So long as the fight for asylum seekers’ rights — which I have taken part in — remains blind to the fact that Mizrahi slums are the only places carrying the burden of supporting and integrating asylum seekers, any celebration of the High Court to shut down Holot is premature.
By Shula Keshet (Translated from Hebrew by Michal Wertheimer Shimoni)
My neighborhood in south Tel Aviv, Neve Sha’anan, has been given many odd names over the years. Countless times, I’ve been told: “Ah, you live in the central bus station” — and for good reason. After all, two central stations – one of them, the second biggest in the world, called “the new station” — were imposed on this poor neighborhood, suffocating its miserable inhabitants with impossible air pollution. But hell, this is my home, which against my will was turned into a polluted transit hub.
My neighborhood has another name: foreigner land. Countless times, I’ve heard: “There are no residents there, only foreigners.” And I try with all my might to show that I was born there and still live there, and there are thousands like me. Why can’t you see us?! Our existence there as residents and old-timers there is wiped out in one fell swoop, and the migrant workers and asylum seekers have “gained” notoriety as foreigners.
I founded the action committee together with other local activists in 1989. We organized and were chosen by the residents to lead the struggle against the catastrophe called the central bus station. The long and arduous struggle included a drawn-out court case. After a precedent-setting win in 2000 awarded to us by Judge Telgam (RIP), which included tens of millions of shekels in compensation, we had to face an appeal in the Supreme Court. The court bullied us into a compromise with the defendants — the developer, the Tel Aviv municipality, the local committee, the Egged and Dan public transportation companies and others. Judge Dalia Dorner told us very clearly that we must reach a compromise – or else… And that’s what we did. We reached a compromise against our will, forcing us to compromise the amount of compensation given us, and to wait for the money for years on end.
Let’s go back a few years. On August 16, 1993, the new Tel Aviv central bus station was opened with a festive event featuring the then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Mayor Shlomo Lahat and other official delegates. The next morning, tens of thousands of buses flooded the little streets and allies around the monstrosity. The horrible noise, the thick smoke – I thought it couldn’t get worse. I was wrong. Evidently the stepsons and daughters of the state can always expect the worst. The smoky buses were joined by drug dealers and pimps who turned the neighborhood into a hub for the trafficking of women and for drug dealing — with the encouragement of the state. Doesn’t every democratic state need a backyard to protect its front yards?
As if that were not enough, when tens of thousands of migrant workers and asylum seekers arrived, fiercely protecting its front yards, the state gave them a one-way ticket to the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv, specifically to Neve Sha’anan. It set up a poor and dense refugee camp lacking infrastructure and state services, be they health, education, cultural or social. The cries of local senior citizens, whose lives became hell, rose to high heaven. The cries and protests of all those abandoned and neglected asylum seekers rose to high heaven, too.
What does the State of Israel do then? It created a law against the “infiltration” of asylum seekers, and did what it does best – it built another backyard, a detention center called “Holot” in the south of Israel. It cost half a billion shekels to build.
The policy of building backyards is deeply rooted in Israel, as the existence of cultural-geographic ghettos cities in the periphery clearly demonstrates.
After the Supreme Court already annulled the law against infiltration, it then annulled the two suggested corrections to the law. The first is that whoever infiltrates into Israel against the law will be sent for a year of detention – without trial. The second correction declares that the asylum seekers living in cities will be sent to the “Holot” detention center for an indefinite period.
The court ordered the “open center” shut down within 90 days. It is inconceivable that people would be put in detention without trial or be sent to a detention center instead of reviewing their asylum claims and awarding them their rights according to the Refugee Convention, which Israel has signed.
I am celebrating together with the asylum seekers who will be released from Holot. Some are my friends and partners in a civil society organization called “power to the community,” which we founded together in Neve Sha’anan. Nevertheless, I do not rejoice in the Supreme Court ruling. Yes, it is progress, but it is also very incomplete. It is too narrow to bring about a solution to the problem of the asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv, Arad, Eilat, Ashdod and Ashkelon. Once again we see that one eye looks toward the asylum seekers’ human rights, while the other is shut — blind to the breach of south Tel Aviv residents’ human rights.
As long as the asylum seekers’ human rights struggle remains blind to the human rights of the Mizrahi neighborhoods, which are the only ones burdened with taking in and integrating tens of thousands of asylum seekers, it is too early to rejoice.
Yes, huge amounts of resources should be given to troubled neighborhoods and there are many difficulties to be solved, ones that were created by 66 years of oppression. However, that is not enough. As far as I’m concerned, as long the only options are detention camps or south Tel Aviv, there are no judges and there is no government in Israel.
More then 10 years ago, the Supreme Court, in a very socially insensitive way, refrained from ruling on the appeal of those harmed by the new central bus station, and it sent them on a long journey of justice delayed on their way to compensation. A few months ago the Supreme Court gave an important ruling that takes into account justice as well as the asylum seekers’ human rights. Beyond showing some understanding toward the suffering of the south Tel Aviv residents, however, they did not include us in repairing the wrongs that have been done. You do not correct a wrong by doing more of the same. This ruling shall forever disgrace the government’s policy as well as the Supreme Court itself.
To all of the communities in south Tel Aviv, I wish for us to keep both our eyes open, looking to protect all of our rights, and may we live respectfully.
Instead of Holot, there shall be absorption centers for asylum seekers in wealthy communities. They should be given work permits in agriculture or building projects. Instead of the laws against infiltrators, they should be granted recognition and rights as refugees. And I for my community, instead of the wrongdoing, the oppression and the discrimination we have suffered for so many years, I hope for an equal distribution of resources, of rights and of carrying social burdens, as for the dismantling the Mizrahi ghettos.
This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets.