About a month ago, our eight-and-a-half-year-old son told us “he had a secret.” Actually, he corrected himself, it wasn’t really his secret. It was his classmate and best friend Roni’s secret. He seemed quite troubled by the burden of the information and eager to share the secret with us. But his friend had asked him to keep the secret and he was determined to do so. The only thing he would share with us after much urging was: “It happened in Ramle. To Roni’s mother and brother.”
A strong feeling of shame seemed to hang over the story. We wondered if there had been an accident, if some kind of crime had been committed, if Roni’s mother and brother had been hurt by someone, but all our son would say is: “I promised Roni not to tell.”
After speaking with the school, we found out that Roni’s mother and brother had been arrested on the street by the immigration police and taken into custody in the Givon prison. When Roni and his father went to visit them, they were also detained. After putting up a 35,000-shekel (about $10,000) bank guarantee and a 50,000-shekel personal bond, the court gave permission for the older son, Israel, and his mother to remain in the country for two more weeks so Israel could complete his end-of-year exams. Roni and his father were driven straight from the prison to the airport - and boarded a one-way flight to the Ivory Coast.
‘All the doors are closed to us’
During the two-week extension given the mother and older son, who was supposed to study for major exams under all of this pressure, they had to travel to Hadera and report to the Population and Immigration Authority office there. They spent hours standing outside in the fenced-in area under the burning sun, waiting for their names to be called so they could enter the building.
Roni’s parents, Benjamin and Clotilde, immigrated from the Ivory Coast to Israel in 1997. Their two children were born in Israel, are Hebrew speakers, and are like sabras in every way. “I named my first son Israel because we love this country,” says the mother. “And I chose the name Roni because he brings song into our lives,” she says through tears (Ron or Rina mean song in Hebrew). “But we’ve been subjected to humiliation all along the way. They won’t even help us with leaving. All doors are closed to us. What kind of memory of Israel will the kids be left with? What good things thing will they be able to say about the only country they know, which deported them?”
Two weeks before the end of the school year, and after having spent a week in the Givon detention center in Ramle, young Roni Otchoni, who was born and raised in Israel and knows no other country, was deported along with his family, without even being given a chance to say goodbye to his friends.
Along with a group of their friends, I accompanied them to the airport. Looking stunned, they boarded the one-way flight to the Ivory Coast – their homeland, supposedly, but a place the children had never seen.
Roni’s case touched a raw nerve in our family, which has known many episodes of living as refugees. My mother was born in France, where her father had fled in 1933 to as a refugee from Germany, forced to leave his parents and sister behind. His relatives all ultimately died terrible deaths from hunger and disease and in the concentration camps. In France, my grandparents were given the status of asylum seekers and when their children were born, they were all able to obtain French citizenship. When my mother was two years old, the Germans occupied southern France and my mother’s family fled to Switzerland, where they found refuge and were saved. After the war, they returned to their home in France. My mother eventually immigrated to Israel and settled in Jaffa. In the family story, France is always remembered as a country that took them in as equal citizens even though my grandfather was a citizen of an enemy state.
In a 1993 interview, Elie Wiesel poses this basic ethical question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And his answer is unequivocal: “We are all our brother’s keepers. Why? Either we see in each other brothers, or we live in a world of strangers.” The memory of the Holocaust hangs over the terrible treatment that the families of foreign workers and refugees are given in Israel – not because the state wants to eliminate them (though some do end up dead after being returned to their home country) – but mainly due to the callousness and indifference that so often characterizes the way their cases are handled. The Jewish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman used the term “instrumental rationality,” and identified this bureaucratic culture as a key underlying factor that enabled the dehumanization of “foreigners” that occurred in Europe.
The euphemisms employed by the legal system and by the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority are nauseating: The prison where an eight-year-old child is held is called Mishmoret (“custody”); the people slated for deportation are just “being held;” their desire to work and earn an honorable living becomes a “blatant violation and conduct that flouts the law.” Extending their stay in the country by two weeks with a 35,000-shekel bank guarantee so that a 16-year-old boy can take his final exams is ascribed to “the hallowed value of safeguarding the minor’s best interests and the kindness of the court.”
Once they have their backs to the wall, i.e., once they’ve been arrested and their money has been taken and they’ve been shown that they have no choice except to leave the country, they are suddenly said to be making “voluntary departures.”
The Otchoni family’s story goes to the heart of the Jewish refugee experience, for what is Jewish history if not a tale of migration and flight? Going back to God’s commandment to Abraham to “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house,” to the Torah’s clear prohibitions against mistreating the stranger.
I cannot comprehend how Interior Minister Arye Dery, an observant Jew, can subjugate the enlightenment of the “People of the Book” to populist nationalism. This deportation project should keep us awake at night because this is how our ancestors were lost, when they were persecuted and tormented by their “host” societies. At the same time, the Jewish history of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa is filled with stories about neighbors who physically defended recent arrivals. Why not here?
Back in Ivory Coast
The banality of evil is also found in the helplessness of good people. For years, the Otchoni family tried to obtain legal status. Many aid organizations tried to help the family, but to no avail. There were some lawyers who genuinely tried to help, and others who only sought to take advantage of their weakness, and all asked for their money. A good portion of their income went to pay legal bills and helped to fund various government bureaucracies. On top of that, they had to pay 4,000 shekels in rent for a moldy basement apartment, and still they made sure to keep up tuition payments to the private school so their kids would get a good education. Now back in the Ivory Coast, the family is living in the grandmother’s village, far from the capital, for fear of government persecution. They have no running water or electricity.
Because of the danger they face in the Ivory Coast as anti-government activists, the State of Israel once issued them temporary visas as asylum seekers. But this was soon revoked, and their 2010 application to regularize the status of their Israel-born children was also rejected. After that, the family had to live under the radar, until they were apprehended by the immigration police. Theirs is not an unusual situation. Numerous children have been deported this way. “The state doesn’t want us because we’re not Jews,” said the mother, who has lived in Israel for two decades.
Even accepting the argument that it’s just not possible to absorb all of the migrants and refugees knocking on our doors, a question still arises regarding all those families who have made Israel the center of their lives, had children here and don’t know any other place or other language. In such cases it’s hard to buy the argument that they have no rights at all, that their children cannot be permitted to finish school here. There’s a total absence of consideration for the many years the family has spent here, and a gross violation of the legal tenet of doing what’s best for the child, who is being torn from the society in which he grew up.
We should bow our heads in shame because as long as this evil persists, we who don’t understand the daily anxiety that migrants who have no safety net must live with are all collaborators.
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