A new book about Israel’s crusade against asylum seekers and undocumented workers strikes at an essential truth about the precarious status of non-Jews in a self-defined Jewish state.
“The Unchosen: The Lives of Israel’s New Others,” Mya Guarnieri Jaradat, Pluto Press, 2017.
In a small apartment in south Tel Aviv, a Filipina woman hides her Christmas tree in the hallway, away from the windows, fearing that were someone to spot it from outside she might be found out and wind up being deported. On the outskirts of a park in the same city, prospective employers size up a row of African asylum seekers, trying to determine who is the strongest and therefore who will be the best pick for a day’s cheap labor. In a church not far away, immigration agents burst in and detain an African man, despite his having a valid visa.
These picture postcards from Israel are scattered throughout Mya Guarnieri Jaradat’s new book, The Unchosen: The Lives of Israel’s New Others, published by Pluto Press. The book chronicles, through a blend of assiduous reporting and frank anecdotes, the country’s war on non-Jewish migrants, be they asylum seekers or foreign workers. Jaradat, who is also a blogger for +972, leads us around Israel and takes us in and out of the homes of her subjects, most of whom have congregated in south Tel Aviv — an area with which the author is clearly intimately familiar. Through their experiences, and Jaradat’s personal reflections, we learn about the toll that Israel’s crusade against undocumented workers and asylum seekers takes on its victims.
Jaradat’s book, the bulk of which deals with the years-long evolution of Israel’s treatment of African asylum seekers, arrives at an all-too-fitting moment. The process feels dishearteningly familiar now: the chaos of an inadequate legal framework to deal with a sudden influx of asylum seekers, which gives way to legislation (and a southern border wall) designed to keep as many people out as possible while hastening the departure of those already arrived. The backdrop is instantly recognizable, too: populist rabble-rousing, media scare stories, ill-fated attempts to blunt structural racism, and shocking episodes of street-level brutality. Zoomed out from the specifics, we may as well be reading about France, Hungary, Slovenia, or even the United States.
Yet these trends began in Israel a good number of years before the so-called “European migrant crisis” took off, and before the election of America’s 45th president gifted ICE agents with a renewed sense of missionary zeal. Moreover, while the outside world may be most familiar with the plight of Africans seeking refuge in Israel, The Unchosen also amply addresses the lives of migrant workers in the country — from Filipinos who have come to work as home nurses and caregivers, to Thai laborers who are largely employed in agriculture.
Migrant workers, while in some senses better protected than asylum seekers, are nonetheless subject to a complex web of laws designed to prevent them putting down roots in Israel, and which often deny them workers’ rights — sometimes to deadly effect. What limited rights they do have, of course, vanish the moment they become undocumented. And by examining their fates in tandem with those of asylum seekers, Jaradat nails down an essential truth: that the unifying factor in the government’s (and much of society’s) treatment of these groups is that they are non-Jews in the Jewish state.
From there it is a small step to understanding that Israeli attitudes toward Sudanese, Eritreans, Filipinos, and Thais are inseparable from those toward Palestinians. As the book points out early on, we cannot talk about racism towards asylum seekers and migrant workers without also talking about the occupation, as much as some of the Israeli human rights workers aiding them may be loath to make the connection. With the aim of broadening the appeal of their cause as much as possible, Jaradat explains, they stress their work is “apolitical” (shorthand for steering clear of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). But such methods will only ever prove palliative, since they fail to acknowledge the underlying truth that the position of non-Jews in a self-defined Jewish state will always be precarious at best, and untenable at worst.
It is no accident that the word “infiltrators,” originally applied to Palestinians — both armed and unarmed — in the 1950s who attempted to cross back into Israel after their expulsion in 1948, was resuscitated and legally applied to African asylum seekers until it became the accepted term for the group, used by politicians and the media alike. It is no accident that the same right-wing populists crop up on the frontline of incitement against asylum seekers and Palestinians, whether Miri Regev, Michael Ben-Ari, or Itamar Ben Gvir. It is no accident that the vile taunts hurled by right-wing mobs at Palestinians (“Death to Arabs!”) are also used against asylum seekers when they chant “Death to Sudanese!”
And it is no accident that in the minds of many Israelis — who are surrounded by so much discourse on the “threat” to Jewish identity, on the need to protect Jewish girls from Arabs and black people alike, on the proposed multitude of demographic threats proliferating at the country’s borders and within its claimed heartlands — these varying groups get lumped together in a single, amorphous designation of “Other.”
This hostility toward those outside the “in-group,” which is more or less narrowly-defined depending on one’s politics, is a genetic flaw in all nation-states. But Israel remains locked in its founding moment, perpetually keeping at bay those it expelled and displaced in order to declare itself — whether through war, occupation or legal maneuvering. Within this siege mentality, any group of arriving non-Jews gets tacked on to the Fifth Column many Israelis are convinced is brewing in their midst.
The catastrophic potential of this mindset played out in a gruesome scene at Be’er Sheva’s central bus station in late 2015, when a Palestinian citizen carried out a shooting attack. In the ensuing chaos, a security guard mistook Habtom Zarhum, an Eritrean asylum seeker, for the attacker and shot him. A group of Israelis then lynched him, beating Zarhum to within an inch of his life and dropping a bench on his head, the color of his skin apparently all the evidence they needed that he was a terrorist.
Zarhum died from his injuries shortly after. His lynching, and the mourning of a devastated Eritrean community that followed, is one of the most gut-wrenching passages in Jaradat’s book. But it is also among the clearest illustrations of the arbitrary and calamitous violence that wells up when an ongoing conflict, and the blood at the root of it, congeal into a way of life and a sense of national identity.
In March 2010, the Israeli government launched a new crackdown on undocumented laborers, a campaign it named “Clean and Tidy.” As Jaradat explains, the timing of the operation and its name were entirely connected — it was announced in the run-up to Passover, when many Jewish Israelis would be ridding their homes of chametz (leavened food) in accordance with religious law.
In this framing, the targets of Israel’s immigration agents were foreign objects, akin to dirt, that needed to be scoured for and expelled. By invoking Jewish law, the campaign sat squarely at the intersection of religion and nationalism, and echoed the anthropologist Mary Douglas’ aphorism that “dirt is matter out of place.” She may have been referring to ritual purity, but the metaphor equally applies to racist xenophobia — and indeed, in the case of “Clean and Tidy,” to both at the same time.
This account marks just one deterioration among many that Jaradat details in her book. Yet the accumulation of such stories does nothing to dent the urgency of the matter, nor the magnitude of what’s at stake for those in the crosshairs of Israel’s intolerance toward its “unchosen.” But for all that Jaradat justifiably returns to the question of what Israel’s treatment of its non-Jewish immigrants says about its democracy, society and values, her book poses a fundamental challenge that applies well beyond the country’s fortified borders. It’s a question whose response will define this febrile moment in world history: Who are we, if we are not for the “stranger” — really, human beings just like us — in our midst? What are we?