A Jewish American who immigrated to Israel asks why refugees can’t
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Interview'I felt responsibility for what the Jewish state was doing in my name'

A Jewish American who immigrated to Israel asks why refugees can’t

Journalist Mya Jaradat loved Hebrew so much she made aliyah — but now she’s gone back to the US and written a tell-all book about how Israel treats asylum seekers

Journalist and author of 'The Unchosen,' Mya Guarnieri Jaradat. (Courtesy)
Journalist and author of 'The Unchosen,' Mya Guarnieri Jaradat. (Courtesy)

When Mya Guarnieri Jaradat arrived in Israel 10 years ago from the United States, she was supposed to have come on a one-year trip to complete her master’s thesis. Like so many others, she prolonged her stay. But what made her expatriation in the Jewish state unique were the motivations behind it.

There were two issues that caused her to prolong her initial educational and cultural sojourn: a love of Hebrew and commitment to learning it fluently, and the desire to work with the state’s marginalized communities in south Tel Aviv.

Jaradat began her work primarily with migrant workers from southeast Asian countries such as Thailand or the Philippines, as well as African asylum seekers from countries including Eritrea and South Sudan. Her initial observation was that there was massive poverty among these communities. But Jaradat also began to witness how most of the people she spoke with also had few legal, civic or labor rights.

What started off as volunteer work soon transitioned into journalism, which led Jaradat on the path to eventually becoming an Israeli citizen.

“As soon as I took on Israeli citizenship, I felt a strong sense of responsibility for what the Jewish state was doing in my name,” says Jaradat.

African asylum seekers protest on on January 26, 2017 near Jerusalem's Supreme Court against the new 'Rwanda or Saharonim' policy of the Israeli government. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
African asylum seekers protest on on January 26, 2017 near Jerusalem’s Supreme Court against the new ‘Rwanda or Saharonim’ policy of the Israeli government. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Jaradat has continued working as a journalist, covering Israel, the West Bank and Gaza in a wide host of publications around the globe, including The Nation, The New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC, the far-left Israeli blog +972, and Al Jazeera.

The outspoken Jewish-American reporter claims that Israel’s policy on migrant workers and asylum seekers is shaped by what she calls a paradoxical double-sided contradiction “to maintain a particular demographic balance necessary for the state to be both ‘Jewish and democratic.’”

'The Unchosen.' (Courtesy)
‘The Unchosen.’ (Courtesy)

“What you see in Israel is this attempt to uphold hegemony of a particular group,” Jaradat says from her home in Florida, where she is currently based.

“And so if you are not in that group — if you are not Jewish — then the state is going to be in conflict with you on some level, ” she adds.

This topic is the main theme of “The Unchosen: The Lives of Israel’s New Others,” which Jaradat recently published via the self-described “radical” Pluto Press, in both the US and the UK.

Avoiding jargon and academic theory on the subject, the book focuses instead on giving voices to the migrants and asylum seekers themselves through in-depth interviews that take the reader into a seldom-seen world — one even most Israelis don’t know exists.

She visits, for instance, overcrowded black-market kindergartens in south Tel Aviv, where she describes how toddlers are left crying for hours on their own in unhygienic conditions. In another chapter we get descriptions of middle-of-the-night raids by Israeli immigration police — whom she accuses of intimidating members of the Filipino community — to deport them with quick succession.

A Tel Aviv kindergarten used by children of migrants and foreign workers suffered damage from a Molotov cocktail Friday (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Illustrative: A Tel Aviv kindergarten used by children of migrants and foreign workers suffered damage after a Molotov cocktail was thrown at it. (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Jaradat says a recent reading of Israeli history is required to understand why the state — in regard to both African asylum seekers and migrant workers — currently operates the labor and migration policies it does.

Primarily, she says, this issue ties in with the fate of the Palestinians.

Palestinians once constituted nearly 10 percent of the Israeli work force. When the First Intifada began in 1987, for example, almost half of Israel’s construction workers were Palestinian, as were 45% of agricultural laborers. But with increased distrust between the two peoples in the aftermath of the intifada, the 1990s saw Israel make a transition to foreign workers instead.

