Saturday, March 1, 2014

Reports and Impressions from 2004 -- Immigrant/Refugee Workers in 1948 Israel

There is a lot of publicity these days about Israel's attempt to deport immigrant workers and asylum seekers -- mostly from African Sudan and Somalia.  But this is not a new phenomenon, as I learned in 2004 during my first  trip to 1948 Israel.

2004 JAMP Israel-Palestine Trip 
Summary (Jeff Klein) 
Tel Aviv,  Sunday, 18 January 2004

It is just past 5 p.m. and we are at the Open Clinic for Migrant Workers, which is run by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel at their Golomb Street building.  The waiting room is filling up with patients of every color and a dozen nationalities.  While the doctors with our JAMP group have joined the Israeli physicians in treating patients, I sit among the people who are waiting to be seen, trying to put them at ease so they will tell me their stories.  They are nervous  --  understandably  --  because as “illegal” foreign workers in Israel they are subject to arrest and deportation by the feared Immigration Police.

[Israeli NGOs like Physician for Human Rights and others follow the usage of the United Nations in employing the term “migrant worker” to describe the phenomenon of the cross border movement of laborers.  This is considered less pejorative than “foreign worker” used by the Israeli government, or “Gastarbeiter” (“guest worker”), first popularized in Germany during the 1960’s.  However, since “migrant worker” has a different significance in the US, I have employed the term “foreign worker” here, with no intention of denigrating the participants in this category. (JK)]

The PHR Migrant Worker Clinic is open Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday evening from 5-9 p.m. for general patients, and Monday night for gynecology service.  In Israel, even “legal” foreign are often denied state-mandated medical benefits and may have limited access to health care.  But “illegal” foreign workers have neither health insurance, nor can they afford to pay the fees for private care.  And even if a worker has the money, a visit to a regular hospital or clinic may risk exposure and deportation.  So, for many foreigners,  the PHR clinic is their only safe health care option.

The patients at the PHR clinic are reluctant at first to speak with a stranger.  As “Kofi,” from Ghana said when I approached him, “I have a lot of cares if I talk to you.”  “Joe,” another worker, from Nigeria, spoke with me briefly and then moved away.  However, as time passed the waiting patients gained confidence and many of them began to speak freely.  I asked that they give me their names for my notes, but made it clear that they could give any name they wanted  --  not necessarily the real one  --  and that I would use only first names in print. 

Kofi telephoned a friend for advice and then returned to tell me his story.  He was 38 years old and had been in Israel for 8 years.  He tried going back home 2 years ago, but could not find work in Ghana and returned to Israel.  Like most of the Africans in Tel Aviv, he earned a modest wage cleaning houses.  He met his wife in Israel and they had two girls Nancy, age 7 and Abigail, age 5, born in Tel Aviv.  He told me that life had not been too bad until Likud came to power and began to stigmatize foreign workers as “destroying the economy” and “taking work from Israelis.”  He had been arrested twice, most recently in November 2003. He explained that the police had broken into his house and beaten him in front of his children.  He produced the bail receipt for the 12,000 Israeli shekels he had to pay and explained that he would forfeit the money unless he left the country.

Fofana, 29 years old, had arrived with her husband Abah from the Ivory Coast only a month before and they were still looking for work.  Lucy, from Ghana was 42 years old and had been working in Israel for 5 years cleaning houses;  she also reported a lot of trouble with the police, who had once broken down the door to her apartment. Claudine had been in Israel for 5 years, her friend Clarisse for 8 years, both originally from the Congo;  Giorgi and Sergei, burly-looking Russians from Tiumen, arrived in 1999 and had jobs as security guards.

Juliet, 30 years old, from Ghana explained that she had been in Israeli for 2 years with her husband Patrick, who had lost his job as a printer in their country.  She had recently had a miscarriage and had to pay 1100 Israeli shekels at the hospital.  She earns 30 shekels and hour (about $7), when she can work  --  above average pay for cleaning houses.

Emmanuel, age 37, explained how he had arrived 6 years earlier from Nigeria with his wife Barbara and a group of 22 people traveling together to Israel as “tourists,” who stayed on to work “illegally.” He had a  daughter, Kumi, born in Israel. Emmanuel said that all his friends wanted to return to their country but were unable to save up enough money for the cost of air fare home.

