This story was published in Issue 1: Home.
Listen to a conversation about this story with author Sonja Sharp and publisher Michael Shapiro on the Delacorte Review Podcast.
I MET ERIMAS BRHAME INSIDE AN AM/PM MART in Tel Aviv, which made it both more and less strange. An Israeli AM/PM is a little bit like a Japanese 7-Eleven, in that its form is recognizably American while its contents are entirely foreign. There are high tar Noblesse cigarettes where the Marlboros should be, arak in place of the whiskey, an aisle of tea in lieu of processed meats.
The particular AM/PM where I met Erimas Brhame (who pronounces his first name like the Hermes handbag named for the Greek god) sits on Allenby Street about a block south of Rothschild, where an American AM/PM would be out of place. Anyone who has ever been to Tel Aviv has passed through this intersection. Anyone who hasn’t should feel free to think of it like a dollhouse version of LA, if LA were walkable like New York City. Tel Aviv is so small that you can walk the length of it from Hilton Beach to Yaffo Dalet in less than ninety minutes and push a stroller from its westernmost edge to its eastern extreme in an hour. At most points it’s much narrower, the sea so close you could carry an ice pop from this AM/PM to the beach, where Palestinians flock from the West Bank for Eid, without staining your hands.
My husband Tal, an engineer, had stopped for a tech conference between jobs in Wolfsburg and Kyoto, and I joined him from our home in New York. We’d just come from a hip cafe bar in the Levinsky Market, where we’d split a pitcher of arak cocktails and some comically tiny entrées and ninety minutes of the next table’s secondhand smoke. We were drunk, and being drunk realized late that our son needed milk, and maybe also some cereal and diaper wipes and shoko b’sakit, the ubiquitous plastic bladders of chocolate milk that Israeli children love. I’d run back to get some while my husband held our place in line—Saturday nights are busy in Tel Aviv—and was weaving my way back when I ran into Brhame, who was waiting just behind Tal with a huge plastic bag full of lemons.
The first thing I noticed about him is the same thing everyone in Israel first notices, which is that he is African. The second thing I noticed was his thick Figaro chain and the palm-size silver crucifix tucked in the hollow of his clavicle, which is how I knew even before he opened his mouth that Brhame was Eritrean.
I asked him about the lemons. He told me they were for the bar where he worked.
“It’s very famous,” he told me, gesturing up the block toward Rothschild. In fact, ZooZoo Bar is the club where the “smart transportation” conference my husband had come to attend held its afterparty, which should tell you everything you need to know. Substitute an undocumented dishwasher from Guatemala City for this one from Asmara and you’d have an Irish bar on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
Brhame is thirty but looks much younger, in part because he smiles all the time. He has lived in Tel Aviv for the past decade, where he works six days a week, twelve hours a day at this tourist bar in the heart of the city. When he is not at the bar, he exercises at the park, or goes to church, or to private classes to improve his Hebrew, which he speaks better than my husband although it is my husband’s first language.
There are 38,000 African asylum seekers like Brhame living in Israel, and most of them live in Tel Aviv, where they mostly work menial jobs washing dishes, stocking shelves, and hauling garbage. The vast majority are single men from Eritrea who fled civil war and indefinite military conscription. They share the sharp features of Ethiopian Israelis and talk in their slang. Almost all of them live in Neve Sha’anan and Hatikvah and Shapira, mostly poor, mostly Mizrahi South Tel Aviv neighborhoods surrounding the Central Bus Station where they were sent from a processing center outside Be’er Sheva after they crossed the border from Sinai. They arrived incrementally—“slow by slow” as Brhame would say—from the mid 2000s until 2014. For weeks, they slept rough. Invariably, it was raining. Nobody ever had a coat. Neve Sha’anan has not been nice since my mother-in-law lived there in the late 1970s, and for years, migrants squatting on the sunbleached playgrounds of its unremarkable Levinsky Park were considered less a humanitarian crisis than a signpost of urban decay, the way black flags on the beach mark a riptide.
The same could be said of Rome’s Piazza Indipendenza, except that nothing is ever the same about Israel. Stories that shape the faith of more than two billion people play out in its boundaries: It is the plot of the Torah, the set of the New Testament, and a backstory in the Quran. Empires have obsessed over it since antiquity, and still a New York Times subscriber who knows the name of every casualty in Gaza has likely never heard of these men. To him, 38,000 Africans will sound like an invasion. To some in South Tel Aviv, it has felt like one.
But 38,000 people are only about as many as attend a typical Los Angeles Angels game, or see the Chicago Cubs or the Houston Astros since each won the World Series. It’s ten thousand fewer people than go to a midweek Dodgers game, and if you know Dodger Stadium you know that’s still ten thousand under capacity. You could fit all of Israel’s African asylum seekers inside Dodger Stadium and still have seats for all of its unauthorized immigrants from Georgia and Ukraine. Among “statusless” people, they are a small fraction. Even activists were largely unaware of them until last December, when the Knesset voted seventy one to forty one to lock up anyone among them who refused a one-way ticket to Rwanda or Uganda, beginning with single men and then expanding to families.
In January, the Israeli government sent out the first round of official deportation notices. By February, it began jailing asylum seekers who refused “voluntary” deportation, which was scheduled to begin en masse in the spring. For weeks, protests rocked Tel Aviv, with tens of thousands Israelis marching to oppose the expulsion. Then in March, Israel’s High Court of Justice suspended the deportation plan. The UN brokered an unprecedented deal that would have resettled the majority of asylum seekers in other Western countries, leaving just a few thousand in Israel.
Hours later, under pressure from hard right members of his coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turned his back on the agreement, effectively condemning refugees and their Israeli-born children to limbo for the foreseeable future.
I have been a reporter for ten years and for seven of them I have known about the migrants, and yet until this spring I never tried to meet anyone like Brhame. If my son’s new Crown Heights Brooklyn preschool had not closed for a week—a week—on short notice, we would not have bought the tickets. I would never have flown to Israel alone with a toddler if my mother-in-law were not already there to watch him, because although the migrants’ situation had deteriorated dramatically in the months before I met them, although they had only just escaped deportation en masse, their suffering has never ranked.
