured the muggy streets of south Tel Aviv. It had been several years since Netanyahu, whose net worth is an estimated $11 million, last visited the area, home to some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and where tens of thousands of refugees and migrant workers have settled since the 1990s. The purpose of the tour, according to Netanyahu’s office, was “to identify with the residents and to hear their distress.” By residents, Netanyahu did not mean the migrant workers and refugees. “Our task,” he declared, “is to return the area to the citizens of Israel.”
An estimated 38,000 asylum seekers, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, live in Israel today. Together with around 100,000 migrant workers, mainly from Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, they make up Israel’s population of non-Jewish migrants. Indian, Nepalese, Filipino, and Sri Lankan migrants work as home health aides for elderly Israelis and as domestic workers in Israeli households. Thai migrants work the fields on the now-privatized kibbutzim. Migrants from Bulgaria, China, Moldova, and Romania—alongside Palestinian day laborers—build high-rise apartments that fill the skylines in major Israeli cities.
Three months after Netanyahu’s visit to south Tel Aviv, his administration approved a plan to deport the Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers to an unnamed “third country” in Africa, widely presumed to be Rwanda or Uganda. Between 2013 and 2017, as part of a “voluntary departure” program, Israel sent 3,959 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers who agreed to leave to Rwanda and Uganda. Israel claims to have secret agreements with both countries’ governments, under which Israel will pay them $5,000 for each refugee they take in. In early January, the Israeli government announced that the asylum seekers had three months to leave the country; those who remained after the three months would face a choice: deportation or indefinite detention in Israel. In early February, the government began issuing deportation notices.
Though both the Rwandan and Ugandan governments have repeatedly denied having any agreement under which they will take in refugees deported from Israel, the deportation plan is underway. On February 20, seven asylum seekers were transferred from the Holot facility, a desert detention center for African asylum seekers near the border with Egypt, to Saharonim Prison, where they will be imprisoned indefinitely, or until they agree to leave the country. Hundreds of asylum seekers detained in Holot began a hunger strike in response.
Israeli immigration authorities have rounded up asylum seekers in their apartments and business, in restaurants and public parks. Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority issued a call for civilian volunteers, offering a bonus of 30,000 NIS, roughly, $9,000, to individuals with a high-school education willing to participate in the deportation operation. The government has set for itself a quota of deporting 600 refugees a month over the course of three years, though Netanyahu is reportedly exploring the possibility of forcibly expelling the asylum seekers en masse. “We have removed about 20,000,” the prime minister told his cabinet during the first week of January. “Now the task is to remove the others.”
Published in March of 2017, Mya Guarnieri Jaradat’s The Unchosen: The Lives of Israel’s New Others is a crucial text for understanding the current refugee crisis in Israel. The book follows the lives of asylum seekers and migrant workers between the years of 2007 and 2015, documenting the deepening authoritarianism and racism in Israeli society. Jaradat provides a critical history of non-Jewish migration to Israel, situating the arrival of the migrant workers within the political economy of the occupation and the broader, global history of neoliberalism. Jaradat is also careful to observe the links between the refugees in Israel and the refugees trying to reach Europe’s shores. The product of Jaradat’s extensive time as a journalist in Israel/Palestine, The Unchosen is a detailed chronicle of the struggle of asylum seekers and migrant workers to survive with dignity in Israel.
The Israeli government began to import migrant workers in the early 1990s. At the time, the Israeli economy, once characterized by significant state ownership, was undergoing a massive wave of privatization. Those were also the years following the First Intifada and the signing of the Oslo Accords, when Israel began to restrict work permits allotted to Palestinians from the occupied territories. Jaradat describes how liberalization worked hand in hand with the policies of occupation and separation. The migrant workers brought to Israel by private manpower companies not only supplied the newly liberalized Israeli economy with a workforce that lacked the rights of citizens, but also provided a substitute for Palestinian labor. In periods of calm, Israel increases the number of permits it issues to Palestinians in the occupied territories; in periods of tension, it decreases the number, as a form of collective punishment.
The refugees arrived later, beginning in the mid-2000s. The numbers remain contested, but most estimates put the peak asylum seeker population at more than 60,000 in 2012. Fleeing genocide in Sudan and the brutal regime of Isaias Afwerki in Eritrea, they arrived at Israel’s southern border with Egypt after a perilous journey through the Sinai desert. Many were held by Bedouin traffickers in camps in the Sinai, where they endured extreme forms of violence: torture, rape, forced labor, human trafficking. Until 2014, when Israel completed the construction of its southern border fence, Israeli forces would detain the refugees at the border, then send them on buses to the central bus station in south Tel Aviv.