Rosalia from Cali, Colombia had been in Israel for 6 years, also cleaning houses;  she had left behind her daughters Caterina, now age 19, and Diana, now 22, neither of whom she had seen since leaving Colombia.  She was the only patient at the clinic who was willing to have her photo taken.

Finally, Joe, who had been reluctant to talk to me earlier but had been observing my other conversations, sat down next me.  He began to speak passionately about the condition of foreign workers in Israel and especially the racism encountered by Africans.  Joe, an intense middle-aged man, was a political science graduate from the University of Benin in Nigeria but had worked for 10 years in Israel cleaning houses and restaurants, sometimes as a security guard. He had come originally with a tourist visa.  “The Israelis call us ‘kushi.’  Do you know what that means?  It’s like Nigger in your country.  And sometimes they refer to us as ‘zeve,’ garbage.”  He explained that, unlike even in the US, a child of foreigners born in Israel can never become a legal citizen.  And the police constantly harass and arrest foreign workers, often with great brutality. I asked “Joe,” why he didn’t leave Israel, then?  He answered that he couldn’t earn a living in Nigeria and needed to send money home to support his family.  “Of course, why would I stay otherwise?” he said.

Joe told the story about a recent police raid where an African man was bound and beaten bloody by the immigration police.  When neighbors, an Israeli woman who was married to a Nigerian, tried to intervene, the police beat that man also, handcuffed the woman and took them both to jail. “You can read about it in ‘Manila magazine’,” he said. When I looked puzzled, he repeated “’Manila magazine’, you can get it in Neve Sha’anan, near the Bus Station.” 

Joe was emphatic that many individual Israelis treat foreign workers with kindness.  But the employers, the  government and the police are a different matter.  “Do the Israelis not remember their own history?  The way they treat foreigners, they do not even obey the commandments in their own scripture.  Look in the book of Exodus, chapter 22,” he said.  I didn’t understand what the bible could say about foreign workers in Israel, but before I got to ask, Joe was called to be examined by a doctor and I didn’t see him again that night. 

                         *                      *                      *                      *                      * 
Later, Naomi, Guy and I wander off to find a copy of “Manila” magazine.  Neve Sha’anan turned out to be a down-at-the-heals pedestrian street, lined with shabby businesses catering to foreign workers:  currency exchangers, offices for wiring money transfers, shops selling international phone cards and electronics, loud music, cheap clothing and jewelry, “pip shows,” bars and cafes where the languages of foreign workers were spoken and the TV’s played non-stop cable shows from Istanbul, Kiev or Bucharest.  Along the center of the walkway, impoverished foreigners have spread their forlorn wares on blankets or tarps:  broken-looking house wares and appliances, used clothing, furniture, books, mismatched shoes.  After much searching, we found a shop which sold the magazine Manila – Africa – Tel Aviv  that Joe had told me about.  On the cover of the January 9 issue was a photo of Israeli plain-clothes officers kicking an African man who was handcuffed and lay, apparently unconscious, on the ground.  The headline referred to the article inside: “An Unpleasant Encounter with the Immigration Police,” with more photos and an interview with the mixed-race couple who were the protesting neighbors that the police also arrested.  Sarah, the Israeli woman, had lost part of her family in the Holocaust. “It doesn’t matter what the color of your skin is,” she told the interviewer, “the blood that comes from under it is always red.”

[When I visited the PHR clinic again on Tuesday I met a patient from Ghana who let me look in the bible she was carrying.  The passage “Joe” had mentioned was Exodus 22:21. After pronouncing the Ten Commandments, God gives further instructions that Moses is to tell the Israelites, among them:
 You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” 