The last time I was in Israel was in May of 2013. The year before that, in January 2012, Netanyahu’s government successfully pushed through the first of several amendments to the 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law, allowing the state to detain asylum seekers for up to a year, and to impose on them successive plagues of oppressive bureaucracy. “We will make the lives of ‘infiltrators’ bitter until they leave,” vowed then-Interior Minister Eli Yishai, articulating a policy that persits to this day.
On some level, I must have been aware of it. I can remember crowds of women in Neve Sha’anan and men squatting in Levinsky Park, but in my memory their lives seemed apiece with African migrants in Europe, whose suffering was widely dismissed in the face of so many blue-eyed Syrian refugees. What I know for sure is that Tal and I came home from that trip convinced we would immigrate. We spoke about moving to Tel Aviv the same way we talked about relocating to Los Angeles, watching with envy as our cousins and classmates untangled their foreign affairs—jobs, apartments, schools—to start new lives on the Israeli beach.
This is not to say we are untroubled by the occupation. It’s just that our tax dollars will continue to prop up the occupation whether we pay them here or in Israel, just as global warming continues apace whether I’m gridlocked on the 405 or trapped underground on the 4 train. In Tel Aviv, at least, we’d be more ourselves—traditional but not necessarily religious, average rather than short, normal instead of neurotic. For the same astronomical rent, we could raise our son in a Jewish state.
For five years, I repeated this fantasy. I was still repeating it in the terminal at JFK, parroting it back and forth with the gay dad from Westchester whose exhausted toddlers waited with mine for the overnight flight. Like him, I dreamed of a life there. And then I met Bhrame.
“For this decade that there are African asylum seekers here, Israel was abusing them and trying to make their lives miserable,” Sigal Rozen, the public policy coordinator for the Hotline for Migrants and Refugees in Tel Aviv, told me. Yet, most activists “were just busy with other human rights issues” until the situation turned grave.
Brhame told me he would sooner rot in Saharonim, the prison where asylum seekers who refused deportation were sent, than quit Israel, whose explicit policy it is to make his life so hard that he leaves. Only the Israeli Supreme Court stands between him and indefinite detention, which is how the government had hoped to evict those it was blocked from deporting under the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
This UN treaty would seem particularly inviolable for a nation of the displaced: 600,000 survivors from Europe and 850,000 expelled or forced to flee North Africa and the Middle East, plus almost a million from the former Soviet Union and 81,000 from Ethiopia, among whom at least five thousand died on the way.
Modern readers will recognize this less as logic than shorthand, the kind that animates graffiti that appeared recently near my favorite cafe in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant.
1.8 MILLION PEOPLE IN GAZA 2018
400,000 PEOPLE IN WARSAW 1940
James Baldwin wrote that “if one blames the Jew for not having been ennobled by oppression, one is not indicting the single figure of the Jew but the entire human race.” Yet with Israel the argument is always the opposite: The premise of every UN debate over Israel and Palestine and each new volley on Twitter condemning or defending the Jewish homeland is that suffering either entitles or it doesn’t, explains or it doesn’t, exists or it doesn’t. The premise of our outrage—of all of our outrage, on every side—is that suffering means something, and that our land’s manifold sufferings make it unique.
The asylum seekers trouble this theory, or so it seemed to me. That migrants like Erimas Brhame came to Israel at all refutes a certain harsh view of the state, but the fact that he suffers here, the legal mechanism of his suffering, belies the claim that the Jewish state is more moral by dint of its history.
Halofom Sultan, the chairman of the Eritrean Asylum Seekers Community in Israel explained to me the logic of their journey: If you, say, left Sudan on Tuesday you went through Sinai to Israel. Or you could have just as easily on Wednesday instead gone through Libya to Italy, because both destinations were effectively the same. To someone peering from between dead bodies in the back of a smuggler’s pickup, one democracy looks as good as the next.
Still, there are fewer African asylum seekers in Israel today than Eritreans who arrived in Italy in 2015 alone—the year by which time all meaningful migration to the Jewish state had ceased. But then, Italy is a country of 60 million, whereas Israel has the population and the landmass of New Jersey. Israel’s Sinai border is now so technologically fortified as to be effectively impermeable, while Italy trained Libya’s coast guard to overtake migrants’ rubber dinghies almost as soon as they touch the Mediterranean. Both countries have vowed to expel the “infiltrators.” And yet so far only Israel has sought to deport them by attrition.
The irony in this, the reason it is so agonizing to Jews in particular, is that the Israel the migrants see is exactly like an EU member state: it’s free and Western and normal, like a rude desert Canada or a swarthy, martial Sweden. “To get to Europe, you need to sell your life in the sea, to sell your life in the Sahara,” Brhame insisted. And for what? The place he believes he is living in is the place many of us wish Israel could be. Not Germany, sure, but maybe, like, Greece.
“What I see here in Israel, I want to be this,” he explained when we met for coffee on Levinsky Street near the apartment I’d rented in ultra-hip Florentin—“the heart of it all”, my friends said—about a mile away but a world apart from the one he rents in Neve Sha’anan. “There’s so many people, and everything is mixed. In Europe everyone sits in his closed house, but here in Israel everyone is living together, they talk. People in Israel, if you ask him something, he will stay half an hour and explain. You ask him, ‘where you’re from?’ He says, ‘I’m Israeli, and my father is from Yemen, my mother is coming from Morocco.’ His chain is not broken. He know his past, he know the situation what’s now, and then he knows the future what’s going on. For 3,000 years, Israelis know their history. That’s the strength of the country I see. If the chain is strong, the country is strong.”
All of which is to say, up until even a year ago when it began considering mass deportations, Israel was not unique. In its treatment of migrants it was middling, at worst normally monstrous, and still far better than the United States. Even a year ago, it had the potential to be only equally monstrous, to prove that outside of this one very thorny and enduring issue of the occupation, a Jewish state could be only as evil as every other one.
