On January 29, 2018, the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee convened. On the agenda: “Monitoring the implementation of the government’s policy on the infiltrators and the closing of the Holot [detention] facility, and monitoring the authorities’ handling of asylum seekers from Africa in light of the plan to deport them against their will.”
The meeting began with a short speech by the committee’s chairman, Likud's Yoav Kish. “We all remember boats in the 1930s with Jewish refugees who wandered the seven seas and asked to enter a specific country or many countries and were refused,” Kish said.
“Today there’s a Jewish state. We have not forgotten. We will behave humanely. We will bring these unfortunates, refugees who were saved from drowning in the sea by our ship, to our country. We will give them shelter and asylum.”
But soon he did an about-face. “I am informing you that the discussion today will deal mainly with the government’s decision to remove the infiltrators from our country and close the Holot facility …. Together we will help the residents of South Tel Aviv and other cities that have lost their character, not to mention their personal security, due to foot-dragging.”
As Kish put it, “And if there really is racism, unfortunately it’s against them. Jewish morality is the expulsion of the infiltrators. Thank you very much.”
Back when Lee Yaron, Haaretz’s social-affairs reporter, was still a student at Ironi Alef High School in Tel Aviv, she directed a production of Yonatan Levy’s play “Good Energies.” The play, which was even staged at Israel’s Teatronto Festival, is based on the Knesset minutes on the subject of royalties in Israel’s natural gas industry.
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In later years, as Yaron burrowed among committee-meeting minutes in her work for Haaretz, she searched for something that could be turned into a play. When she found the minutes on the asylum seekers, she and Eli Zuzovsky, now a student at Harvard, decided to adapt the 150 pages into a play.
The result is the play “Kishta!” – “Get Out!” The work, which will debut on August 30 at the Einav Cultural Center in Tel Aviv, has five characters: Kish, his Knesset colleagues Arye Dery, Oren Hazan and Michal Rozin, and south Tel Aviv resident Yossi Levy. And all of them are played by asylum seekers.
The script is actually sentences uttered by the legislators – word for word. The only tweaks are the change in the name of the south Tel Aviv resident who spoke during the proceedings, and the transfer of a few comments by MKs Tamar Zandberg and Nachman Shai to Rozin – all three of them on the left of the political spectrum.
According to Yaron, asylum seekers playing Knesset members reflects a message of equality. “The idea came from the painful realization that we as Israelis have gotten used to seeing them as our dishwashers and cleaners,” she says. “We want to remind the audience that we’re all equal. We could all be MKs one day and dishwashers the next.”
Zuzovsky adds that “these images, dishwashers and cleaners at best, murderers and rapists at worst, are precisely the images that our play is trying to challenge and shatter. We will listen to the asylum seekers philosophizing and arguing for and against their own expulsion, against the backdrop of the familiar scenery of Israeli flags and plastic plants, and put ourselves in their shoes.”
Rehearsals have been going on for only a month, partly because Zuzovsky currently lives in the United States, where he’s studying film and literature at Harvard and directing as well. And because the actors also work (some of them even around 15 hours a day), the rehearsals take place at night. Several of the actors have received help from Yaron and Zuzovsky to read and memorize the text; after all, for most of them Hebrew isn’t their mother tongue.
Yaron devoted July to find the five actors. It wasn’t easy to find asylum seekers who were willing to act. Johnny Kappel plays Yossi Levy, an official in the gritty Kfar Shalem neighborhood and a leader of the anti-asylum-seeker protest by south Tel Aviv residents.
When Yaron and Zuzovsky watched Kappel being interviewed on the Israeli television program “You Can’t Ask That” and considered asking him to act in the play, they had no idea that he had actually been at the committee meeting in question – he was even asked to leave. In fact, Kappel visited the Knesset about 15 times requesting to speak at hearings, but was refused.
Escape from Sinai
Kappel, 32, was born in Eritrea and arrived in Israel about a decade ago. He lives in south Tel Aviv and, outside of his activism efforts, works at a preschool.
“I was drafted into the Eritrean army and after six months ran away to visit my parents,” he told Haaretz. “They soon came to get me, handcuffed me, brought me to the army base and tied me to the floor with a rope. They barely gave me food.”
Despite the difficulties of life in Israel, Kappel focuses on the positive. “I’ll never forget the Israeli soldier at the border; he gave me his hand and said ‘Welcome,’” Kappel says. “Every time I see Israeli soldiers it makes me happy. They fought over me with soldiers from Egypt, gave me money and food, and helped me. The moment I have a country of my own, I dream of inviting soldiers.”
He says he’s not interested in becoming an Israeli citizen: “My goal is to return to Eritrea; that’s my dream.”
Another character in the play is committee chairman Kish, who is played by 29-year-old Michael Aforki, who fled from Eritrea to Israel nine years ago with his wife, who was pregnant at the time. In addition to the two children he’s raising, in the morning he works as an interpreter and in the afternoon as an aide in a hospital.
In the past year Aforki played a main character in the Israeli TV series “Asylum City,” but since then he has declined acting roles. “I was offered lots of roles but I didn’t accept,” he says. “I was offered the worst roles, of a murderer or a rapist. The refugees already have a bad image and I won’t emphasize that on television.”
Like the other actors, he finds himself in the shoes of a man who is working against him. “At first you don’t understand how to enter such a character, but you remember that you have an important objective,” Aforki says. “It’s important to me that the people watching the play will understand how they treat us, and I hope they’ll say, ‘wow, did we really overdo it so much?’”
When Aforki talks about “overdoing it” he isn’t only thinking about the opinions presented against the asylum seekers. Another key character in the play is Kish’s Knesset colleague Hazan, who during the committee hearings strayed from the main subject to focus on a women among the spectators.