JAMP Israel-Palestine Trip III

Summary (Jeff Klein)
Tel Aviv - Monday, 19 January

Manila-Africa-Tel Aviv magazine had much of interest besides the news account I was looking for.  In its stories, columns and features, as well as its advertising, the magazine is a colorful window into the life of foreign workers in Israel. On the magazine’s cover, along with photos and headlines, were display ads for a travel agency offering cheap one-way airfares to Manila and the Natali Meat Shop (“Factory Price Here – Kingdom of Pork”).  Inside, were news stories (deportation proceedings against the magazine’s Filipino assistant editor; “Alfa Club’s Karaoke Contest Grand Finale;” the latest on Michael Jackson); movie and music reviews; gossip and advice columns, poems, puzzles and jokes (many written in Filipino Tagalog), personal, job and rental classifieds, “Philippine News,” “The Ghana and Nigeria Pages”, horoscopes, recipes (“Pork Roast with Fresh Herbs,” “Christmas Sugar Cookies” by Rose Levy Beranbaum), sports (Serena Williams!).  And more ads: pages and pages of glossy displays for travel agencies, calling cards (one with  a special holiday offer in Hebrew, English and Russian: “Deal! Deal! Deal! Buy a phone card, Get free Israeli ‘Goldstar’ Beer!), cheap electronics and household goods, international freight shippers, plus restaurants, ethnic food and personal care products, social service organizations, job offers (“CHANCE OF A LIFETIME. . . . ARE YOU LOOKING TO WORK ABROAD?”  “Work permits, Permanent Residence in Canada,” “Qualified Nurses Needed for Permanent work in the USA”)--  and lawyers (“We deal with all your cases and legal problems: *Arrests *Deportations *Unpaid Salaries;” “HEZI COHEN LAW OFFICE:  Have you tried to marry an Israeli spouse but encountered difficulties?  We can help you out!”).

The next day I telephoned Manila-Africa-Tel Aviv and went for a visit. The magazine’s office is located within the Tachana Merkazit, Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station, not far from the PHR clinic. The building is a hulking pile of concrete and glass, looking like the offspring of an aging urban shopping mall and a high-rise parking garage. Outside, apart from some of the taxi drivers and police officers, almost nobody appears to be native Israeli-born.  The place seems an extension of the nearby Neve Sha’anan pedestrian street that we visited the night before.  Like bus stations everywhere, Tachana Merkazit caters to the transportation needs of the poorer strata of society and is decidedly “downscale.” But here also is the added factor that in Israel people with alternatives tend to avoid crowded public spaces.  The entrances to the station are cordoned off with railings and gates manned by armed security guards who wield explosive-sniffing wands and inspect all your bags  --  on the way in.

The cavernous interior of the bus station was a confusing jumble of ramps and levels, each one of which opened onto a crowded warren of food stands, garish storefronts displaying music CD's, clothing and shoes, cosmetics and books, whose clients were a varied mixture of foreign workers and recent Israeli immigrants: a Russian vegetable market here, an Ethiopian clothing and souvenir shop there;  a video store selling titles in a score of languages, a tattoo parlor with hip-hop tunes blaring from loudspeakers in front.

The upper floors of the bus station were intended for commercial office space and service businesses, but the storefronts were mostly vacant and the corridors nearly empty of pedestrians.  Here, on the fifth level, were the offices of Manila-Africa-Tel Aviv.  I was met by Yossi Eitan,  the publisher.  He is a tall and casually-dressed Israeli man of indeterminate middle age, with close-cropped balding hair. He speaks slowly and softly out of a cloud of cigarette smoke and his expression suggests the amused hint of an ironic smile beneath his half-closed eyes. There is something Levantine in his relaxed manner, which contrasts with the normally gruff bearing of Ashkenzi/European Israelis I have met.  In fact, Yossi, though Jewish,  was born and raised in Iran.  We spoke for a while in his office and then he introduced me to the staff of Manila-Africa-Tel Aviv.

The secretary-receptionist, Vered Karp and the circulation manager, Nadav Cohen, are Jewish Israelis. Correspondents Judy Li (Chinese) and Jocelyn Aquino (Filipina) are typing away at computers while graphic designers, Dragos Nelersa (Rumanian) and Israeli Sharona Mentesh are laying out the next issue of the magazine.  Other writers and staff of similar mixed nationality come in and out of the office while we speak.

Later I meet Yossi for coffee in one of the bars along the nearby Neve Sha’anan pedestrian mall.



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