“You would think that the Israeli government would like to gain some positive points in the international eye, and it’s so easy,” Rozen lamented when we spoke in a borrowed room of a law office downstairs from the bustling Hotline facility. “Lately we had such an amazing opportunity with the UN deal,” which had been drafted as the deportation order was tied up in Israeli High Court, about a month before we met. “By rejecting it,” he said, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is “just stuck with everyone.”
It was just after the U.N. deal fell apart that I bought my plane tickets. I was struggling to understand: What is so uniquely intolerable about these people that Israel could not allow even a few thousand of them to remain? Why throw away the refugees who schlep its trash and speak its language, who admire its troubled history, who “want to be this” so badly?
There was no answer to this question that did not shake the foundation of a Jewish state—for you know the soul of a stranger, as it says in Exodus. No one claims asylum seekers are a threat to Israeli security. Demographically, they’re a fraction of a percent. Many other statusless migrants live there untroubled, which suggests a darker purpose.
“If something like [deportation] would happen, we are unworthy as humans,” declared Faigy, a Hasidic migrants-rights organizer from Bnei Brak, whose nom-de-guerre means little bird in Yiddish. “This is not the way the Torah wanted us to behave. It would have no correlation to Judaism. What’s the essence of our being here if we act like that?”
Her question haunted me. So I packed up my toddler and flew to Tel Aviv, in search of a reason.
“CALL IN ANY FAVORS YOU CAN,” my friend urged over WhatsApp. Go early, play dumb, make yourself sympathetic. Leave the baby with savta, with grandma. “No place for a toddler, that…”
On the subject of toddlers, my son’s savta, was emphatic. “Don’t tell them you have a child,” my mother-in-law warned us. “They’ll take him,” just like they took her sons. By they, she meant Misrad Hapnim, Israel’s Interior Ministry, and by take she meant make him a citizen.
My son is a New Yorker. He was born in Manhattan and has lived all his life in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. That a foreign country could require him to naturalize, that it could prevent my American-born husband from leaving on his United States passport, shocked me to the point of incredulity. That all this could play out of the same ministry that migrants were forced six times a year to beg for a visa pried my eyes open.
It turns out, if you want to understand what happens to Israeli-born children like Hermela and Hernan Medhanea, whom I would soon meet, it helps to understand what happens to foreign-born ones like Ram Yosef Sholklapper.
“Israeli passport,” the arrivals clerk snapped, shoving my son’s stiff American one back through the grate of her window at Ben Gurion’s chaotic passport control. As though I’d withheld it on purpose, as though I could not read the sign. Israeli citizens are required to enter and exit the country on their Israeli passports, just as they are required to register their foreign-born children with the state. It would have been a small matter of paperwork, a visit to the consulate on Second Avenue in Manhattan, not even an appointment. The real reason we hadn’t done it yet was that my husband had to renew his own Israeli documents first. To be fair, we were busy. The papers got lost in our apartment. For this reason Israel would not let Tal leave without a special once-in-a-lifetime waiver, current U.S. passport notwithstanding.
“We are the only Jewish country in the world; there is no one else who takes care of the Jews except for us,” Interior Minister Aryeh Deri told The Washington Post in February, and though he was speaking about deportation, he could as easily have been describing how his state claims title on my husband and our son. “We do what we are required to do by law, which is to take care of those who are seen by our law as being in danger and we deport those who we are not required to do so.”
To be clear, Jews are still in danger around the world. Brutal anti-Semitic violence like the recent massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue is neither rare nor exceptional in our long, bloodied history. Even in Brooklyn, even at home in Crown Heights, vicious bias attacks are fast becoming a weekly occurrence.
Internationally, things are much worse. Tens of thousands have fled to Israel from France in just the last three years, with many more coming from Ukraine, Russia, Ethiopia, and now Brazil. My secular friends speak about making aliyah, moving to Israel, the way other liberals talk about moving to Canada, while my more religious ones pursue the European citizenships that were stripped from their grandparents, because they already have Israeli passports. Many of these people live with violent anti-Semitism in their neighborhoods. The danger is real, and it is normal. An Israeli passport makes it easier to live with.
It’s easy to imagine oneself in Tel Aviv from Rio or New York or Paris: the seaside recalls Ipanema, Florentin a pretty version of Bushwick, Kikar Hamedina an off-brand Champs Elysee. Tel Aviv’s gritty neighborhoods are lush like LA’s, with bougainvillea weighting the power lines and jacaranda clogging the gutters; with grilled-in windows all hung with laundry like in Mumbai. I’ve never been anywhere more wheelchair friendly, and still it’s rare to see a shower that’s separate from the toilet, and impossible to find a clothes dryer. The fanciest buildings have troupes of stray cats in the planters and timer lights in the hall. Rush hour rivals Bangkok, if only in its volume.
The city is polyglot, multiethnic, and radically unequal, aggressively gentrifying and vibrantly queer—even AM/PMs all have huge rainbow flags at the door. Activists call this pinkwashing, but actually about the only way for an African migrant to get asylum in Israel is to prove he is openly gay, which is why only about a dozen of them have received it so far. As propaganda, it sucks.
We don’t have to negate Jewish danger to admit that the danger facing migrants is incomparably worse. It is extreme and well-documented, which is why asylum seekers in South Tel Aviv are going nuts. To understand their torment, you have to understand that expulsion is not a singular event but the culmination of years of artful and elaborate bureaucratic cruelties invented just for these people.
“Many brothers and sisters became crazy from this situation,” Brhame told me, which is both literally true and an understatement. Rozen called this spring’s escalating emergencies “a psychological war,” which mapped onto what I imagined when I tried to put myself in mind of those mothers I met at a migrant preschool in Neve Sha’anan. you have to understand/ that no one puts their children in a boat/unless the water is safer than the land, writes the British-Somali poet Warsan Shire, and I thought of her words as often as I thought of Dostoevsky’s.