Since 2012, the Israeli government has taken a range of draconian measures to force asylum seekers out of the country. Israel has granted refugee status to just one Sudanese man and eleven Eritrean nationals, rejecting thousands of asylum seekers’ claims. In Europe, by comparison, 91.4 percent of Eritrean asylum requests are accepted. The asylum seekers must renew their visas every two months. They can be detained for extended periods at the Holot facility. The government confiscates 20 percent of their monthly paychecks, claiming the money will be returned to them upon their departure, and fines their employers. In 2012, the government deported over a thousand South Sudanese asylum seekers, including children, back to Juba, the capital of the newly independent state. Tens of thousands of asylum seekers have already left Israel. Some have received asylum in Canada, Sweden, and the Netherlands. Others have attempted to make the dangerous journey to Libya and from there, across the Mediterranean Sea, to Europe.
One of Jaradat’s central case studies in the lives of refugees and migrants involves the effect of Tel Aviv’s central bus station on the city’s south, where many of the refugees and migrants live. A gigantic, labyrinthine structure designed by the storied Israeli architect Ram Karmi, it was intended as an urban renewal project, and took thirty years to complete. The decades-long construction period and the building’s subsequent failure as a commercial center blighted the surrounding area, a ten-minute walk from ritzy Rothschild Boulevard. The bus station was supposed to function as a mall in the form of brutalist maze. The shopper was meant to get lost among the shops and counterintuitively placed escalators; many of the floors cannot be ascended to and descended from in the same place. Until 2010, it was the largest bus station in the world (now second to New Delhi’s).
Today, most of the storefronts in the seven-story building are empty. Bats have made their home on the station’s bottom floor, which also houses the city’s atomic bomb shelter (the bat cave is recognized by Israeli parks authorities as a nature preserve). The cavernous, near-deserted floors attract sex workers and people with drug dependencies. In the 1990s, petty crime spilled out into the surrounding neighborhoods, whose mostly poor Mizrahi residents (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent), already relegated to the city’s social and geographic periphery, were left to deal with the consequences.
South Tel Aviv residents’ anger and frustration with the municipality’s decades of neglect and discriminatory housing policies form the backdrop for the hostility and occasional violence with which they have greeted the migrant workers and refugees. South Tel Aviv, Jaradat shows, is another instance of an already marginalized population lashing out at the arrival, unannounced and without their consent, of an even more desperate and marginalized population. Jaradat weaves the history of south Tel Aviv into her reporting through interviews with the neighborhood’s longtime Israeli residents and activists, like Shula Keshet, founder of the Mizrahi-feminist organization Achoti (My Sister) and member of Power to the Community, a group that has taken a central role in the campaign to oppose the deportations.
The plight of the residents of south Tel Aviv and their resentment toward the country’s Ashkenazi elite—for building the bus station, busing in the refugees, then denouncing the mostly Mizrahi residents of the neighborhood as racist—also explains the persistence of the refugee issue in Israeli politics. By fanning the flames of anti-refugee sentiment, right-wing politicians present themselves as populist defenders of Israel’s forgotten men and women, patronized and ridiculed by the hypocritical liberal elite. In reality, the Right, and specifically Netanyahu, has been in power for practically the entire period during which asylum seekers and migrant workers arrived in the country. This has not prevented enterprising right-wingers from exploiting anti-migrant racism to great success. In 2012, while a rising star in the Likud, Miri Regev declared, “the Sudanese are a cancer in the body of the nation” at a rally that turned into an anti-African pogrom. Regev later apologized—to cancer patients—for the comparison. She is now Israel’s Culture Minister.
Jaradat naturally emphasizes the symmetry between the Israeli government’s draconian treatment of non-Jewish migrants and its systematic oppression of the Palestinians. In “Operation Clean and Tidy,” the name of a 2010 government crackdown on non-Jewish migrants, Jaradat hears an echo of “Operation Hametz,” the 1948 military operation to drive Palestinians out of the city of Jaffa. The names of the operations, both of which were timed to coincide with Passover—“Hametz” refers to the leavened foods that observant Jews avoid during this time—construe the presence of non-Jews within Israel’s borders as an unclean, impure presence that must be extruded, almost ritually, by force from the body-politic. Passover, during which Jews recount a story of liberation, becomes an occasion for expulsion, deportation, and subjugation.
