Israelis Taking to the Dance Floor to Protest Deportation of Asylum Seekers

During the last weekend of February, several clubs in Tel Aviv will be redirecting their profits to benefit the migrants facing forceful expulsion

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A solidarity event at the Holot detention facility in southern Israel, February 3, 2018.
A solidarity event at the Holot detention facility in southern Israel, February 3, 2018.Credit: Inbar Erez
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

A new initiative by nightclub owners, along with people involved in Tel Aviv night life, is trying to devote the last weekend in February to a struggle against the deportation of the asylum seekers, called “Nightlife Against Deportation,” (for the Facebook event click here). Some of the profits will be donated to organizations working for the welfare of the refugees and to stop the anticipated deportations announced by the government.

In recent years club owners around the world have begun to realize that they have public power as leaders of public opinion. Social and political struggles throughout the world have received support from nightlife businesses, for example in England, where nightclub owners encouraged their customers to go out and vote by means of a massive campaign on the social networks.

In 2002, club owners in Tel Aviv initiated mass drives against the occupation, but in the past years the local nightlife community has stayed away from political issues and devoted itself to the hedonistic aspect. The connection between the nightclub owners and their customers, and the asylum seekers (who work in those places) may seem obvious — but precisely because of the years of thundering silence regarding current events, it’s an extremely important step.

“Nightlife is much more than just entertainment,” says Benji Lenfant, a DJ and professional pilot, and one of the partners of the Grounded Festival, an electronic music festival in and around Eilat.

“Through nightlife we’re making the struggle accessible to the simple clubber,” Lenfant says.

A party at Breakfast Club in Tel Aviv.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
A demonstration in front of the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya, Israel. Credit: \ Moti Milrod

“In my opinion,” he adds, “social struggles and nightlife have always gone hand in hand, we as club owners have a platform and the ability to protest and to organize events, and that’s why it’s important to us to take practical steps and not only to write a manifesto, but also to give money to those organizations, every business according to its ability. To provide fuel for the struggle,” Lenfant says.

Business owners’ fear of taking a political stand in Israel is self-evident, given the current political climate but Lanfant doesn’t see this endeavor as a political act.

Benji Lenfant.Credit: Tali Shani

“There’s a pursuit of justice here for a weak population, and we aren’t in a contest as to who is weakest,” Enfant says.

Last chance to help

“There are a million problems in Israel, but in this case there’s a clear and present danger, and that’s why we’re involved in this outcry now. All along the way the government made a lot of mistakes in their handling of this problem, in every sense. At the moment this looks like the last chance to help,” he adds.

A Facebook post in which Lenfant and his partners called on nightclub owners and partygoers to join the struggle attracted hundreds of likes and shares. It motivated quite a number of nightclub and bar owners to sign a manifesto calling to stop the deportation. To date, about 30 different places of business in Tel Aviv have signed the manifesto, including the Tel Aviv clubs Alphabet, Breakfast, Beit Ma’ariv and the Mezeg bar, with its many derivatives all over Tel Aviv. The Pergamon club in Jerusalem has also joined.

Early this month there was also a solidarity event at the Holot detention facility in southern Israel, with the asylum seekers imprisoned there. The event, which according to its organizers began as an underground initiative, was attended by several Tel Aviv disc jockeys, the Pele Ozen hip-hop ensemble and additional musicians.

The initiative attracted only 200 people, most of whom were not representative of the average, indifferent Tel Aviv clubber, but were more like the usual types who attend such demonstrations — a mixture of activists from Women Wage Peace together with neo-hippies. There is a hope that the new organization by the nightclub owners will bring the solidarity events to the clubbers, because the latter won’t come there on their own.

Aren’t club owners afraid that taking a stand will harm their business?

Lenfant: “Whenever we take a stand there will be people who are opposed, the issue doesn’t really make any difference. There’s a lot of infuriating neutrality in the street and the country. Because we’ve all been in nightlife for years and understand the clear boundaries between good and evil, between the forbidden and the permissible, some of us have succeeded in developing a slightly more acute sense of justice. Nor do we force anyone to join us, everyone will give as much as he can afford, we’re seeing a lot of dedication and that makes us happy.”

Eliran Dahan, a DJ, multidisciplinary artist and partner in the Drama bar in Tel Aviv, says: “I’m aware of our geographical location on the political map and I’m not worried. In my opinion, as an artist, it’s a disgrace to be afraid to express an opinion. But nightlife people will always be afraid of that, because they’re trying to cater to a lot of audiences — and taking a stand in Israel is financially dangerous,” Dahan says.

“It’s a decision that we took very seriously, but it’s an issue that to me, as an Israeli, and as a grandchild of refugees, is basic. And in addition to everything else, I employ these people and at the moment I’m not interested in their legal status, I want to help them. That’s not the way, to kick people out of the country,” Dahan says.

And still, like the pilots and the doctors, you also got together and you’re taking a stand. Why is it important to you to distinguish yourselves?

“I think that anyone who’s involved in nightlife was ejected from somewhere else,” says Dahan. “There have been many agendas of many generations of nightlife people in the city, some were involved in political matters and some weren’t. This generation has taken a stand.”

Although the majority agree that this is a welcome initiative, in fact, some of the social activists who are fighting deportation aren’t really enthusiastic.

Nobody lifted a finger

“My first thought when I joined the fight against deportation was to organize a musical event with leading artists who would sound a protest. The intention was that the message would reverberate not by means of speeches or politicians,” said one such activist, who preferred to remain anonymous.

“Very soon I realized that this event couldn’t take place in a small venue,” he continued.

“Every [nightclub] owner we spoke to expressed great willingness and even support, but nobody lifted a finger to provide the space we need.

“In one case, all the dates were taken months in advance, someone else expressed a desire and willingness but the owner of his property vetoed the idea, and a third didn’t want to mix politics with business. I felt that in the end, in the entire liberal-leftist city, it’s very convenient for everyone to pay lip service to solidarity — and no more.”

That was a few weeks ago, but the manifesto and the new initiative attest to the fact that they want to cooperate, on their terms. What’s wrong with that?

“I welcome the initiative and I’m happy about it,” said the activist, “but a few more shekels isn’t what will stop the deportation. Our problem is also within the organization of the project headquarters. For the most part these are people without experience who are using a method of dispersing authority because there’s so much work. They don’t have any skills related to finance or producing an event, there’s lots of good will but there’s also inexperience. Many other initiatives are falling through.”

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