“You may place a soldier before a cannon’s mouth in battle, and fire upon him—and he will still hope,” Prince Myshkin says in The Idiot. “But read to that same soldier his death-sentence, and he will either go mad or burst into tears.”
The premise of asylum is that deportation is a death sentence, which is the reason so many asylum seekers have attempted suicide or slipped into psychosis in recent months, and why child abuse cases have spiked.
“I keep receiving phone calls from hospitals about people admitted to psych wards because their condition is so severe,” Dr. Zoe Gutzeit of Physicians for Human Rights told me. “We see how the trauma in the Sinai affects everyone in the community—not just the ones who have been there, but everyone. It’s a collective trauma right now.”
The trauma in the Sinai is a euphemism. “For Sinai, that life, I cannot explain from my mouth,” Brhame told me when I asked him, although he had just described how two men died piled “over and over like stones” in the back of the pickup with him in the desert in Sudan. “What is going on over there, it’s very hard to explain. But to each and every one it will happen.”
What happens is that asylum seekers are tortured for ransom, while survivors like Brhame are extorted constantly to save their cousins, their siblings, their friends. Extortion is too fine a word for it, torture too veiled. Their bodies were burned, their fingers cut off. Rape is the rule, for both men and women.
“The way in which our clinic discovered the whole phenomenon of Sinai was because of the number of women coming at late stages of pregnancy requesting abortion,” Gutzeit told me, and I thought immediately of the pale, curly-haired girl at the school in Neve Sha’anan, whose light eyes had fixed mine from behind the bars of her playpen.
For all of this, the deserters’ prison in Eritrea and the truck bed in Sudan, the torture camps in Sinai, the Egyptian border guards’ bullets whizzing past as you scaled the four-meter fence and leapt with your life in your hands into the Negev—all of it earned you a bus ticket to Tel Aviv and conditional release visa, which afforded almost none of the privileges other countries offer asylum seekers. “It’s not relevant if you have children or not, or if you’re a single mother or were trafficked in Sinai,” said Ofira Ben Shlomo, whose non-profit Unitaf operates daycares for migrant children across South Tel Aviv. “No one cares. No one asks.”
The conditional release visa and its cousins the alef echad, alef hamesh, bet echad, A1, A5, B1 and so on are what allow asylum seekers to remain in the country while construction workers, home health aides and other foreign domestics whose permits have expired—often because they get pregnant—are rounded up and deported by the local version of ICE. Remember those bureaucratic cruelties I mentioned? This is where they originate, at the Misrad Hapnim, the Interior Ministry, on Derech Menachem Begin.
This imposing black tower in Tel Aviv’s glittering city center is where people like my husband do their business, and it is merely very unpleasant. For migrants, who reported for years to a small satellite office on Salome Street and are now shunted to the ultra-Orthodox suburb of Bnei Brak, the Misrad Hapnim is limbo, in the sense that limbo is like hell, but not quite.
“To get a visa, you stay the whole day in the sun,” Brhame told me. “Every two months we need to go over there, we have an interview, and then we get a visa. Every two months.”
Waiting all day in the sun is as likely as not to cost a menial worker his job, which he must prove that he has in order to renew the conditional release visa, which forbids him to work. He must also show a lease in his name for an apartment, which he cannot get without working, but bracket that; we’ll come back. To get an apartment requires a check, which his bank account cannot issue, and anyway he can’t access his bank account because the Misrad Hapnim changed his visa number. Why? Why not? It can.
This was the baseline, the normal upended since last winter. Sultan, the chairman of the Asylum Seekers Community, categorized interviews with Misrad Hapnim as universally hostile and frequently capricious. He said most interpreters are Ethiopian Israelis who speak a distinct dialect of Tigrinya, and who are often so recently arrived themselves that their Hebrew is little better than the migrants’, who, in turn, are forbidden to speak it once they elect for translation.
“They say, we bring a translator, so you’re not allowed to talk Hebrew,” he told me.
And still the conditional release visa must be renewed every two months, until one day it can’t be.
“They told me, ‘this visa what I give you is the last visa. After this, come in and we’ll take it,’” Brhame said of his last visit to the Misrad Hapnim office on Salome Street two years ago. In April “they called me to go and fix my visa, but they said this visa is temporary. We have no guarantee now. They give it to you today and tomorrow they’ll tell you you have no visa.”
So this is where things get very weird, and also very Israeli. All rich countries have unauthorized workers, just as all rich countries have Starbucks and Zara. Yet, so far as I’m aware, no other rich countries employ unauthorized workers directly, nor offer them health insurance and furnish them with special bank accounts with electronic deposit for their paychecks. I’m not aware of another rich nation where unemployment protections extend to people not legally allowed to work, yet people in Israel were incredulous that I did not understand. Sigal Rozen actually burst out laughing when I asked her how it was possible that all the city’s garbage collectors could be illegal.
“How? It’s a wonderful question,” she sighed, wiping her eyes. The short answer is that human rights groups sued the government to get migrants work permits, which the government refused to give them lest it draw more migrants to Israel. Instead, it simply promised not to enforce its own law, and kept its promise so faithfully that now municipalities are among the largest employers of African asylum seekers. “That’s how it works. Amazing, I know.”
Unitaf, the daycare nonprofit for “statusless” children, doesn’t pay its migrant workers at all. Parents settle with caregivers directly, exactly as they did when those women ran dangerous and illegal “private kindergartens.” The important thing to understand here is that Israeli law is flexible in ways that defy the American imagination. It shields migrants from common cruelties while exposing them to novel ones, the worst of which lies ahead.
BUT LET’S STOP HERE FOR A MINUTE, JUST HERE where the No. 204 bus lets off on Ha’Etzel Street in the Hatikvah Quarter, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods and birthplace of the Israeli Madonna, Ofra Haza. By now we’re two miles from the sea, close enough that it’s still humid but too far for a breeze. In South Tel Aviv there is no relief from the crowd, and only very little from the sun. Here in Hatikvah, just over the highway from the Central Bus Station, the only shade is the shuk, the market, with its hot breath of yeast and pickled mango, raw fish, and stale sweat.
