Book Review |

Jewish History Doesn't Excuse Israel's Egregious Treatment of non-Jews

'The Unchosen,' by Mya Guarnieri Jaradat, describes the life-changing impact of Israel's mass migration policies on the non-Jewish 'others' in the country

Akin Ajayi
Akin Ajayi
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African migrants behind barbed wire at the Saharonim detention facility in the Negev, 2012.
African migrants behind barbed wire at the Saharonim detention facility in the Negev, 2012.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Akin Ajayi
Akin Ajayi

“The Unchosen: The Lives of Israel’s New Others,” by Mya Guarnieri Jaradat, Pluto Press, 288 pp., $23

One thing to be said about Israel’s migration regime: Compared to other mass migration destinations across the industrialized world, it is a model of consistency and clarity. Very narrow exceptions aside, it works like this: If a prospective migrant can prove Jewish ancestry (defined here as having one Jewish grandparent, rather than the halakhic principle of matrilineal descent), then you’re fine. If not, then not.

The cover of “The Unchosen: The Lives of Israel’s New Others,”.

But we shouldn’t mistake clarity for fairness. As it happens, Israel defines itself as a country of mass migration—Jewish mass migration, to be precise. The very logic of a Jewish state draws from the fact that through the ages, Jewish life in the Diaspora has been restricted, sometimes violently. Ergo, the urgent need for a nation-state where a Jew is free to be a Jew. (Diaspora life isn’t as uniformly bleak today, but the overarching principle holds true.) This understanding, however, prompts the intriguing question: How, if at all, might one square the moral imperative that underpins Zionism and the state of Israel with the exclusionary treatment—formal limitations on regularizing residency status, for instance, or the powerful social barriers to integration – faced by migrants to the country who happen not to be Jewish?

This last point is not in doubt, by the way. If one requires convincing, I suggest reading "The Unchosen: The Lives of Israel’s New Others," a sharply reported, thoroughly troubling book by the Israeli-American writer Mya Guarnieri Jaradat. Surveying a decade of rapidly evolving attitudes toward non-Jewish migration to Israel (a period which coincides with the author’s own migration to Israel—Jewish grandparent and all), the book sets three tasks for itself.

First, it explores the context informing non-Jewish migration to Israel, and why this has changed over the last decade or so; second, it considers the response of the government and population to these changes; and finally, it ponders what the future holds for this new population. Much of the discourse about Israel and migration is founded upon untested presumptions, about the reasons for non-Jewish migration and the contribution non-Jewish migrants make to the broader Israeli polity. Because it draws heavily from reportage and first-hand accounts, Jaradat’s book stands apart from this fray.

A hierarchy of communities

The dynamics of non-Jewish migration to Israel, Jaradat notes, are intrinsically tied to the mutually destructive relationship between Israel and the Palestinian population of the occupied territories. Until 1989, Israel’s economy—especially the agricultural and construction sectors—enjoyed the benefit of a cheap Palestinian labor force. The onset of the first intifada led to greater restrictions being placed on the presence and movement of Palestinians in sovereign Israeli territory, which created a labor shortfall. Manpower agencies, armed with government work visas, filled this gap through the recruitment of workers—first from Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe, then extending to Latin America and Africa. Around the same time, the commodification of the care system for the elderly opened up new opportunities for health- and physical-care specialists, in this case mainly from the Philippines. And so, a new paradigm was created.

These arrangements mirror the commonplace, if somewhat distasteful, quid pro quo that occurs elsewhere across the industrialized world and the Gulf region. Workers are attracted by higher wages than they might obtain at home, and host nations maintain a steady labor stream at “competitive” rates (that is, cheaper compared to comparably skilled local workers). Such are the joys of globalization.

But Jaradat points out an oft-overlooked additional point: The work visas granted to these workers are extremely restrictive. They are limited to a set number of years; workers, generally, may not change employers; and changes in family circumstances (pregnancy, for instance) invalidate the right to remain in Israel. Meanwhile, manpower companies often charge prospective migrant workers excessive fees, running to the thousands of dollars, to “process” visa applications on their behalf. Collectively, these serve to severely limit the freedoms of migrant workers. What is presented as a fair contractual agreement sometimes comes much closer to indentured servitude.

Even if these onerous terms for employment in Israel could be justified on commercial grounds, the narrow economic benefits ignore another issue—the tension created between Israel’s unique political and social circumstances and the social consequences of mass labor movement. Put differently: Is it possible to negotiate the strains of integration and social cohesion between newcomers and existing populations?

The endpoint of the Zionist project has always been the establishment of an autochthonous nation-state—a Jewish homeland, held together by millennia of history, tradition, culture and kinship. It is easy to be side-tracked by considerations of whether this aspiration is authentic or merely a construct. Personally, I’m not sure this really matters. People are free—or should be— to organize themselves as they feel fit. The point is how these arrangements impact upon other populations. Communal identity is often reinforced by means of distinction from other groups. Sometimes, this is benign. With Israel however, Jaradat argues, it is not. The priority placed on homogenous communal identity feeds into a hierarchy of communities, Israeli Jews at the top. Jaradat’s unease with this is palpable, and she returns to this issue throughout the book.

Zionism’s overarching objective means that non-Jewish immigration has always been a markedly emotive topic in Israel: the tendency is to pick a side and to stick with it. (Now seems as good a time as any to declare my own potential biases. First, I’m a non-Jewish migrant to Israel, albeit not a work migrant, my status determined through marriage to an Israeli Jew. Second, Jaradat and I were freelance colleagues for another Israeli publication some years ago. We have had occasion to discuss some of the issues that her book explores, and she references this in the acknowledgements section of her book.) "The Unchosen" doesn’t fully escape these limitations, but it does afford migrants both agency and the opportunity to document their experiences in their own words. That this is rarely so underscores the important contribution of the book.

