Israel, Migrants and the right to nationhood

Mya Guarnieri Jaradat’s new book, The Unchosenexamines Israel’s harsh and worsening treatment of these newcomers and in doing so presents a fresh angle on the Israel-Palestine conflict, calling into question the state’s perennial justification for mistreatment of Palestinians: ‘national security’. As we stand witness to mass deportations and charter flights, Guarnieri Jaradat’s blog forces us to confront the exclusionary and dispassionate preconditions imposed on those seeking to belong to a nation.

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The Unchosen: The Lives of Israel’s New Others, is a culmination of a decade’s worth of reporting on the lives of Southeast Asian migrant workers and African asylum seekers protest, Tel Aviv, Israel, 13.2.2014African asylum seekers in Israel. Studying these two groups of non-Jewish ‘others’ throws the Israeli claim that its treatment of Palestinians is predicated on security into harsh light; rather, it shows that Israel’s relationship with Palestinians and other non-Jews is predicated on racial separatism and couched in its overriding concern about maintaining a Jewish demographic majority. The treatment of non-Jews can be understood as a feature of Israel’s particular brand of settler
colonialism. Put best by Drs. Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini in their book, The Human Right to Dominate:

‘Not unlike other forms of settler colonialism, in the Israeli case colonial power is exerted also through the coloniser’s desire of appropriating the position of the native, of “going native.” … the coloniser’s nativeness can, so to speak, be achieved only through a twofold process, beginning with the dispossession of the colonised and followed by protecting the coloniser from a presumed invasion carried out by the colonised.’

The initial dispossession, happened in 1948 with the displacement of some 700,000 Palestinians. As for the ‘invasion’, many Israelis imagine this happening not militarily but demographically; they worry that they’ll be outnumbered. In recent years, the Israeli obsession with demographics—which Dr. Tally Kritzman-Amir, an Israeli lecturer and legal expert in immigration, refugee, and international law, refers to as the ‘fear of numbers’—has been extended beyond the indigenous population to non-Jews in general. Separation is one manifestation of this ‘fear of numbers.’

Separation isn’t something that came in the wake of the First Intifada and it’s not a result of the Oslo Accords. It has always been a cornerstone of the Zionist movement—in the pre-state days, the prominent Zionist leader Menachem Ussishkin referred to Palestinian Arabs as a ‘cancer’ and called for separation between Arabs and Jews. Separation is also necessary, of course, from the Zionist perspective, in order to maintain the Jewish demographic majority that allows the state to define itself as both ‘Jewish and democratic.’ Considering Israel through the lens of settler colonialism, both separation and a Jewish demographic majority help create and sustain the illusion of nativeness.activestills migrants 3

While Israel can always invoke security claims when it comes to the Palestinians—allowing them to sidestep questions about separation and demographics—it cannot do so in regards to asylum seekers and migrant workers, the latter being a group brought to the country by the government’s own hands. A close examination of Israel’s treatment of these two other groups of non-Jews reveals the inherent contradictions of maintaining a ‘Jewish and democratic’ state. This issue isn’t unique to Israel—any country that attempts to maintain hegemony of a particular group will have to use some decidedly undemocratic means to do so. But because Israelis believe national identity to be an existential issue—and the maintenance of a Jewish majority is seen to be a matter of life or death—its policies are particularly harsh. We should see Israel as supplying a contemporary case study or a cautionary tale of what happens when national identity, or inclusion in the national project, is based on race or an ethno-religious group.

Non-Jewish migrant workers were brought to Israel to take the place of Palestinian day labourers. The importation of foreign labour began during the First Intifada and only increased during the Second Intifada. From the Israeli perspective, migrant workers served two purposes: sporadic closures of the occupied Palestinian Territories and increasing restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement meant that Palestinian day labourers were increasingly unreliable, whereas, migrant workers constituted a steady, dependable pool of inexpensive labour. In many instances, Israeli employers found they could pay migrants even less than they did Palestinian workers.