If you look closely here, in the shadows that overhang Mevaser Street where it runs to meet Ha’Etzel, it is possible to see what all this is about, these tens of thousands of Israelis who filled the streets in February and again in March to protest deportation, the years of legal contortions over a few thousand refugees whose fate would seem trivial to everyone but themselves. Follow me and I’ll show you. It all starts with this fat, bald man in a grimy T-shirt and fringes, selling watermelon out of a shopping cart.
The watermelon man in the vibrant and dilapidated Shuk Hatikvah in South Tel Aviv is the most authentically Jewish human being on Earth. He has several sons, who are identical to him, down to the Time 100 cigarettes they smoke while they haggle. Although all unprocessed produce is technically kosher, his produce stand has a hechsher, meaning it is under religious supervision. Don’t ask me why he has it—it’s how things are done in Hatikvah.
The watermelon man is Mizrahi, as are his customers and his friends. Mizrahi Jews come from Iraq and Iran and Yemen and Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, whereas Sephardic Jews come from Morocco and Algeria and Libya and Egypt and Syria, although in many of those places, the two groups have mixed. They, together with the Ethiopians, make up Israel’s non-white majority. A quarter mile to the north, a half a mile to the west, it would be easy to imagine that Israel is Ashkenazi—that is, white, European—just as it would be easy to overlook the migrants, or to imagine that they are Ethiopians with less stylish hair.
Neve Sha’anan and Hatikvah and Shapira are all predominantly Mizrahi neighborhoods, just as Florentin was Mizrahi before it was cool. They are poor and have been poor for decades, their griminess a reminder that Israel has not been a rich country very long. Violent crime is low but petty crime is common, and social ills abound. Police say the most serious issues are among migrants—that their troubles are, crudely put, self-contained—but it is equally true that anyone walking down HaRakevet Street on a Tuesday afternoon will pass dozens of Israelis shooting heroin, and that neither they nor their problems are recent.
Residents of South Tel Aviv have been decrying conditions in these neighborhoods since before I was born. Men like Minister Deri rode their resentment to power. But it wasn’t until the struggle had a foreign face—that is, until it was politically expedient—that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu swept into Shapira and Neve Sha’anan and Hatikvah to save Israel’s authentic, indigenous Jews from privation.
For European Jews in the diaspora, such cynicism will be familiar. We claim our eastern cousins when we want to eat rice on Passover, as their custom allows, just as we trot them out in debates about who is indigenous to the Levant. Eight hundred and fifty thousand Jews were expelled from their homes in the Middle East and North Africa, we remind you, forgetting to mention how those same people were kept in squalid “transition camps” in Israel for years. These ma’abarot became dumpy, impoverished “development towns” like Sderot and Neviot and Dimona, from which the Mizrahim have yet to escape.
Yet even vocally anti-Zionist Jews, of whom there are many, often mediate their relationship to the Palestinian cause through Israel’s non-white majority, just as secular Jews mediate their relationship to religion through Israel. (Like my mother-in-law, most Mizrahi Jews are themselves both religious and emphatically Zionist.) These phenomena are not unrelated, nor are they accidental. Mizrahi Jews are our unbroken chain to this land, and for a plurality of the diaspora, this land is our last unbroken chain to Judaism.
You cannot in any meaningful way have a religious Jewish life in America without Israel. I don’t even mean a traditional or an Orthodox religious life, but any interaction with a religious institution of almost any size. Israel is in the scripture, in prayer, and not just in the words but how we’ve been taught to say them, with Sephardi consonants and Ashkenazi cantillation.
Israel is the name of our patriarch, the name of our people. It is the name that inscribes us and commands us, that calls us into existence—a believer speaks herself into being with the words Hear O Israel. She shouts it at the climax of Yom Kippur, the weeping apex of Neilah, which ends with the prayer, next year may we be in Jerusalem.
But let’s say you’re just ethnically Jewish, or culturally Jewish, that you eat bagels not matzah on Passover and watch porn on Yom Kippur—even then a diaspora Jew can’t avoid the question of whether his Jewishness is authentic. From where he stands, an Israeli is tautologically tribal. Israelis are so Jewish they can eat pepperoni pizza bagels and nobody questions it. Sure, maybe some people don’t like it, but no one would call it disqualifying. Such is the power of the state, that even Jews who decry it hear Israeli and Jewish as synonymous.
An antagonistic relationship is still a relationship, and a very tribal one at that. No Jewish mother reads the binding of Isaac without imagining how she would kill Abraham for raising his knife to their son. No decent father believes he could do it, anymore than he understands why God would ask. Yet even the Exodus from bondage in Egypt, that singular Biblical event, takes second billing to this bizarre test. It is a story that religious Jews read every morning and secular ones every year on Rosh Hashanah. The revered Biblical commentator Rashi depicts the Akedah as an argument—between Isaac and Abraham, Abraham and God, God and Satan. Reading it reminds us that faith is a fight.
You need not believe Jews hold claim to Palestine to acknowledge we feel bound to it, or that many of us who bridle at the yoke of heaven still wrestle with the land that God promised Abraham in the Torah. We are linked, inextricably, which is why anti-Zionist Jews are all fundamentally arguing over whether and how there ought to be a Jewish state, not whether the state itself is Jewish. Obviously it’s Jewish. Immoral maybe, illegal sure, but never not us. I am aware, as everyone is aware, of the suffering in Gaza, which is so close to Tel Aviv, it’s insanely close, like Greenwich Village to Fire Island or the San Fernando Valley to Disneyland. I feel horror and shame at it, and yet the occupation has never made me question my faith, any more than my certainty that I would kill Abraham makes me doubt God.
