'It's No Accident That African Refugees Are Called Infiltrators'

Prof. Gideon Kunda, founder of a community education center for migrant workers, felt that going to the polls every four years or demonstrating about cottage cheese isn’t enough to effect change. So he left his armchair and went out into the field.

Ayelett Shani
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Prof. Gideon Kunda, founder of a community education center for migrant workers.
Prof. Gideon KundaCredit: Gali Eytan
Ayelett Shani

Talking to: Prof. Gideon Kunda, 63, teaches in Tel Aviv University's department of labor studies, founder of a community education center for migrant workers, lives in Tel Aviv. Where: Principal’s office, Bialik Rogozin School, Tel Aviv. When: Sunday, 12:30

How did you end up giving a talk about the destruction of the Second Temple to foreign workers?

I was an activist dealing with the issue of their rights and I also cooperated with Mesila [an aid and information center for the migrant community in Tel Aviv]. They organized a group of community leaders from among the migrant workers. They wanted to know more about Israel, and I was asked to give a talk. This was before the period of the Eritrean and Sudanese refugees [beginning in about 2006]. The students were migrants from the Philippines, Congo and Ghana, some of them legal, some illegal.

Fifteen people showed up and they wanted to know everything: economy, society, politics, history. I didn’t know where to start from, so I chose the destruction of the Second Temple. I talked to them about territory, Nabateans, Edomites. We stopped when I reached the Middle Ages. In the next class we continued to the Ottoman period. I explained to them who General Allenby was – they knew him as a street name – and Lord Balfour. By the third meeting, we were talking about Israel’s establishment and refugees and Holocaust survivors and Ashkenazim and Mizrahim and the Labor Party and Menachem Begin and legislation and the Law of Return – it’s all relevant.

Did they all attend all the classes?

Yes. I felt as if I were talking to people who genuinely wanted to learn. I was very sad when the course ended. The students invited me to a graduation party [for their program] in a church. It was a beautiful church, on the fourth floor of a building. There were 150 people there, children too, dressed in their Sunday best, sitting in rows. They’d put up a sign at the entrance, in English: “Graduated from Mesila Leadership Program” – and there were 15 diplomas on the table. They went up one by one, to applause, and had their pictures taken holding the diploma.


It was. I hadn’t expected this. I told myself that if I was reading the situation correctly, these people, who lived in a vacuum between the police and the deportation squads, had invented a university for themselves. They have a need to learn, to take part in learning rituals. We realized we had to find a way to respond to that need, and we decided to start with a computer course. We rented the church and found old computers. They publicized the program in their communities, and on the appointed day, 150 or 200 people showed up and simply waited in line outside. In social activism, when you touch the right place, things happen. And this thing started to happen. There was a demand, there was a model and there were volunteers who wanted to teach. We took 100 shekels [about $25] for a semester, in order to pay rent to the priest. Three months later we launched a course in Hebrew and afterward a course in developmental child psychology.

What’s the curriculum now?

The project has been running for six years, with around 15 courses: general knowledge, languages and also courses relevant to the employment market, such as sewing, photography, programming, computer repair, video editing. It grew and grew and became an organization that needs management. When the refugees from Eritrea and Sudan started to arrive, they joined in, too. One of them told me, “I don’t need food – food I can find in the garbage. But where do you learn here? How do you get out of this?”

What’s been the response of the local residents, given the tension between them and the foreigners?

It’s very important to understand that the arrival of the foreigners and the suffering of the local residents are only the end of a process that began long before the migrants arrived, nor is it by chance that they went to south Tel Aviv. The government of Israel bears direct responsibility for the situation in the city’s southern neighborhoods, because of the way it’s treated them over time, because it’s the government that directed the asylum seekers to that area and because of the way it’s dealt with them since.

Let’s talk about the history of that area.

Before 1948, the seam line of the southern neighborhoods was actually the frontline with [Arab] Jaffa. The people who lived on the frontline between Jaffa and Tel Aviv were ostracized already back then. The old central bus station, built in 1941, acted as a smokescreen between Rothschild Boulevard, Nahmani Street and the White City of Tel Aviv, on the one hand, and the southern neighborhoods. There was shooting on the frontline and there was activity on the part of the [right-wing, Jewish] underground organizations, and those are also the roots of the right-wing presence in these neighborhoods. That is the true “periphery.”

The backyard.

These neighborhoods turned into slum areas, populated by strong, vibrant communities such as the Jews from Bukhara and Bulgaria – but with a sense of alienation, because across the “boundary line,” there was a different Tel Aviv. That was the south Tel Aviv reality into which I was born. In high school I experienced the social reality of the 1950s and ‘60s. In 1967 Israel was flooded with workers from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Things went very well. The good times ended when the [second] intifada started.

