The blemish of forced evacuation

The preservation of a Jewish state is not only about demography. It is also about the values and messages that the state disseminates.

311_foreign workers' kids (photo credit: Ariel Schalit/AP)
311_foreign workers' kids
(photo credit: Ariel Schalit/AP)
I recently took students studying geopolitics on a field trip to the region north of Beersheba. Within a few hours, they visited the border crossing point at Metar, and two contrasting types of community. One of these was the settlement of Shomriya, formerly a kibbutz of the Hashomer Hatzair movement and now repopulated by evacuees of the Gush Katif settlement of Atzmona. The second, just a 15- minute drive away, was one of the unrecognized Beduin townships whose huts and prefabricated dwellings had been demolished by the government on the grounds that they were illegal.
In each community, local leaders told the students their narrative. In Atzmona, our host – who had previously resided in both Yamit before it was destroyed in 1982, and then in Gush Katif – described having been forced out of his home by the Likud government of Menachem Begin in 1981, and the Likud government of Ariel Sharon in 2005. He explained why he and his fellow ex-residents of Atzmona had decided that they would create yet another settlement at Shomriya. Having heard that this failed kibbutz on the Green Line south of Kiryat Gat and north of Beersheba was in an area which could be a candidate for land swaps, they had decided to ensure that it will remain part of Israel.
In the Beduin village, our host described the struggle of the local Beduin for recognition in what they see as their ancestral lands. Unlike Shomriya, where large amounts of public funds are being poured into the development of public institutions, he showed us the total lack of basic infrastructure such as roads and sewage. He told us of the many occasions that the border police had come and destroyed the huts, forcefully evacuating the residents. The Beduin in these communities don’t want to be forced into the townships such as Lakiya, Rahat and Kseifa which have been constructed by the Israeli government for the region’s Beduin. Each of the unrecognized townships (labeled “villages” by the Israeli authorities, but far larger than any corresponding village in the Jewish sector) is part of a constant struggle, including many petitions to the Supreme Court, to allow them to stay on their land and to have the same public services enjoyed by neighboring communities.
On the trip back to the university, the students commented on the fact that these two groups live within close proximity, but that their lives did not meet in any way – language, culture, lifestyle. At most, some of the Beduin may work as construction workers or street cleaners in the middle-class Jewish communities, but even this is limited given the settler preference for Jewish labor.
But, they noted, there was one thing which both communities, or their spokesmen, had in common. They had both used the same terminology to describe what, in their perceptions, they had suffered at the hand of the state. They both described the painful experience of having been forcefully removed from their homes and driven from their land. No translation gives full justice to the word girush (expulsion) used. Neither agreed to use the less-evocative term pinui (evacuation), as this did not adequately reflect their sense of having been removed against their will from what they saw as their rightful homes. The fact that girush is tied to the most painful experiences in Jewish history (pogroms, expulsion from Spain, Holocaust) was not lost on either group.
THIS PAST week, the term girush has been in the headlines again, only this time it relates to the 400 children of migrant workers, born and educated in Israel, who now face being forcefully expelled from Israel due to their lack of formal citizenship. Not surprisingly, this has attracted much criticism. The idea that the Jewish state, created in the wake of the worst possible girush, is itself forcefully expelling 400 stateless children, is hard to grasp.
The fact that most of them were born in Israel, went to school here, speak fluent Hebrew and, if allowed to stay, would probably serve in the army or other form of national service was ignored by the decision makers. Even Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, who was ironically one of 400 children who came out of the camps and is not known for his conciliatory positions on issues relating to threats facing Israel, came out strongly against the girush of these children.
These children do not pose any threat to the state or its democratic values. Nor do they threaten the state’s Jewish character or demography. On the contrary, the Jewish character and values of the state are threatened by its inability to operate according to the most basic of Jewish values – respect for the stranger and assistance for the weak and persecuted. In the same way Menachem Begin gave a home to some Vietnamese boat refugees in the name of Jewish values, our present government should not have shied away from meeting the same responsibility. The fact that 800 others have been allowed to stay will not wipe away the stain of the 400. If anyone knows what it is to be stateless refugees, it is the Jews.
The preservation of a Jewish state is not only about demography. It is also about the values and messages that the state disseminates. It is an issue of substance. Our disregard for the “stranger in our midst” and “of not doing to others what was done to us” would indicate that we may have a Jewish state in name, but not in action. It is anti-Jewish to expel the migrant children; we should be welcoming them and finding ways to fully integrate them as responsible and contributing adults. We cannot use convenient excuses for driving them from a place they have learned to call “home.” The State of Israel should never ever be a state which practices girush.

The writer is Professor of Political Geography at Ben- Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.