Numerically, the migrant crisis is not nearly as significant as the occupation. In some ways the asylum seekers’ suffering is worse than the Palestinians’, and in many other ways it isn’t. Assimilation makes them more sympathetic, but it doesn’t explain why tens of thousands of Israelis marched in the streets to stop their expulsion, or why the ADL and the Jewish Agency came out publicly against it when they’d never opposed Bibi Netanyahu before. When I say that deportation shakes the foundation of the Jewish state, I mean it literally. The argument against occupation is not really rabbinic. But on the subject of people like Brhame, the Torah is unambiguous:
You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt, God warns us in Exodus.
The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt, He insists in Leviticus.
You shall not deliver a slave to his master if he seeks refuge with you. He shall reside among you, wherever he choses within any of your cities, where it is good for him. You shall not oppress him, He demands in Deuteronomy.
You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the orphan, the Almighty commands again in the very next chapter. Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.
It is possible to find Jews who read the Torah to condemn the occupation, just as it is possible to find rabbis who argue that God forbids a Jewish state. But you cannot make Exodus 23:9 say anything but what’s there on the page. How could you? For you know the soul of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
“We’re Jews, we’re all refugees,” Faigy, the Hasidic organizer in Bnei Brak, told me. “The Bible tells us, you must take care of your fellow. This is something that religious people who have any humanity cannot ignore.”
“If this plan were implemented, for me it would be a betrayal,” said Morris Alper, a gay human rights activist in Jaffa who grew up in the Bay Area. “I think it taps into some deep issues within the American Jewish community about what it means for Israel to be an officially Jewish state.”
“We’re always talking about the St. Louis ship that went to every harbor and no one was willing to absorb these people, and now we’re doing the same thing,” said Shira Abbo, a young Hotline worker from Be’er Sheva, recalling the infamous “Ship of the Damned” that was sent back to Europe after being denied port in Canada, the U.S., and Cuba. At least a quarter of the Jewish refugees aboard were later murdered in Nazi death camps. “It’s destroying the very essence of our argument that we have a right to be here as Jews.”
“People keep on speaking about Jewish demography, Jewish demography—Judaism is not just about demography, it’s about Jewish values, and what the Israeli government is doing is breaching the most basic Jewish values,” Rozen said. “It’s taking us out of the nation of democratic people. It means we are no longer a democracy, that’s what it means.”
BUT MINISTER DERI will tell you deportation is necessary if Israel is to remain a Jewish state. “I think it is my job as the interior minister of this Jewish country to make sure this small place can take in those who have nowhere else to go in the world,” he told The Washington Post. As it happens, Deri’s base is the Mizrahim of South Tel Aviv and his people, like the watermelon man, are getting squeezed from both sides.
Once, only migrants wanted to rent here. Now newcomers from posh Kerem HaTeimanim are looking to buy.
South Tel Aviv is no more immune to gentrification than my home in Crown Heights. The same neighborhoods, the very same city blocks where statusless migrants have crammed in among mostly poor, mostly religious Mizrahi Jews are now increasingly coveted by young, Ashkenazi Israelis priced out of Florentin and Jaffa. You can see it on Neve Sha’anan Street, where troupes of Nepali and Sri Lankan children play unsupervised between Yummy Sudanese and the Dragon Chinese Supermarket, oblivious to the new luxury high-rise going up on the corner.
You can see it in the new pride flag flying over Levinsky Street, the pregnant redhead locking her scooter at the corner of Rosh Pina and Ha’Gra. The hotspots in Levinsky Market are all papered in flyers for even hotter parties in Neve Sha’anan, while tattooed hipsters now shop alongside asylum seekers in Shuk Hatikva. When we were last here five years ago, I got in a fight with my husband at a club called the Box across the street from the Central Bus Station, because it was 4 a.m. and he had the temerity to try to leave.
“This whole neighborhood was inhabited before by mostly Mizrahim, and it was in horrible conditions anyway,” Ben Shlomo of Unitaf told me. Today, it’s de rigueur for the grandchild of Holocaust survivors to get EU citizenship and move to Berlin. We could stomach Warsaw, make do in Odessa. Even Moscow is possible, for those rich enough. But there’s no “there” there in Gondar, or in Sana’a or Tehran, anymore than there is a Rakhine left for the Rohingya. These Jews are the ones the state must be saved for, indigenous Jews like the watermelon man, like my mother-in-law whose mother was born in Jerusalem, whose grandparents, my son’s great-great-grandparents, came there from Iran at the turn of last century. Who else would take care of my in-laws, Hassan Rouhani? Yemen’s Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi hosts a civil war to rival Syria’s, what would he do with half a million members of our tribe? Who would hand Uzbekistan’s Shavkat Mirziyoyev 120,000 Bukharan lives?
These are the people, Minister Deri’s people, who have nowhere else to go in the world. If they had, they would not have stayed here selling watermelon, or begging on the sidewalk or shooting up in Levinsky Park. For generations they have remained ghettoized in neighborhoods like Hatikvah, which The New York Times called Israel’s “most notorious slum” way back in 1983.
It was because Hatikvah and Shapira and Neve Sha’anan were slums that asylum seekers ended up there, and not the other way around. No government puts tens of thousands of indigent, statusless people on buses to anywhere but a shitbox. Think if New York City dropped 38,000 undocumented immigrants at Broadway Junction, and then blamed its generations of freefall on them. Imagine if Brownsville and East New York suddenly had the ear of the mayor about that. Don’t you think they would scream?
The children of chic Neve Tzedek don’t fight and die for the occupation. From the first years of high school, they’re tracked into elite military intelligence units, officer training, and coveted “jobnik” posts.
It’s the poorer children of Sderot, of Dimona, the children of Shapira who man checkpoints and serve as infantry in the West Bank. It’s for them that Israel must always be a Jewish state, nevermind 300,000 non-Jews it absorbed without blinking from the former Soviet Union, because they were siblings and parents and spouses of Law of Return immigrants.