Palestinians laboPalestinian laborers ride a Palestinian-only bus en route to the West Bank from working in Tel Aviv area, Israel, Monday, March 4, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Ariel Schalitrers ride a Palestinian-only bus on route to the West Bank from working in Tel Aviv area, Israel, Monday, March 4, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Ariel Schalit)
Palestinian laborers ride a bus en route to the West Bank from working in the Tel Aviv area in Israel, Monday, March 4, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Ariel Schalit)

“Israel was once dependent on Palestinian day laborers,” Jaradat says.

As Israel implemented and tightened movement restrictions on Palestinians, it needed to find a group to substitute for these people that were crucial to different sectors of the economy. So the state began to bring migrant workers to replace Palestinians, claims Jaradat.

“With a large pool of inexpensive laborers in the country, Israel doesn’t need Palestinian day laborers anymore. The state can effectively lock the Palestinians behind the wall without feeling the economic consequences they would have felt when they were dependent on Palestinian day laborers, before they had migrant workers,” she says.

Chinese foreign workers cook in a Tel Aviv restaurant, 2008. (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Chinese foreign workers cook in a Tel Aviv restaurant, 2008. (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

“Now, there are no economic consequences to shutting Palestinians out and, further, granting work permits to Palestinians can function as a reward — a carrot and stick, if you will — rather than as something crucial that meets the Israeli need for laborers,” Jaradat adds.

Jaradat says it’s also worth noting that “it’s easier for a Palestinian day laborer to obtain a permit to work in a settlement than it is inside of Israel proper, so the presence of migrant workers inside the Green Line helped the state channel the Palestinian day laborers towards the settlements.”

Palestinian laborers work at a construction site in a new housing project in the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim, near Jerusalem, February 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Palestinian laborers work at a construction site in a new housing project in the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim, near Jerusalem, February 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The journalist claims the treatment of asylum seekers also bears a resemblance to that experienced by Palestinians — notably in subjecting both groups to detention without trial.

“I guess [one of the main concerns of this book] is about that contradiction between trying to maintain a certain demographic and being democratic at the same time,” says Jaradat.

‘This isn’t exclusive to Israel, but I’m using Israel as a case study’

“This isn’t exclusive to Israel,” Jaradat says. “But I’m using Israel as a case study of what happens when a nation is trying to uphold hegemony of a particular group. Looking at those two groups [migrant workers and African asylum seekers] is a way of getting at the question: Can the state maintain hegemony of a certain group and be democratic at the same time?”

And with regards to possible security concerns influencing Israel’s policy towards migrant workers and African asylum seekers, Jaradat claims “ there are none.”

“The state’s concern is about maintaining Jewish demographic and cultural hegemony,” she insists.

Jaradat’s book also spends a chapter looking at how loose labor laws in the Knesset are inextricably linked to a culture of companies — across Israel — making an easy buck.

A spectrum of Israeli society including Israelis, refugees, and migrant workers, stand at a bus stop in South Tel Aviv. May 12 2011. (Photo by Nicky Kelvin/Flash90)
A spectrum of Israeli society including Israelis, asylum-seekers, and migrant workers, stand at a bus stop in South Tel Aviv in May. (Photo by Nicky Kelvin/Flash90)

The journalist points out, for instance, that while Israel’s treatment of non-Jews is rooted primarily in demographic concerns, there are business interests representing the construction and agricultural sectors that affects public policy on this issue, too. Israeli manpower agencies have huge sway especially, Jaradat says.

“The workers pay a fee to the manpower agencies,” she explains. “And therefore a worker who stays on in the state and who doesn’t change jobs isn’t going to pay a fee. So it’s more profitable for the manpower agency to be always bringing in new workers.”

These agencies have aggressively lobbied for the Israeli government to set higher quotas of migrant workers, using bribes to officials in key ministries as one major means of achieving this, Jaradat claims.

Referencing a term used by anthropologist Barak Kalir, who has also written on labor migration in Israel, Jaradat refers to what is known as “the revolving door.” The Israeli government brings in new workers with one hand, and deports existing and older workers with the other.

The two big winners here are the state and the manpower agencies. The state doesn’t have to worry about legislating new laws on migration, and the manpower agencies make huge profits in return.

“Where this issue gets really interesting is when you bring the asylum seekers into that conversation,” Jaradat says. “Because here is a group of people — currently 40,000 in Israel — who cannot be deported legally.”

‘Where this issue gets really interesting is when you bring the asylum seekers into that conversation’

A lot of these asylum seekers are not willing to voluntarily repatriate because they cannot go back to their home countries, says Jaradat.