So the foreign workers replaced the Palestinians.

The migrant laborers entered this vacuum. From the viewpoint of employers, they are a marvelous workforce: They can’t organize, they don’t know the language, they don’t have citizenship, they have no protection and no rights – they live in fear.

Some would call it modern slavery.

Declassé people, with no status, lacking the ability to organize or make demands, burst into the labor market. Whether it’s slavery or not is a semantic argument. The state, for its part, organizes to respond to the phenomenon by establishing temporary-labor companies whose role is to select people, fly them to Israel and watch over them until they get to the employer. About 120 companies like this have been established in Israel to bring over workers from abroad and they take $1,000 a head as a broker’s fee.

New skin color

Who is in charge, who is the overseer?

In practice, of course, the licenses to establish manpower companies were given to cronies, members of the right party, people in the central committee. It’s a lucrative business, because the broker can set the $1,000 fee, as called for by the regulator, 15 times higher. They take what they want per head, even $20,000, deposit it in the partners’ business account abroad and transfer $1,000 to Israel. You have to examine the connection between this system and the never-ending waves of workers, who are far weaker than Palestinian workers. The Israeli economy simply became hooked on the system.

Cheap and effective.

There are no laws in sociology, but there is one thing that we all know: Foreign workers do not go home, even if they have somewhere to go to. Concurrently, and in addition to the legal workers, an underground economy developed, because illegal workers arrived, too. For example, pilgrims from Africa who arrived with a 30-day visa and stayed on afterward. And this is before the era of the refugees.

Where will illegal workers go to live? In the slum districts of the metropolis. In the places where other declassé groups live, where the local population can’t put up resistance. A process of creation of different communities begins. Churches are established. People marry and have children. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 1990s that it began to dawn on the authorities that there was a social problem here, that there was poverty, that there were children who were going to school and who spoke Hebrew but whose parents didn’t know the language. The Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality created Mesila to provide them with welfare services. That was the period in which I became active.

Where does your academic occupation intersect with your social activism?

I believe, as a researcher, that research is not done from the armchair but in the field, by familiarizing yourself with the place. I was always an activist. The fact is that the establishment’s behavior toward these people is a mirror image of its behavior with respect to us [citizens]. It’s necessary to be active – going to the polls every four years isn’t enough. And going to demonstrations and crying over the price of cottage cheese until the first rain is also not enough. It’s even shameful. So I started to work. I tried to motivate students and I was able to recruit various bodies at the university who were ready to emerge from Ramat Aviv. That’s how it started, and then the asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan began arriving.

Was that a watershed for you? Is that where the change began?

Yes. It was massive, it was blatant, it changed the fabric of the community. It redefined the question of foreignness.

What are we talking about numerically – how many refugees in the face of how many foreign workers who were already here?

We’re talking about 40,000 Eritreans and 20,000 Sudanese, an increase of about 80 percent relative to the number of foreign workers who were already in the country. The new arrivals were different in a number of ways: more men, more young people, people who had undergone serious traumas, people whose skin color was distinctly different, even though there were already Africans here. The new development fomented a significant change both in the fabric of the neighborhoods and in the public consciousness.

You’re referring to the allegation that they are not refugees at all, but came here looking for work.

From the moment Eritrea gained independence [in 1993], it was a police state run by the former freedom fighters, who now became tyrants. People fled from it to every corner of the globe. Legally, as soon as they step onto Israeli soil, they cannot be deported, because Israel has designated Eritrea as an unacceptable destination for deportation. The asylum seekers entered via Egypt, with Bedouin smugglers, and Israel interred them at Ketziot [a detention facility in the Negev desert]. There was no policy and also no [border] fence. The situation in Sudan is far more complicated, but it is categorized as an enemy state, so deportation there is not possible.

What, then, is the procedure?

There is a very clear procedure for checking whether people fit the definition of a refugee: personal danger, genocide, female circumcision and so forth. There is a process of clarification, and the first people who reached Israel underwent it and were granted a refugee visa. That means that as long as the situation that defines them as refugees continues to exist in their country, they have working rights and enjoy protection under the law. As soon as the authorities grasped that the numbers were too big, the process was halted and the story of the [individual] refugee visas ended. Instead, the asylum seekers were categorized as having the right to group protection: They received visas that were valid for only two or three months, and had to be renewed in extremely complex conditions, and their papers state explicitly, “This temporary permit does not constitute a work permit.”

What are they supposed to do?

