When we look around us this Passover, we are not the ones in need of protection, and we are not the ones escaping slavery. Somehow Israel has missed this role-reversal.
Text by Rebecca De Vries and Natasha Roth
Photos by Karen Zack
Freedom of movement and the right to liberty do not apply to anyone who is not a citizen or resident.
So spoke the Knesset’s legal representative at a High Court hearing on the Prevention of Infiltration Law at the beginning of this month. The statement adequately summarises the attitude of the Israeli government – and much of the public – toward the ‘strangers’ in our midst. Yes, Israel has an asylum seeker problem, but not the one that is so readily coughed up by the government and media. The essential statistic of the situation – that African asylum seekers/migrants/”infiltrators” make up less than 1 percent of the population in Israel – points to the fact that the problem is not one of security, or demographics. Rather, if it is possible to generate such violence, loathing and exaggeration over so small a percentage of Israel’s society, then the vast problem we have on our hands is one of racism and xenophobia.
In other times and other places our grandfathers, too, once were refugees. Louis Gruenberg (De Vries) was a young boy in Germany when a group of eastern European Hasidic Jews came through his village knocking on any door bearing a mezuzah, asking for food and shelter. With anti-Semitism already on the rise in Germany, the Jewish community was afraid to draw negative attention to itself and, although his family gave the visitors food, they wouldn’t allow them to stay. Later, when Gruenberg was himself in need of help and had to knock on strangers’ doors, he frequently thought of this decision and never stopped feeling guilty about it. Kurt Roth, having fled to the UK from Western Europe in the early years of the Second World War, found himself interned and then deported to Australia by the British government on account of his Austrian citizenship, in spite of his having arrived in England as a Jew escaping Nazi persecution.
Now, more than seven decades later, we see in Israel the same casual cruelty and outright prejudicial rejection plaguing the lives of those who have come seeking our help. With this in mind, and given the time of year, we have decided to go back to the essential message of Passover and use one of its defining images – that of the empty chair – to convey the need for an understanding that the ‘strangers’ in our midst, before all else, are human beings, and that once we were them. We photographed our empty chair outside the Saharonim and Holot prisons, emblems of Israel’s displacement of those already dispossessed, and are sending the resulting posters to communities in the U.S., UK and Germany, as well as displaying them throughout Tel Aviv.
The concept behind this campaign is to remind us that from our position of nation-statehood – which is supposed to be held together by Israeli identity, but is increasingly subject to the whims of an ever-narrowing interpretation of Jewish identity – we have forgotten what it is like to depend on the decisions of a society that gives one little-to-no opportunity to participate in its functioning and help shape its nature and progress: in short, a society from which one is excluded.
We all bear responsibility for the prospects of asylum seekers in Israel because we have the option and power to influence the processes that affect their future. Our society has a decision to make about the fate of a group that is asking for our protection; if this decision does not show us what kind of society we have managed to build, what will? As American novelist Pearl Buck wrote, “the test of a civilization is in the way that it cares for its helpless members.” To watch Israel’s repeated brutalization of its asylum-seeking population is to witness a society far from civilized behavior. We have another 1 percent walking among us whose footsteps we seem determined to prevent and erase from this country, whether through imprisonment, deportation, or forced “voluntary return.”
This is what has inspired our images of the empty chair outside Israel’s asylum seeker prisons. And so back to Passover, when every year we sit with our families and read the Haggadah. We teach children about the story of the liberation of our people from slavery, and consequently about the importance of freedom, of the ability to decide one’s own fate. We are touched by the struggle of our forebears and vow to keep on re-telling it, generation after generation. This is how we became a nation; this is why, we are told, we needed a state; this is what connects us to our heritage. Yet when we look around us this Passover, we are not the ones in need of protection, and we are not the ones escaping slavery. We are not leaving Egypt. Somehow Israel has missed this role-reversal because these days, we, members of this amnesiac nation, are not the ones suffering anymore: we are the ones inflicting the pain.
Other times, other places… “[T]he heart does not care which life it beats for”, wrote novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard. If Israeli society wishes to be a civilization then its heart must be blind and beat equally, no matter which lives are contained within it. Every stranger is a human being, and no human being is illegal.
Rebecca De Vries made aliyah from Germany four years ago and is currently interning at HIAS, having formerly worked with Physicians for Human Rights and the ARDC. She also organizes the Refugee Children’s Center, and is studying migration at Tel Aviv University.
Karen Zack is a feminist freelance photographer, working in activism for gender and human rights. Her work has previously been displayed in the US, Canada and Israel.