“There’s some woman here with a kippa,” Hazan says during the committee meeting. “I don’t understand. Are you a man? Are you a woman? … What’s this nonsense? Take off the kippa.”
Hazan is played by Sonny Kublan, 20, of Tel Aviv. He arrived in Israel with his father at age 8 from South Sudan; later his mother joined them and in Israel his two little brothers were born. He went to the Bialik-Rogozin school in south Tel Aviv and now plays basketball for Maccabi Dimona’s adult team; he also works in a Tel Aviv restaurant.
“It’s an honor to play Oren Hazan,” he says with a smile. “To see his thinking and how he behaves. He doesn’t want anyone here who isn’t Jewish. He’s against anyone who’s different from him, whether it’s leftists or refugees. At first, when I was assigned to play him, I mainly thought that it would be funny, but now that I’m inside the character, I really disgust myself sometimes.”
Although Kublan arrived in Israel at a young age, he remembers well the Egyptian soldiers who fired at him and his family in Sinai, and the thirst, the literal thirst, when they approached the border. But he says the hardest year of his life was in Israel.
“In 2013, when Sudan received independence, they forced lots of people to return there. Almost all my friends returned,” he says. “But a week after they arrived, a war broke out and many of my friends didn’t survive. That was the hardest year of my life. They also expelled my father in 2017. I’m angry that they don’t give me freedom and that they returned my father to the place he fled.”
Of all the actors, the one who chooses to describe his life story in detail is Yaser Abdalla, who plays Interior Minister Arye Dery – the politician who said in the hearings that Israel doesn’t persecute “Africans or a specific color.”
Abdalla was born in South Darfur, was abducted and was badly tortured in Sinai. Today he’s a construction worker during the day and creates theater at night. In 2015 he staged a solo Hebrew-language play at the Acre Fringe Theater Festival, “Destruction Exile,” based on his life story.
“In Sinai we were victims of human trafficking; they put us in chains and said that to be released we had to pay $8,000. They would burn our backs with plastic, electrocute us, didn’t give us water. You know that you’re there for a few months, and then you either die and they sell your organs or you pay the money and they release you,” he says, exposing fractures on his hands that never healed properly.
“In the end I managed to raise enough money from friends and family and I arrived in Israel. After a month at Saharonim [prison] they brought me to south Tel Aviv, but because of the fractures I couldn’t work, and my memories prevented me from sleeping at night. People would buy me a liter of vodka and that’s the only way I would fall asleep. Even now alcohol is my best friend.” When he talks about his role he laughs for the first time in the conversation.
“Lee approached me on Facebook and I was enthusiastic about the role of Dery. I don’t exactly know why; maybe because he’s the total opposite of me. I hope that Dery will come and I’ll meet him face to face, so he’ll have a mirror image.”
The last of the actors is Wendy Yeboah, who plays Rozin. Yeboah was born in Israel to a migrant worker from Ghana whose tourist visa had expired, and until age 21 she was defined as an “illegal resident.” Then she acquired legal status by dint of a 2010 government decision.
“There were many battles to acquire legal status and so that I could join the army,” she says. “But I received an ID card at the age of 21. I insisted on doing the army despite my age, and in the end they drafted me.”
Yeboah is the only one of the actors who was born in Israel, and she basically feels like an Israeli.
“The stories of my fellow cast members surprised me; I hadn’t really heard about things like the deposit law,” she says, referring to a controversial law requiring asylum seekers working in Israel to deposit 20 percent of their salaries into an account they could only access when they left the country. “I was in shock. It’s such a basic thing to grant asylum, but the government thinks only about itself and ignores the fact that people are dying.”
Rozin is the only character on the left, the only one who supports the asylum seekers. But Yaron and Zuzovsky say they don’t think that it’s really a matter of right or left – the play mocks all the characters.
“We’re making art. We’re not preaching to the government how to act but we’re definitely laughing at the arbitrary and heartless way it operates today and are suggesting that they open their minds and hearts,” Zuzovsky says.
“There’s no dispute about the fact that Israel is betraying its obligation to examine the asylum requests – despite harsh criticism by the courts and the state comptroller – and is therefore violating its obligation to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, the same convention that Israel helped write and promote in the 1950s after the Holocaust.”
Both she and Zuzovsky stress that the criticism in the play isn’t directed at the residents of south Tel Aviv. For example, one of the few dramatic scenes takes place when the character of Yossi Levy turns to the audience and the lawmakers and says about an upscale Tel Aviv neighborhood: “I want one person to get up now and tell me ‘I promise that in Ramat Aviv they’ll take 2,000 Eritreans.’”
Yaron also says that despite her consistent coverage of the asylum seekers, her work on the play deepened her perspective on the issue. “Through my articles I meet asylum seekers on a weekly basis, but the shared creative work with them led to a much more meaningful understanding. They walk down the street and feel like strangers, hated, reviled,” she says.
“They work from early in the morning to late in the evening in order to support their families, and in the end 20 percent of their salary is taken from them because of the deposit law. Israelis don’t talk to them, and that’s why they don’t know that they didn’t choose to leave their countries and didn’t want to come to Israel.”
She says all the asylum seekers she has met have said they would gladly return to their native countries. “Unfortunately, they can’t return without risking lifelong forced army service, and worse. The State of Israel knows that the situation in their countries prevents Israel from deporting them, so it doesn’t,” Yaron says.
“As shown by the proceedings on which the play is based, the MKs and the government treat the citizens of Eritrea and Sudan like parasites, label them ‘infiltrators’ and openly declare that their exit from Israel should be encouraged, while it’s clear that we can’t deport them,” she adds.
“After all, if those countries really weren’t dangerous, [the asylum seekers] would have long since been deported – just like the Filipina mothers who are being now being deported, and like thousands of others who are deported from Israel every year.”