But if we absorb the Africans, the state insists, we’ll be overrun—nevermind that not one African refugee has been able to cross from the Sinai since the start of 2017, that from 2014 that flow was already a trickle of maybe a few hundred a year. Nevermind that we are talking about fewer than 40,000 people who remain after a decade, compared to 20,000 illegal migrants who have come in the past two years from Georgia and Ukraine. There are 88,000 legal foreign workers in Israel—50,000 from the Philippines and India and Sri Lanka, 24,000 from Thailand—so that in poor, bustling Hatikvah it’s perfectly normal for a Thai woman to give directions to an Eritrean one, just as it’s beyond ordinary for Sri Lankans and Filipinos to dig through the same bargain bin at the Central Bus Station.
The Thai woman and the Sri Lankan and the Georgian and the Filipina all buy from the watermelon man. They all live on his doorstep. So why is the Eritrean who weighs fruit and makes change for his customers so threatening? Why for him does the state make new laws?
The obvious answer is racism, a reality to which Ethiopian Jews can also attest. The Mizrahim themselves can attest to it, and have, loudly, for years. But racism alone is too simple. Racism alone can’t explain why the ADL and the Jewish Agency and the ultra-Orthodox Haredim of Bnei Brak are so exercised over Africans and not over Arabs, anymore than it explains how the Israeli left was so exercised over Arabs and not Africans until now.
A better answer is that expulsion is a war of law. Its battlefields are the Misrad Hapnim and Knesset and the Israeli Supreme Court, the United Nations and the Torah. Every suffering the state inflicts on these people has been codified and litigated, each new torture drawn with Talmudic precision to sidestep whatever argument has tripped up the one before.
“Even they say it openly—we will do our best to make their life miserable so that they should leave the country,” Sultan, the community leader, told me. “Some of them even say we are a cancer in their midst. They are trying to find different ways to make a pressure on us to go away, or to create hatred. Every single step is to make life so hard that we leave.”
Both the asylum seekers and the government understand this strategy is untenable. There are only so many restrictions that can be imposed on a nonsensical visa, only so long a democracy will keep innocent people detained, only so much of each paycheck the state can garnish from workers to hold “in trust” for when they agree to be deported. Either the government must find a way to force them out or to regularize their status in the manner of other Western nations.
If Israel cannot get rid of these refugees soon, it will be stuck not only with them, but with their children. And this, in the end, is the threat.
GOD TAKES PITY ON KINDERGARTEN CHILDREN. / Less on schoolchildren. / On grown-ups, He won’t take pity anymore.
These are the opening lines of the most famous poem ever written in Hebrew. It is said that Yehuda Amichai wrote this poem about soldiers in Israel’s War of Independence, although it is more frequently read onto others. Yitzhak Rabin, the late murdered prime minister, read this poem while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994. He told the committee: “For decades God has not taken pity on the kindergarteners in the Middle East,” as though the wink weren’t the premise, irony the occasion. It’s like when Russian Jews quote Isaac Babel: “Didn’t God Himself make a mistake when he settled the Jews in Russia so they could be tormented as if they were in hell?”
If God takes pity on kindergarten children, then whose mistake was it to settle Hermela Medhanea in Israel?
“Me I’m all Eritrean, I think Eritrean. But my daughter, she has no relationship there,” Medhanea Solomon told me of his precocious six-year-old, who sat patiently sketching portraits of us while we spoke. “She doesn’t speak Tigrinya that well, she doesn’t speak English well—her language is Hebrew. In a year or two, Israel could decide we’re going to an African country or Europe, but what will happen to my child?”
I met Solomon and his family at the new Hagra Daycare Center for “statusless” children in Neve Sha’anan, the heart of migrant life in South Tel Aviv. He and his wife Trhan “TiTi” Tekle both fled Eritrea about a decade ago. Hermela was born here, as was her younger sister Hernan, who napped with twenty other toddlers in a sea of crib mattresses on the floor.
A stranger looking for a nursery would not choose this building. The only structure resembling a school is the one for Israelis across the street, which is otherwise desolate, save for an African bodega selling glue traps and what is here termed “black coffee,” a kind of gritty instant. My mother-in-law claims it is Turkish. You need lead guts to drink it.
The 244 infants and toddlers who pass each day from 7 to 6 in this borrowed municipal building are a privileged minority, and their fate is the key that unlocks everything that has come before. At least seventeen babies have died in unlicensed daycares like the one where Solomon and Tekle kept Hermela before she was admitted to Unitaf, the nonprofit that runs this school in Neve Sha’anan, and its sister center in Hatikvah, as well as a daycare inside the Central Bus Station on Levinsky Street. Unitaf serves children of all kinds of migrants, but the vast majority of their clients are the Israeli-born children of Eritrean asylum seekers, about 5,000 of whom are in “baby storage,” as it’s been nicknamed in Hebrew, on any day of the week.
“It wasn’t a kindergarten, it was a warehouse of children,” Solomon explained. He and his wife were both working at McDonald’s at the time—again, only in Israel—but Tekle agonized over leaving their five-month-old in the overcrowded daycare. “It’s actually a storage room that you stock shelves, that’s where they were. In twenty meters they had about twenty-five kids.”
I nodded, chewing my coffee. I had read about baby storage while I was pregnant, and again with fresh horror when my son started daycare after his two-month vaccines. Compared with that basement in Brooklyn, Hagra is idyllic: the caregivers are expertly trained and supervised, the facilities are safe and very clean. But no one would mistake this gan, this garden, for an Eden. The windows are barred, though the sills are brightly painted. From the outside it looks like a small, sunny prison.
“We’re minimizing the problems, but we’re not solving it,” Ben Shlomo told me when we met in her office earlier that day. “Before we could say that living with the [illegal] babysitters in the private kindergarten before they arrived at Unitaf was a great cause of the trauma, but now it’s not just that. It’s not just living in a private kindergarten, but living in a country that does whatever it takes to not let you feel comfortable and safe.”
Solomon agreed. “It’s not only deportation—the whole situation impacts them,” he said. “You have no way of knowing what your future holds.”
With the reprieve from expulsion, the most urgent pressure on parents like Solomon is now the deposit law, another of those unique bureaucratic cruelties I mentioned. Enacted last winter, it compels employers to hand over 20 percent of migrants’ pay to the government, to be returned to the worker only once he has left Israel.
