In Israel, Memories of Segregation on a Distant Continent

When a Jewish policeman looked through the clothing and belongings of a black migrant in Ramat Aviv last Tuesday, I had a deja vu

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Oz Immigration police arresting African migrants in Tel Aviv, June 11, 2012.
Oz Immigration police arresting African migrants in Tel Aviv, June 11, 2012.Credit: Oren Ziv

On the corner of Reading and Brodetsky Streets (Ramat Aviv, last Tuesday, 1 P.M.), a policeman and a policewoman are looking through the clothing and belongings of a foreign worker. How do they know he’s foreign? They can tell. How do they know he’s a worker? They look for work and residence permits. He’s asked to remove his sweater and coat and hold his arms out to the sides. The policeman frisks him. The policewoman has her weapon drawn.

“He’s tall, that kushi,” a student at the nearby French Alliance Gymnasium high school says, using a derogatory Hebrew term for a black person. “And he can easily beat the hell out of them,” the kid added. The “suspect” obeys instructions and I leave without knowing whether he was allowed, after being searched, to go on his way or was taken on another way – to pre-deportation detention, for example. At least, I tell myself, I restrained myself and didn’t interfere with a policeman in the course of his duty.

Yes, a country, every country, needs an immigration policy for accepting refugees, asylum seekers and labor migrants. But what we’re doing now, typically, is a matter of too late and too much. The recent decisions of the Population, Immigration and Border Authority to deport thousands of asylum-seekers within 90 days is expulsion at its worst. Give that agency 140 more job slots and the headhunters will be hired for the task of removing the blacks and whitewashing the streets.

When I was five years old, I moved for a year with my parents to Rio de Janeiro, where the family of Aunt Cecile, my father’s sister, had fled from Belgium during World War II. For a few days we lived in her house. Aunt Cecile was very rich. Her servants (mulatto natives, naturally) had a separate entrance and separate quarters and a separate kitchen and dining room and even a separate television in a separate living room.

The day we moved to an apartment, I took my teddy bear and went down to the street to look for friends. I came back holding the hand of Sergio, who was my age, lived next door and was playing soccer with his friends in the street. He smiled at me, and I pointed to our house and pulled him up the stairs. “Look,” I shouted to my mother and father, “Look who I found! Alikama!” the happy little black boy in a white turban riding an elephant in the children’s book, “Little Alikama,” by Yehuda Gabbay.

We communicated through toys. And then there was a knock at the door and when it opened it, I heard loud voices speaking a foreign language. The lady who lived on the floor above us, my parents explained, saw me bring a boy into the house who was not permitted to enter. Those are the laws here, I was told, laws of separation between the races: They live separately, they travel separately, they study separately.

Nevertheless, in the year we lived in Rio, Sergio and his sister Gloria were my good friends and came to our house over and over. There were more knocks at the door from the neighbors, and I, who by then spoke Portuguese, translated our dialogues for my parents.

To their claim that we were breaking the law, I responded that Sergio and Gloria were welcome in our home, and in my childish chutzpah I added that I loved their chocolate color. The neighbors got used to it – and perhaps even asked themselves, Could the two of them, Jews and natives, be together unless they were meant to be? Sergio and Gloria’s parents got used to it, and so did my white friends from kindergarten.

Eventually my father said that what was planted in me in Rio de Janeiro took root and blossomed in the land of Israel. That might be. Otherwise how could Sergio have appeared in my thoughts when a Jewish policeman looked through the clothing and belongings of a foreign worker on the corner of Reading and Brodetsky in Ramat Aviv on a Tuesday afternoon?

The Population, Immigration and Border Authority defined the deportation of some 35,000 labor migrants and their 5,000 children, whom it had allowed into the country in the first place, as a “project of national importance.” Hooray! Israel has a project of national importance! From now on, let every labor migrant know that the hand which allowed him to enter the country is from now on the hand that persecutes them. And it will catch them while they’re at work in the city’s kitchens and public rest rooms, collecting garbage from our streets, or going to or from home or work. And let every migrant know that the door to Israel is a revolving one: You come in, then you go out. Tough luck. You get it, kushi?