An African refugee in south Tel Aviv wears a T-shirt with a Hebrew phrase referring to the Holocaust: “I promise to remember... and never forget!” (Reuters).
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Over 60,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers entered Israel through the Sinai Peninsula from 2006 to 2013, fleeing unlimited military service and forced labor, or genocide. Today about 35,000 remain, and will soon face the choice between deportation to a third country and indefinite detention.
There’s a fierce political and social debate about the status of these people: do they have a right to stay in Israel? Would they face danger in their home country? would they be safe in a third country like Rwanda or Uganda? Advocates of deportation are accused of racism and overlooking the rule of “loving the stranger who lives with you as yourself… for you lived as foreigners in the land of Egypt.” Opponents of deportation are blamed for naively overlooking the troubles of their fellow citizens in south Tel Aviv (where most asylum seekers are concentrated) and for forgetting that “charity begins at home.”
Yet on the local level reality is much less ideological and much more practical.
In Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Petah Tikva, Eilat and many other cities across Israel, Sudanese and Eritreans are employed at higher rates than Israelis, paying taxes and mostly taking the most unglamorous jobs.
Independently they learn Hebrew, without subsidized classes or other institutional support. 100% of their children are vaccinated at local family health centers (Tipot Halav) and registered to municipal kindergartens and schools.
Those children master Hebrew and graduate from high school at high rates – sometimes as high as 96%, against a national average of under 60%.
Some win international contests in sports, arts and science, proudly wearing Israel’s flag. They wear costumes for Purim and ask their parents to have bar mitzvas, too. Many of them wish to give back to the country and wish to join the Israeli army when they turn 18.
The success of these migrants in Israel, however, was totally unintended by our government. In 2013 interior minister Eli Yishai pledged to “make the lives of infiltrators unbearable,” two years after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called them “an existential threat.” Yet Eritreans and Sudanese asylum seekers and their children attest that they feel Israeli, despite a government policy of marginalization and oppression.
They feel Israeli because of our teachers, nurses and social workers who work hard to encourage integration, albeit with very limited budgets. At the local level, mayors are being pragmatic, and either actively or tacitly support this integration.
Against the current deportation plan, many leaders in local authorities across the country express support for an alternative national resettlement and absorption program. Instead of importing labor migrants from overseas to work our fields and build houses, why not use the working hands that are already here? A tomato picked by Eritrean hands won’t taste any different than the one presently picked by Thai workers.
This story of “unwanted success” – at least from the perspective of the government – is not due to insidious schoolteachers, subversive social workers or ultra-liberal nurses. It happens in progressive cities like Tel Aviv, but also in the small town of Arad, in which 58% voted for right-wing or ultra-Orthodox parties in the 2015 general elections.
This is the story of national versus local government, of ideological versus practical. A member of Knesset can spend a career giving speeches about peace and security, but mayors lose their job if the sewers doesn’t work (Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek famously quashed rabbis and imams squabbling in his office once by telling them: “Gentlemen, spare me your sermons and I will fix your sewers”).
Integration is important for mayors because it makes their cities better for everyone.
Conditions in south Tel Aviv’s overcrowded neighborhoods are rough – but they were much worse throughout the 1990s, when the large population of migrants that lived there at the time didn’t get the welfare, health and education services it does now.
Consequently, those neighborhoods faced crime, prostitution and poverty more than any other time.
Now when a Sudanese victim of violence receives the mental health treatment she needs, it also makes the building she lives in more amicable for her neighbors. When Eritrean children are educated – it makes public parks and streets cleaner and friendlier.
Israel, just like any sovereign country, has the right and the responsibility to control its borders. In 2013 the government justifiably fixed the border with Egypt, stopping all further entries of asylum seekers, yet it never tried to fix reality within it borders. For those who will remain here after the deportation program and the campaign to stop it end: mayors would do well to explain to the government why integration is not only a moral imperative, but a practical one too.The author is a PhD candidate at the Goethe University in Frankfurt and an activist in the Labor Party.