“Asylum seekers are paid the minimum amount here in Israel, and deducting 20 percent [for the deposit law], 14 percent for the government tax, and another percent for the insurance, they will have very, very little left,” Sultan told me when we spoke back in May. “There are single mothers who’ve already handed their children to someone else to raise up,” because they can’t afford to keep them, he said.
Yet, outside the community, almost nobody—myself included—has ever heard of the deposit law or the suffering it has wrought in South Tel Aviv.
Contrast this to Israel’s Nation State Law, which made headlines for weeks over the summer. The version that passed in July is largely symbolic, and will change almost nothing about daily life in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Yet American Jews followed its progress through Knesset like a tennis match, while on this matter of real and acute legal harm, we remained blissfully ignorant.
What neither the Nation State Law controversy nor the deportation protests have adequately explained is that Israel has no birthright citizenship, as the United States does, and no pathway to legal status for most non-Jewish residents. Hermela Medhanea’s parents might be granted asylum tomorrow, or they could be deported next week. By this time next year she could be in Haifa, and just as likely in Rwanda or Libya or Canada or Italy. But even if it doesn’t expel her, Israel could well keep her statusless in perpetuity.
“It’s not just ‘will they become lawyers or doctors,’ but will they be in prison?” Ben Shlomo said of the children she serves. Here, she says, citizenship “is only if you’re Jewish, so staying in Israel is taking a risk.”
Sigal Rozen put a finer point on it.
“The legal situation is very clear that no, the children will never have legal status, and it’s clear that the moment it will be possible to deport the parents they will deport the children,” Rozen said. “It’s happened in the past,” with the children of legal work migrants at the beginning of the decade. “It’s not a theoretical question.”
This is the struggle, the Biblical choice migrant parents must make. To leave puts their families in grave danger; to stay binds their children to the mercy of the state. “We cannot vote, we cannot put petitions, we don’t have a chair in the government—the politicians are very strong,” Solomon told me. How could the cruelties of such extraordinary power not seem like a test? Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb? For a refugee father, remaining in Israel is an Abrahamic act of faith. He is praying for the angel to stay his hand.
I SET OUT ON THIS JOURNEY BELIEVING I knew how it would end. Asylum seekers have suffered by definition, and those who would help them had warned me what I could expect. I knew reporting would be a struggle, because interrogating the pain of others always is. But I also knew that the fate of these people in particular would raise difficult questions for me, about the behavior of my people and the country where I had dreamed so loudly of raising my family.
I knew all this, and yet until that afternoon at the Hagra Daycare Center, I hadn’t grasped what it meant. It wasn’t until I was wandering through Neve Sha’anan toward my apartment in Florentin, Hermela’s portrait tucked under my arm, that I put words to feeling cramping my chest. Though I have interviewed countless grieving mothers, talked face to face with murderers, and heard horrific accounts of child rape, as a reporter, I have very rarely despaired.
It wasn’t their suffering that struck me, nor even the injustice facing these families. Suffering is common here, injustice endemic. For generations, they have troubled Israel’s claim to democracy, just as our claims to indigenousness are strained by the fact that almost all of the Jews who live here arrived in Israel as refugees.
We fight about Judaism and democracy because these are the foundations of the state. Without the vigor of democracy, Israel could not have argued its way into existence. If God had not promised this land to Abraham, the United Nations would never have carved it up to make a Jewish state. The conflict between Jewish and democratic is the basis of the fight over the Nation State Law, the reason everyone is so upset.
But deportation invalidates both. Halacha, Jewish law, is unequivocal. International law is unflinching. Both Judaism and democracy forbid it.
How can Israel still consider itself a Jewish state—not merely a state populated by Jews, but a Jewish state—if it willfully turns away from the Torah, the very text it draws upon to justify its existence? Who are we as a people if we cast out those who wish only to live and work and love in our midst? The narrative that sustains the occupation is that Hamas wants to wipe Israel from the map, and for years politicians have argued that asylum seekers pose the same threat. But the unsupervised urchins outside the fish market on Bnei Brak Street have no such ambition. The refugee mothers who gather at the beach at sunset would no sooner drive the Jews into the sea than drown their own children, who are more Israeli than mine could ever be. They persist in believing, despite all evidence to the contrary, that this nation is what it claims.
“I expected Israel to be a democratic Western country where I could enjoy basic human rights—but I also expected better, because I know that Israel is a country of refugees,” Sultan told me.
“We as a nation Eritrea, we didn’t go through as much as Jews, and that gives me strength,” Solomon said, praising Zionism in the same breath as he raged at the Israeli government. “If what Herzl did can help me, I’m going to look at that. Look what has become in Israel over seventy years. How did the Jews create a state for themselves? It’s very difficult.”
Even Brhame, who despairs of his own future in Israel, insisted I should get citizenship for my son.
“As the mother of your son, you can do what you want to do, but in my opinion, instead of one kind of life, give him three, four, five kinds,” he told me. “America is many things. But Israeli people are one united people. Mishpacha—it means family, but it’s a very good family. That’s what they’re giving their children.”
As Jews, we’re raised from birth to understand that the world hates our guts. When my husband was a toddler, his Los Angeles neighbors used to lean out their windows to scream anti-immigrant slurs. In college, I was choked to the ground by a boyfriend who blamed me personally for the Second Lebanon War. Our son’s preschool has been defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti, and our friends and family around the world are menaced with worse.
To Jews like us, Israel has always been a refuge. But to the Jews who live there, it’s become something else.
“We got used to being here and having our own country, and it’s harder to relate to that sentiment of being persecuted,” Abdo, the young Hotline worker, explained, her attention divided between me and the scores of frantic, desperate people calling and texting and shouting for help. “We got used to being sovereigns.”
Sonja Sharp is a metro reporter and a former instructor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism whose stranger-than-fiction stories of violence, migration, identity and faith appear regularly in publications like the Los Angeles Times, VICE, the Wall Street Journal, and the Village Voice, among others.