What happened in practice is that the state’s representatives decided to load them on buses with a destination of the central bus station in Tel Aviv. The state simply sent them to south Tel Aviv. That’s how it started. When I was a boy, there were lists of names posted in the grocery store: Holocaust survivors who were searching for relatives. Here, too, in the Neve Sha’anan neighborhood, in the grocery stores, lists of those who had arrived were put up. They were all also looking for their relatives. They started to work illegally. The state grasped that something bad was happening from its point of view and started to take action to put a stop to the refugees’ arrival.

And the terminology changed, too: from “refugee” or “asylum seeker” to “infiltrator.”

“Refugee” is both a practical word and a formal definition. Most of them were not granted refugee status. In our system, a person who fled [his homeland] is a refugee, but in order to avoid granting them refugee rights, the categorization that took root is “asylum seekers.” At a certain stage that too changed – I saw it happen before my eyes. There was a program on Channel 2 in which someone called them “infiltrators,” and the next day Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a remark about the “Eritrean infiltrators.”

The term took root very quickly. “Infiltrator” is a very loaded word, and it was not chosen by accident. It’s part of our collective memory, going back to the early period of the state, to Ma’aleh Akrabim [a 1954 attack on a bus in the Negev in which 11 Israelis were shot dead by cross-border marauders] and to Palestinians who tried to return to their land.

‘Trauma on top of trauma’

Maybe they deserve to be classified as refugees just because of what they endured at the border.

The asylum seekers who managed to get here are very strong people. The smugglers who brought them realized that they could kidnap and torture them, and demand a ransom. Women were raped in ways that defy description. Trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma. The state started to try to stop the process, through both rhetoric and legislation. Holot [detention center in the Negev] was built. It’s a very tough place, intended entirely to encourage people to leave of their own volition. The High Court of Justice, in a courageous move, forbade that. Holot, which is run by the Israel Prison Service, was then classified as an open facility, with the inmates having to sign in every few hours. The Holot issue is still in legal proceedings, but people are being sent there.

Who decides? The Interior Ministry?

Yes. When a person arrives to get a visa, he is told, “You have no visa, you are going to Holot, and if you don’t go, you will be left without a visa and we will send you to Saharonim Prison.” The current situation, despite the court’s decisions, is that people who have been at Holot for a year are released, but orders to go there are being sent to many others. They want to fill up Holot. You have to see that terrible place with your own eyes. It’s not just a camp, it’s a place of despair. Around it are drugs, prostitution, corruption. It’s a place that’s meant to make the public blame the High Court and not those who are genuinely responsible for the phenomenon, and to make people incarcerated there want to leave the country. People there tell me about phone calls they get: “If you don’t sign [a form saying you agree to leave Israel], you will rot in Holot.” Or, “It’s not worth it for you, you will die in the desert.”

Who are the callers?

People working in the name of the state. Many people crack and sign a document agreeing to leave the country voluntarily. The bottom line is that the number of refugees is decreasing. Many have left. To enter the country is almost impossible, because of the fence [completedl in 2013] and the “hot return” system: When someone approaches the southern border he is sent back into Egypt before he crosses over, by means of gunfire or by being beaten. It’s horrible.

And I can already see the online comments: “Go live with them in the central bus station in Berlin.”

All this talk about leftism and Zionism is of no interest to me. The real question is: What are our borders? Who is allowed to live here and who is prohibited from living here? The struggle should not be over who is a refugee and who is not a refugee, but over what this place is and what the principles are on which it is founded. Over what citizenship is, who is entitled to it and the principles according to which we belong to this state.

What is your answer to those questions?

That there is a Zionist history here that established a state and forged a language and a culture, but it needs to change. We need to define ourselves differently, according to principles of civil equality and justice, and we also need new immigration rules. We cannot solve all the problems of Africa, it’s clear that a limit has to be placed on the phenomenon. But how many people can we take in? And if we take them in, what do we give them?

A Jewish state is perfectly fine. A Jewish state is necessary and I am part of it. But there is also a matter of citizenship here, of a culture that is being forged, of people who are coming and joining us, as people have joined the Jewish people throughout history – from the “mixed multitude” that joined the Exodus from Egypt, to the conversions under John Hyrcanus and the Hasmoneans, down to our own day. And what about the people who have always lived here? How shall we live together? The clear-cut definitions simply no longer fit the existing complex reality. The state needs to change. Those who were born here and want to be here have to be given equal status. The richness is far greater than the old categories of the rabbinate and the Interior Ministry that define Jew and non-Jew.

How do you feel about that approach these days, when things are going in the opposite direction?

Absolutely terrible. And if I did nothing, I would despair.

But you haven’t yet despaired, and that too is a comfort.

I have not despaired. I live and take action, and I believe that it is necessary to take action. I love this country, and anyone who does not act from love can do nothing. I do not have a camp of followers. I love this place, it is important to me. I have not despaired, because this is a place that is worth fighting for.

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