Cold Coffee, Warm Hearts: Rallying for the Refugees

The refugees' strike was supposed to hit the Israeli service industry. That didn't happen, but a message did hit home

It is a sunny, mid-week afternoon in a small-but-chic Tel Aviv cafe, and it's business as usual. Waiters are hustling and bustling, customers are drinking their coffees and chatting, food is being served. Sure, the macchiato might delay a bit more than usual, but it's just a normal day.

But it wasn't supposed to be. Dirty dishes were supposed to pile up. Undisposed waste is supposed to smell to high heaven. In theory, nobody was supposed to be there to do the dishes or take out the trash - they’re on strike.

African asylum seekers in Israel went on strike for three days, demanding to be recognized as refugees and that Israel stop detaining them without trial. Thousands took to the streets, chanting “Freedom” and “No more prison”, and staging the cleanest, most peaceful protest Israel has probably ever known.

Quiet labor

Over the past few years, the food service industry, especially in the greater Tel Aviv area, has grown accustomed - dependent, even - on the cheap labor of African asylum seekers. Many of those migrants, most of them Eritrean and Sudanese, work in the restaurant and hotel sectors as cleaners, dish washers or cooks.

Largely out of sight, they make the beds in the hotels, they clean, they prepare our sandwiches and wash the dishes upon which said sandwiches are served.

Their strike, the most drastic move ever taken in the short history of Israel’s African migrant community, was supposed to rattle the service industry. It had a nice, simple logic: You call us “work migrants," not refugees? Fine. We'll stop working. See what happens to your quality of life.

Nothing much, it seems. The quality of life remained unchanged, with a few blips. Israel's service industry did not collapse. It did something more interesting. It coped – and sided with the refugees.

Rallying for the refugees

“From manager to dishwasher, what fun,” wrote Lior Friedman, manager of the Ra’anana restaurant Spot, on his Facebook page. But griping aside, in support of the strike, waiters - even managers and owners - washed dishes and scrubbed toilets. In Eilat’s hotels, sales people and clerks had to clean up rooms.

It was partly because they had to, or close down – frantic Facebook posts that they needed help didn't exactly cause Israelis to storm the restaurants' dirty bathrooms, rags in hand. And it was partly for ideological reasons.

Tel Aviv’s Beta Cafe and other places served food on disposable plastic dishes. In Jaffa’s Shafa bar, employees left work to go to the migrants’ protest rally. Outside, they hung a sign that said: “We went out to support our colleagues, the Eritreans asylum seekers. They deserve to live with dignity, to work, to not be persecuted. They are not thieves or criminals, just human beings trying to survive. And by the way, we are having a hard time surviving without them.”

Gourmands to the rescue

The support for African asylum seekers about Tel Aviv’s restaurateurs seems to be, at least for now, universal. Celebrity-chef Eyal Shani, owner of Miznon, Port Said and other restaurants that employ 70 migrant workers, spoke at Sunday’s huge protest rally in Rabin Square, and has given many interviews in the past few days trying to raise awareness to the struggle of Eritreans and Sudanese refugees.

The question, still unanswered at the time of this writing, is what happens next.

The strike ended on Tuesday, but some vow to continue until their demands are met - refugee status, an end to deportations to the Holot facility in Southern Israel. In the meanwhile, restaurant owners are supportive, but worried,

“We support the refugees wholeheartedly. We depend on them. But we can’t wash dishes from now until the end of time, and it’s not like we can find Israelis who would be willing to do it," said one restaurant owner, who requested to remain anonymous.

And maybe, if Israelis have to wait longer for their macchiatos, maybe they will be identify more closely with the plight of the people who make it - and only ask to keep making their coffee in peace.

Tomer Appelbaum
Ofer Vaknin
Ofer Vaknin