Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pesach Thoughts 5769: Refugees in a Jewish State

It’s simultaneously strange and uplifting to have lived in a city for years yet still discover new and unexplored places. And while hardly being the Tel Avivian socialite around town, I still felt I had the city pretty much down pat. Yet the Friday before Pesach brought me to Lewinsky Park near the New Central Bus Station in southern Tel Aviv for a ‘refugee seder’ – and forced me to throw yet another illusion out the window.

The seder, organized by Amnesty International and Israel Activisits among others, sought to draw attention to the situation of approximately 17,000 African refugees seeking a safe haven in the Jewish state.

And while I arrived after the music and service had already ended, what struck me was the lack of Israelis in the crowd…and how the park in our first Hebrew city had become transformed into another world, filled with a colourful mix of Eritreans, Sudanese and Thai.

I hadn’t been to the Central Bus Station or the areas surrounding it that much since my year off in Israel a decade ago. To be honest the station is not the most attractive of Tel Aviv’s landmarks – it’s large and disorienting, and ever since I saw the ‘please don’t pee here’ sign in one of the station’s corridors I tried to keep my distance.

But the area also represents something else - the side to our city people don’t (or would rather not) see; the underclass, the stranger in our midst, the other…

Later that evening over dinner, I thought about two extracts from Amos Oz’s beautiful autobiography A Tale of Love and Darkness that are especially pertinent to celebrating the Jewish festival of freedom in our own independent state.

One bears a striking resemblance to Herzl’s Political Zionism (Israel as a safe haven), the second to Ahad Ha’am’s Cultural Zionism (Israel as a spiritual centre);

The first, narrated by Oz’s father, reminds me of Isaiah Berlin’s negative liberty (freedom from); the second, by his aunt, is similar to Berlin’s positive liberty (freedom to realize our fundamental purpose).

One describes the meaning of the Hebrew word Chofesh; the second, the term Cherut.

And both discuss situations that state’s establishment sought to alleviate – the consequences of our lack of homelessness.

Then he [my father] told me in a whisper, without once calling me Your Highness or Your Honour, what some hooligans did to him and his brother David in Odessa and what some gentile boys did to him at his Polish school in Vilna, and the girls joined in too, and the next day, when his father, Grandpa Alexander, came to the school to register a complaint, the bullies refused to return the torn trousers but attacked his father, Grandpa, in front of his eyes, forced him down on the paving stones and removed his trousers too in the middle of the playground, and the girls laughed and made dirty jokes, saying that Jews were all so-and-sos, while the teachers watched and said nothing, or maybe they were laughing too.
And still in a voice of darkness with his hand still losing its way in my hair (because he was not used to stroking my hair) my father told me under my blanket in the early hours of the thirtieth of November 1947, ‘Bullies may well bother you in the street or at school some day. They may do it precisely because you are a bit like me. But from now on, from the moment we have our own state, you will never be bullied just because you are a Jew and because Jews are so-and-sos. Not that. Never again. From tonight that’s finished here. For ever’

- - - - -

"A thousand times it was hammered in to the head of every Jewish child that we must not irritate them, or hold our heads up, and we must only speak to them quietly, with a smile, so they shouldn’t say we were noisy, and we must always speak to them in good correct Polish, so they couldn’t say we were defiling the language, but we must speak in Polish that was too high, so they couldn’t say we had ambitions above our station and Heaven forbid they should say we had stains on our skirts.

In short, we had to try very hard to make a good impression…You who were born here in Israel can never understand how this constant drip drip distorts all your feelings, how it corrodes your human dignity like rust…"

In many ways, freedom is the ability to live one’s life without fear and without emotional or physical filters.

But it also comes with responsibility.

And I wonder – when we sit down with family and friends for Seder to discuss, sing and be merry - how we can ensure we’re fulfilling our responsibility to those who don’t yet have freedom or independence?

That when we claim that everyone is welcome at our table we don’t close our heart to those invisible thousands who found their way to our shores fleeing the same persecution that we experienced so many generations ago...

Because like us, there are strangers living in a land not their own.

And one shouldn’t need to go to Lewinsky Park to notice their plight.


BraveJeWorld said...

"the station is not the most attractive of Tel Aviv’s landmarks – it’s large and disorienting" - a slight understatement there Calev! When are they going to knock the whole thing down and build a gateway to TLV that we can actually be proud of and represent the fantastic place TLV is??

Would be curious to know what you think should be done about the refugees that would balance the 'need' to help all 17,000 of them, and also not create a burden on the rest of Israel and detract from much needed funds and resources that are desperately required amongst regular Israelis.

Richard Weider said...

To BraveJeWorld

Why don't we welcome refugees that genuninely require asylum and have come here to receive help. Israel has welcomed and helped Jewish immigrants from all over the world to integrate into Israel. However, we should should also be here to help non-Jewish asylum seekers too.

nic said...

i have a strong belief in the importance of volunteerism. We can be too quick to point to the state as the place to solve problems. The power of individuals to give time, skills and enthusiasm to support our 'at risk' communities, through creating opportunities for education and employment, we can create more stable and successful communities here.

It is just a shame to Israel waste the potential of these people. I meet young people with such clear intelligence and focus to make something of their lives it is humbling, especially seeing them cleaning streets and serving burgers. We, no doubt, have here doctors, teachers entrepreneurs capable of being an asset to any society if given the right support. You don't manage to get through what they have gone through without something special about you.

nic said...

We need laws allowing the genuine refugees to be given a degree of permanent status here an a legal permit to work. We also need Israelis to give there own time and meet and welcome these communities.

They come here telling a story almost identical to the message of Amos Oz's above. The message of which so clearly underpins many Israeli's reason for creating and supporting the state.

To fail to recognise this with the African refugees, and for us not to act, would show a legacy far from it's potential.

Anonymous said...

It's a difficult balance. How to separate those in danger from those who are economic migrants; how to set a limit so that the infrastructure of israel is not threatened - medical, schools, jobs etc; what would we say if thousands of palestinians claimed asylum?. A country the size of USA could take almost without limit, but Israel has unique problems and also the requirement to remain a 'Jewish State'. Menachem Begin was the first one to take a boat load of Vietnamese 'boat people'. He took one boat to recognise and accept our responsibility, and to act as an example to other countries, but stopped short of opening the borders to many more.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to say that I have heard that some of these immigrants are here for a free ride. It's sad, because I am sure there are many who are desperate also, and I think people want to help but when people come for economic opportunities, they are insulted when they are considered to be persecuted. I've been told that refugees from the Sudan are put up at Kibbutzim and given extensive assistance, but complain that they are not given the financial assistance they were expecting, that they are not being transported to mosques to pray in, that they do not want to do the type of work available, etc. There are some opportunists out there, and some ordinary people who want a better life but are not actually fleeing persecution. I have heard this from coworkers whose families were involved in housing and helping refugees - and am wondering to what extent these sorts of situations are discouraging Israelis from helping.