Second, though Palestinians remained dependent on Israel for work, the presence of migrant activestills migrants 1workers decreased Israeli dependency on Palestinian workers. This lopsided equation meant that the Israeli military was better able to control the Palestinian population and to keep it separate from the Jewish population. Without a real need for Palestinian workers, Israel’s issuance of work permits to Palestinians could be used as a carrot and stick. Revocation of work permits or a reduction in the issuance of new permits can be used as a punishment while the issuance of work permits can be used as a reward for ‘good behaviour,’ either collective ‘good behaviour’—that is, on the political level—or individual ‘good behaviour.’ An individual might find that he can’t obtain a work permit if any of his family members have been detained by the Israelis or, for example, if a family member has been injured in a protest against the occupation. So work permits also function to encourage Palestinians to keep their own family members ‘in line’ politically, so to speak.

It is easier for a Palestinian to obtain permission to work in a settlement than it is to obtain a permit to work in Israel; many Palestinians who found themselves in need of jobs but unable to receive the necessary permission to leave the territories began working on Israeli settlements instead. So the population of Palestinian day labourers was effectively shifted towards the settlements—that is, Palestinians were essentially harnessed for the same colonial enterprise that thwarts the possibility of an independent Palestinian state—at the same time as non-Jewish foreigners were brought to take their place inside the Green Line.

Migrants who came to Israel entered a racialised system of labour: the Thai population work exclusively in the agriculture sector; the Indians, Nepalese, and Filipinos were issued visas to work as caregivers and only as caregivers; the Chinese were initially brought to Israel to work in construction, but nowadays, are brought on a special visa to work in ‘ethnic cooking’; they’re employed as sushi chefs. So those of you who have visited Tel Aviv—or who might go—and who notice that Israelis are crazy about sushi, realise that when you walk into one of those Japanese restaurants, a majority of the time the man preparing your food is a Chinese worker who is being exploited, in violation of Israel’s own labour law.

So in Israel’s bid to better control the Palestinian population and to effectively separate Jews from Arabs, it brought migrant workers. But from the perspective of Israel’s concern with demographics, with maintaining a country that is defined by a racial majority, migrant workers immediately presented a concern that Palestinian day labourers had not. As one official put it, ‘Palestinians don’t create the same problems because they go home at the end of the day.’ Another official was blunter about the ‘threat’ migrant workers posed to Israel’s demographic balance: ‘They have to be deported before they become pregnant.’

activestills migrants 2Due to the ‘fear of numbers’ the government developed policies to prevent these non-Jewish foreigners from taking root in Israel: there’s the prohibition on romantic relationships—if migrant workers are caught in a relationship in Israel, one or both face deportation. There’s also the policy known as ‘the procedure for the handling of a pregnant worker’ which, for a number of years, forced migrant labourers who became pregnant in Israel to choose between their baby and their visa—if they wanted to keep their visa, they had to send their infant to their home country within three months of birth. If a woman chose to keep her baby in Israel, she would be stripped of her legal status. After the Israeli High Court struck this policy down in 2011, ruling that it was unconstitutional and calling it a violation of Israel’s own labour law, the state tweaked the policy a bit. But the effect remains the same: non-Jewish women cannot stay in Israel and have children legally. Needless to say, the children of migrant workers do not get citizenship just by virtue of being born in Israel. To this day, there’s no immigration policy or law for non-Jewish foreigners; there’s no path to citizenship for the Israel-born children of migrant workers.

In the early 2000s, there were massive deportations of non-Jewish foreigners. At that time, Israel wasn’t deporting children. It focused, instead, on breaking up families—targeting fathers and expelling them in hopes that the women and children would follow. In 2009, the state announced that it would begin to expel children of migrant workers; it has since followed through on that promise. The arrest and deportation of these children—whose only ‘crime’ is that they were born to a non-Jew—began in 2011 and continues today.

African asylum seekers began coming to Israel in very small numbers in the 1980s. The first group of Darfuris arrived in 2004, crossing what was then the porous southern border with Egypt. This marked the beginning of a migration that, at its peak, would see 60,000 Eritrean and Sudanese enter Israel. The Sudanese have fled war and genocide. Eritrean asylum seekers have escaped a brutal dictatorship that forces them to enlist in a never-ending military service that includes farming and building roads and houses; those who speak out or who are caught defecting face imprisonment and torture.

