This blog post was written by Ally Harendorf, a Yahel Social Change Fellow living and working in Rishon LeZion.
I sat alongside my peers in shock when we heard the statistic. When asked, “how many asylum seekers in Israel gain refugee status”, we curiously shouted numbers ranging from 1%, 5%, to 10%. To our surprise, the percentage is 0.06%. I immediately thought that this simply cannot be true. How is it that a country that I perceived as serving as a safe haven for my people doesn’t extend the same refuge for others?
On our day trip to South Tel Aviv, I continued to learn new facts and figures that caused me to contemplate my relationship with Israel – which I don’t believe is a bad thing, by the way. To love Israel is to be critical of it. Growing up in a Jewish community in North America, you hear about the best parts of Israel; the beaches, the nightlife, the prosperous hi-tech industry and if you are privileged enough to receive a decent education, then you will begin to learn about the intricacies embedded in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. However, rarely are the complexities regarding asylum seekers discussed in the diaspora, or even in the state of Israel itself.
I visited Israel five times while I was in university prior to joining the Yahel Social Change Fellowship.. Each trip attempted to have us fall in love with this land. They took us site-seeing, had us stay in charming “Bedouin” villages, and fed us the best falafel they could find. Of course, this worked for a lot of people. How could you not fall in love with this utopia that was being advertised? A couple of the trips I went on did attempt to show us another side of Israel by exposing us to issues regarding food insecurity, poverty, and the conflict, for which I am appreciative. However, each time I came back I found myself wanting to dig deeper, to hear from people unlike myself, those who have different perceptions of Israel and alternative experiences living here. While I know that I will never fully understand the struggles of various populations living here, I at least wanted to listen. This is what the learning day in South Tel Aviv provided for my peers and me.
Along with learning that only 0.06% of asylum seekers gain refugee status in Israel, I also learned that the children of asylum seekers receive the same status as their parents, which is no status – even after they turn eighteen. This doesn’t mean that these individuals are just ineligible to receive an Israeli Passport, it is much more detrimental than that. Being statusless affects housing, medical care, childcare, financials, and just about every other resource you could think of. I began to feel a little reassured when finding out that the Tel Aviv municipality is working to provide some of the aforementioned resources. This feeling quickly reverted when it was later mentioned that Tel Aviv is the only municipality in Israel doing this vitally important work. While there are many organizations throughout the country that work with the asylum-seeking and refugee communities, the fact that only one governmental body plays a role in this issue affecting the entire country is simply disheartening.
Our last stop of the day was at Kuchinate - an NGO that works to empower African asylum-seeking and refugee women through art. As I mentioned before, I hadn’t been exposed to many different communities in Israel other than when learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Prior to this fellowship, I didn’t know anything at all about the Eritrean community and their lives prior to fleeing their home country, their traumatic journey to Israel, or their lives once they arrived here. In fact, I didn't even know there was an Eritrean population living in Israel. While drinking coffee, eating popcorn, and enjoying traditional bread prepared by some women at Kuchinate, we had the privilege of listening to a woman share her personal story. She fled Eritrea, on foot, due to its dictatorship and compulsory lifelong army service (amongst other hardships). When she arrived in the Sinai desert, she was forced into a torture camp run by a Bedouin group. It was here that she and thousands of other men and women were held and tortured for days, weeks, or months in return for ransom. She was fortunate to have family members in Europe that were able to transfer her ransom, however, she mentioned that many others were not in the same position. Once released from the torture camps, these survivors still had a strenuous trek before reaching Israel.
The idea that it was a long and painful journey unfortunately did not surprise me, as I have met people from the Ethiopian community in Israel who share similar histories. How sad is it to become immune to stories of pain, torture, and loss? I was, however, deeply taken aback when we found out that their struggles didn’t end once they entered the borders of Israel. After escaping torture in Sinai, they were then placed into inhumane detention camps, where they were later released and given a bus ticket to the Tel Aviv central bus station. They arrived in Tel Aviv with no direction or support on where to go next and were basically told to ‘have a nice life’. That was it.
The stories that I grew up hearing about people coming to Israel are ones of joy; they involve airplanes full of Olim (new immigrants) clapping and cheering upon landing, free Ulpan (Hebrew) courses to speak the language, and an array of benefits to make Jewish citizens feel as at home as possible. These stories do not involve the criminalization of a people followed by a lifetime of struggle and conflict. I understand the importance of Israel being a Jewish state and the tremendous significance that holds for the Jewish people, of which I’m a part, but is it truly embodying Jewish values if it is neglecting its neighbors in need?