Mya Guarnieri Jaradat, author of 'The Unchosen.'Credit: Courtesy Pluto Books

Inhospitable Israel

"The Unchosen" vividly documents the manifold ways in which migrant life in Israel is wilfully circumscribed. One painful chapter describes the pitiful childcare provisions migrants, denied access to formal facilities, are obliged to use. Jaradat writes that she only became aware of the institutional challenges faced by migrants after working at one such facility, part of the volunteer program that had originally brought her to Israel. (The irony of the situation, that groups encouraging the migration of Diaspora Jews are largely the only bodies concerned with the welfare of non-Jewish migrants in Israel, does not escape Jaradat.)

In another chapter, she considers the remarkably lax enforcement of the already limited labor regulations for migrant workers, unpacking the tangled relationship between state, employers and migrant farm workers. Jaradat’s conclusion: state subsidies to agricultural ventures in the West Bank leave competing establishments inside the Israel proper at a commercial disadvantage. Cutting corners is the only way to remain competitive. With the government failing to enforce workplace regulations in this sector and with these workers, employers in effect get a free pass to ignore their workers’ labor rights.

Returning to the matter of agency: One could adopt an arch-libertarian stance, and argue the workers are free to take the conditions as they find them, or move on. It isn’t that straightforward, though, and Jaradat’s detailed personalization of the migration paradigm is a strong bulwark against this inclination. This becomes particularly evident in the second half of the book, when she documents the arrival of a new category of migrants to Israel: asylum-seekers, black Africans mainly from Eritrea and Sudan.

Israel, by its own conceptualization, exists to provide sanctuary to a persecuted minority. Successive Israeli governments, of all political persuasions, have underscored this point: Israel exists—Israel has to exist—because the international community failed the Jewish people. This seems an eminently reasonable point to make, given Jewish history. But given this history, it seems reasonable to presume that Israel also has responsibilities to fulfill in return to the international community, including helping to find a solution to the ongoing refugee crisis.

How far should this responsibility extend? Not very far, the Israeli political establishment seems to believe. The kindest thing one can say about the current dispensation toward asylum-seekers to Israel is that the state lacks a coherent policy for managing their claims.

"The Unchosen" is not kind to Israel; it is, though, scrupulously fair in describing the situation as it is, detailing the various ruses and evasions employed to make the country as inhospitable as possible to asylum claimants. There are restrictions on movement; arbitrary detentions at the Holot and Saharonim detention camps; restrictions on employment; compulsory deductions from the pay packet of asylum-seekers granted the right to work, to be paid back when they leave the country. There is the adoption of the word “mistanenim,” infiltrators, by the government to describe this new population. This word was once used to describe Palestinian fedayeen who smuggled themselves into Israel from Jordan and Gaza to kill Israeli Jews. Now, without any sense of history, proportion or simple regard for the facts, the phrase has been resurrected to describe a group whom, at the very least, deserve a fair and transparent hearing of their requests for refuge.

This overwhelming hostility is captured in the final chapter of Jaradat’s book, anchored by the experiences of a Dafuri migrant called Mutasim Ali. Ali was separated from his family following the violent incursions of the notorious Janjaweed militia, then was forced to flee Sudan altogether after speaking out against state-sanctioned violence. Egypt, his first destination, was overtly hostile. It seemed that Israel might have a more empathetic understanding of his circumstances. Ali learned that Dafuris had been invited to speak about their plight at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. “That gave me the impression that [concern for and sympathy with others] is a Jewish value,” Ali said. And so he came to Israel.

Jaradat’s point, as illuminated through Ali’s experiences in Israel, is clear: Empathy and action, even to a limited extent, are non-negotiable responsibilities incumbent upon Israel as a state. But what we have instead is the opposite. The rise of bigotry in a country created to escape bigotry is a cruel irony, informed by the abdication of any sense of responsibility for the issue by the Israeli government.

One of Jaradat’s interviewees, a therapist working with the refugee community, underlines the point. “Me, personally, I was born in a home of Holocaust survivors, and I was always taught that Israelis were different,” she said. “[T]hey are different, they should be different, they’ve learnt from experience, and would be [wary] before they slide into racism. But you know, it’s not like that.”

A wider trend

So where do we go from here? The theme that runs through "The Unchosen" is that of Israeli Jewish exceptionalism: the notion that Israel’s unique circumstances should, in effect, give it a free pass for its egregious, state-sanctioned bigotry. Challenging this, Jaradat’s argument goes, will ultimately force equitable treatment for Israel’s marginalized population. This is true, in a narrow sense. But it also holds up two shortcomings in what is, in many other ways, an interesting and pertinent book.

First, it is difficult to remove the question of Israeli Jewish exceptionalism from its wider context. Jewish history is not, of course, a legitimate explanation for Israeli obduracy. But it seems to me that the exceptionalism argument swings both ways. There are, after all, those who do not judge Israel, and its actions, according to the same standards that they apply to other countries. From this perspective, Israel should be held to a higher standard of behavior, precisely because of its history. Both sides of the exceptionalism argument engage with a very narrow conceptualization of Israel as a sovereign state; both, in their own way, are quite solipsistic, in that both find it natural to remove discussion about Israel from the context of the community of nations. This is not right.

The second point is that it is ultimately unhelpful to distinguish the situation faced by non-Jewish migrants to Israel from that faced by migrants elsewhere. Israel’s relationship to non-Jewish migrants is unique in context, but not in conceptualization; thus, localized solutions cannot, of themselves, address the fundamental challenges that mass migration prompts. All that said, "The Unchosen" is an engaging book; whether read narrowly, or as one example of a wider trend, its contribution to the debate on migration is timely and useful.



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