Israel cannot legally deport these men, women, and children because of the prohibition in international law against refoulement, or forced return to a place where one faces persecution. That it doesn’t expel them constitutes a sort of de facto recognition that these people are, indeed, refugees—but Israel does not process a tremendous majority of their requests for asylum. If it did so, it would find that most are, indeed, refugees. Accordingly, it would have to give them status and doing so would open the door to them staying and shifting the state’s demographic balance.

activestills migrantsSo rather than processing their individual requests for asylum, Israel grants asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan ‘temporary group protection’ from deportation. When Eritrean and Sudanese entered the country, they were automatically imprisoned without charge or trial, for an arbitrary period ranging from days to over a year. When they were released, they got visas that must be renewed every few months but the visa includes the stipulation that they aren’t allowed to work legally. And they don’t get healthcare or any of the social benefits that come with status. They live in legal limbo, barely able to survive, in large part due to Israel’s ‘fear of numbers.’

In recent years, Israel has taken the Prevention of Infiltration Law, which discriminates against Palestinians, and broadened it to apply to the other non-Jews, African asylum seekers. The legislation was initially created in the early 1950s to stop Palestinian refugees and fedaayen (freedom fighters) from returning to their lands now inside the newly formed state of Israel; these attempts to enter the young country were maligned as ‘infiltrations.’ The Prevention of Infiltration Law was framed as a security measure but it is best understood as one of the four pieces of legislation that were written and implemented in order to secure and maintain a Jewish demographic majority.

In recent years, the Knesset has put forth one amendment after another to change the Prevention of Infiltration Law so that the state’s definition of the word ‘infiltrator’ can be broadened to include African asylum seekers and so the law can be used against this new population of non-Jews. This has had a number of effects on the conditions asylum seekers face in Israel. First off, many Israeli officials and politicians and much of the Hebrew media have taken to calling them ‘infiltrators.’ In the Israeli psyche, this is a frightening word; it is associated with the Palestinians and terrorist attacks. Applying this word to African asylum seekers has done much to create fear in the Jewish Israeli population; the result is that many Israelis are much less inclined to help a group that might have, initially, aroused their sympathies. And, in 2012, after years of hearing asylum seekers referred to as ‘infiltrators’ in the media, an anti-African rally in south Tel Aviv turned violent after a Knesset Member Miri Regev, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, took things up a notch and said that the ‘Sudanese are cancer in our body.’

The government’s insistence on using the Prevention of Infiltration Law against African activestills 4asylum seekers has also eroded the democratic space in Israel, which was, arguably, already small and already shrinking. The first proposed amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law was struck down by the Israeli High Court as unconstitutional. Rather than respecting the decision of its judicial body, the Knesset attempted to circumvent the High Court’s ruling by coming up with a new amendment, which was struck down yet again. But politicians came up with yet another amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration law and this time it stuck, likely because the Knesset was simultaneously threatening the state’s judicial branch with a bill that would essentially neuter the High Court. In other words, a group of right wing politicians bullied the High Court into submission.

This sort of thing isn’t unprecedented in Israel—state bodies often ignore or attempt to circumvent the rulings of the High Court; two rulings that have upheld the rights of migrant labourers have also gone ignored or have resulted in the state formulating even harsher restrictions than the ones that were struck down. Israeli settlements offer another example—those that are built on privately owned Palestinian property are done so in violation of a 1979 High Court ruling.

The disregard for the judicial branch is the most cut and dry example of how the state’s attempts to maintain Jewish hegemony undermine Israel’s already precarious democratic institutions. But we have to remember that policies and legislation also exist outside of the court rooms and halls of government—they make a direct impact on people’s lives. Any policy or law that is based on privileging a particular group comes at the expense of others; there’s a human price that comes with maintaining a Jewish state. The same holds true for any country that subscribes to a narrow, exclusionary definition of what it means to be a member of that nation—whether it’s a definition of what it means to be Israeli, Hungarian, German, or American.

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Mya Guarnieri Jaradat is a journalist and writer who spent nearly a decade covering Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories. Her work has been published in a number of literary and media outlets, including The Nation, Al Jazeera English, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, Narrative, Kenyon Review, and Boston Review.Jaradat T03168.jpg

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The Unchosen: The Lives of Israel’s New Others is available to buy from Pluto Press now.

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All images are taken by the Activestills collective.

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