“These African asylum seekers are stuck in this legal limbo, so why not give a job to them rather than bringing in workers from overseas? That’s where you see the role that profit plays in all of this,” she says.

The reason that both asylum seekers and migrant workers are being exploited so consistently by both the Israeli state and by private business groups, is primarily because there is no legislation protecting them, Jaradat says.

Any laws that do deal with migration in Israel, she says, are “centered on privileging Jewish immigration, while stopping other groups from coming into the country.”

African refugees sit behind a border fence after they attempted to cross illegally from Egypt into Israel as Israeli soldiers stand guard near the border with Egypt, in southern Israel, on September 4, 2012. (photo credit: AP/Ariel Schalit, File)
African refugees sit behind a border fence after they attempted to cross illegally from Egypt into Israel as Israeli soldiers stand guard near the border with Egypt, in southern Israel, on September 4, 2012. (photo credit: AP/Ariel Schalit, File)

The journalist cites two examples. One is the Law of Return, passed in 1950, which ensures that any Jew in the world has the right to return and live in Israel as an oleh, a new immigrant. The second is the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law — a temporary law passed in 2003, and amended several times since — which prohibits, among other ethnic groups and nationalities, the granting of any residency or citizenship status to Palestinians from over the Green Line who are married to Israeli citizens or permanent residents.

“Israel cannot pretend that non-Jews don’t exist, and that they won’t come to the country,” says Jaradat.

“It’s not sustainable to bring migrant workers, then to open one-time windows to their children while deporting some and naturalizing others. Israel needs to deal with this issue in a more humane and practical way,” she adds.

Asylum seeker Jacob Barry seen together with other representatives of the African refugee debate, seen at a discussion regarding the Immigration Authority policy towards asylum seekers and the impact on the business sector, at a meeting of the Committee on Foreign Workers, in the Israeli parliament on January 15, 2014 (photo credit: Flash90)
Asylum seeker Jacob Barry seen together with other representatives of the African refugee debate, seen at a discussion regarding the Immigration Authority policy towards asylum seekers and the impact on the business sector, at a meeting of the Committee on Foreign Workers, in the Israeli parliament on January 15, 2014 (photo credit: Flash90)

Another way that Israel has tried to legally deal with the issue of migrants and asylum seekers is through a government initiative called voluntary departure. This is a voluntary scheme which encourages mainly Eritreans and Sudanese asylum seekers from Israel to head to other so-called “third countries.”

Jaradat points out that many of these voluntary departures — where the Israeli government sometimes offers a cash incentive of $3,500 up front — have resulted in African asylum seekers ending up in countries like Uganda, Rwanda and Libya. Often facing considerable risk and danger.

‘I take issue with the term voluntary departure… you can either go to jail, or back to a third country’

“I take issue with the term ‘voluntary departure,’” says Jaradat. “What is really happening is that you are in a state that is depriving you of your rights and that is keeping you in legal limbo. So the state says, you can either go to jail, or we will send you back to a third country.”

“I think when Israel began deporting South Sudanese citizens, they were trying to make an example of this group and using it as a threat to the other groups, saying, ‘You have two choices: you can deport yourself voluntarily, and take the little cash incentive. Or, we are just going to deport you anyway.’ So that naturally put pressure on other groups watching the South Sundanese being deported,” Jaradat says.

While most of her book focuses almost exclusively on the rights of migrant workers and asylum seekers, the narrative is a personal journey of sorts, too — Jaradat fell in love and married a Palestinian man while living in Israel.

Illustrative: a social experiment in which actors dressed up as a Jewish/Muslim couple. (YouTube screen cap)
Illustrative: a social experiment in which actors dressed up as a Jewish/Muslim couple. (YouTube screen cap)

The journalist says Israel’s varied political and social policies, and attitudes towards Arabs — on both sides of the Green Line — in general, eventually led her and her husband to leave the country. Both chose to settle in the United States instead, where they currently reside.

“I do feel there is something incorrect about having to get married outside of Israel. My husband is a native, an indigenous Palestinian,” says Jaradat, “and according to the State of Israel, I am a returnee.”

“We had to leave Israel to live together. He is a native of the land. And then there is me who is supposed to have all of this privilege under the Jewish state,” she says.

“Well, if you step out of line and marry a non-Jew, there goes your privilege,” she says.

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