Jaradat gestures, though sometimes too indirectly, to the global migration crisis. She ties the stories of the Eritrean and Sudanese refugees she meets to those of their countrymen braving the dangers of the Mediterranean to reach Europe’s shores. Some of the Filipino workers Jaradat encounters spent time in the Gulf States. It is a credit to Jaradat’s reporting that Israel in the mid-to-late 2000s appears as a prefiguration of the refugee crisis that would reach its peak in Europe in the 2010s. In 2013, when the shipwreck of hundreds of migrants near the island of Lampedusa alerted Europeans to the magnitude of the global tragedy unfolding, there were already some 60,000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers living in Israel. Contemporary Europe’s response to the crisis increasingly resembles Israel’s: wracked by ethno-nationalist reaction, preoccupied with demographic calculus, and sealed-off by an ever-more sophisticated system of fences, walls, and forms of surveillance. The biopolitics of Israel’s migration regime—state restrictions on migrant workers’ romantic relationships and family lives, police raids on migrant workers’ daycare centers—presages a dark future for migrants and refugees looking to build a better life in the West. Until 2011, Israeli law required migrant workers who had given birth in Israel to send their children to their home countries or face deportation (the Supreme Court ruled this statute a human rights violation). Even today, a pregnant migrant worker in Israel must work through her pregnancy and return to work immediately after giving birth to maintain her legal status.
Nestled within this book of reportage is also a memoir. Jaradat drops small personal details about her life and her reasons for ending up in Israel throughout each chapter. Early on in the book, she recalls her first encounter with Israel’s non-Jewish migrants “on a left-leaning volunteer program.” She repeatedly justifies her move to Israel, reflecting a certain discomfort with her decision. “I was living off student loans as I tried to wrap up my master’s thesis and the rock-bottom rent had figured into my decision to spend a year in Israel,” Jaradat writes. “I was also 26 years old and newly separated. And though I didn’t feel that Israel should be a home for Jewish people alone, I was indeed there, as a Jew, looking for a home.” But the rationale is incomplete: Israel is not an inexpensive country, and the US is not universally unaffordable. While Jaradat only obliquely addresses questions of Jewish identity and Zionism, they pervade the book.
Jaradat’s attachment to Israel and, in particular, Hebrew is clear. She leaves a number of words untranslated; instead, they are transliterated and italicized. She writes tehudat zehut, not identity card, as if the English translation would not capture the full meaning of the Hebrew, the power of the blue Israeli ID card and what it confers on those who possess it. She writes takhana merkazit, not central bus station, as if the English would strip the referent of its distinctiveness and thus fail to capture the building’s hugeness, its centrality to the south Tel Aviv landscape.
Not only language, but also language acquisition are, for Jaradat, sites of negotiating concerns about identity and belonging. She recounts learning Hebrew words from migrant workers’ children during her time volunteering at one of the “black market” kindergartens—informal, unofficial daycares established by migrant workers for their children born in Israel, at the time a violation of the terms of their visas. Similar experiences throughout the book not only chart Jaradat’s process of integrating into Israeli society; they highlight the perversity of Israel’s ethnocracy. It is a country with no available civic, secular national identity: an American Jew like Jaradat is entitled to full rights and unconditional immigration, but an Israeli-born, Hebrew-speaking child of Filipino parents is not guaranteed legal status.
She begins the book’s first chapter with a set of questions that she answers with her departure: “Could I stay in a place where the democratic space was shrinking? And how could I feel free in a place where so many others were being deprived of their basic rights?” And yet what, for Jaradat, distinguishes the oppression of non-Jewish migrants from the oppression of Palestinians, part of the state since its founding? Why does the former call into question the legitimacy of the Israeli state but not the latter? It is hard to make sense of Jaradat’s disillusionment without a full account of her politics prior to her arrival and the process of politicization, perhaps even radicalization, she undergoes. She mentions only in passing that she fell in love with and got engaged to a Palestinian man, who left Israel/Palestine before her, in 2014.
Since the start of the new year, when the Israeli government began the first stages of its plan to deport the asylum seekers, segments of Israeli society have mobilized. Doctors, teachers, social workers, and pilots have all signed open letters to the prime minister declaring their opposition to the deportations. Israeli and international activists have joined the protests led by the asylum seekers. Various left-wing and human rights groups have embarked on an ambitious public campaign to bring attention to the injustice of the government’s plan.
For some Israelis, there is a sense that allowing the deportations would confirm what they know is true but wish to deny: that the country’s ruling ideology is deeply racist and violent, the government ready and willing remove tens of thousands of refugees from the country by force. Resisting the deportations has garnered such popular support because, unlike the Palestinians, the asylum seekers are not widely perceived as a “security threat,” nor are there enough of them to constitute a “demographic threat.” The figure of the African refugee, distinct from that of the Palestinian refugee, resonates with a particular Jewish ethical commitment to “loving the stranger in your midst,” albeit one that, in its Israeli articulation, often verges on a form of Jewish moral supremacism. All of this makes the cause of the refugees more palatable to the Israeli mainstream—a last-ditch attempt to keep Israeli society’s collective conscience alive.