This past summer I conducted nearly 40 in-depth interviews in Israel with asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan. I study the political organizing of migrants who are without permanent legal status, comparing between mobilization efforts led by African migrants in Israel with similar endeavors led by Latino migrants in the state of Washington. Thanks to the generous contribution of the Mack and Mayerfeld award from the Center for Human Rights I was able to carry out my fieldwork in Israel concentrating on three primary sites: South Tel-Aviv, where the vast majority of migrants reside; Eilat, a border resort town where many migrants arrive after crossing from Egypt; and the Holot Detention Facility, where approximately 3,000 migrants are detained by state order; the legality of this order is currently being debated in the Israeli High Court of Justice.
My fieldwork enabled me to hear firsthand about the polarized experiences of African migrants when encountering Israelis–those who embraced them wholeheartedly and tried to help them, and those who expressed racist and xenophobic slurs about and towards them for being black and not Jewish. The Israeli government for its part has branded these asylum seekers as “illegal job seekers” and “infiltrators,” and led a public campaign to force them to leave.
Some of the most inspirational encounters this summer occurred when I did my weekly visit to the detention center and met with dozens of asylum seekers fighting for their rights. My first visit however, on June 18, 2016, left a special memory with me for its combination of resistance, justice and the meaning of community. I took the bus with the Freedom March, a grassroots volunteer-based organization dedicated to maintaining contact between Israelis and African migrants held in detention. The communal drive to Holot has been ongoing for the past five months. The origin of the communal drive was a march that took place in June 2015, where nearly 700 out of the 3,360 migrants held in Holot left the facility, through the front gate, and started marching towards the Israel-Egypt border in protest. After three days of resistance and clash with local police and army forces, the asylum seekers returned to Holot. The event received a lot of media coverage and inspired a group of Israeli activists to begin the Freedom March project, which takes Israelis to Holot.
The event on June 18 was unique; it marked the annual international refugee day, which included a movie screening of the documentary Between Fences, as well as a theater performance by the troupe Theater of the Oppressed – reenacting scenes from African asylum seekers’ lived experiences in Israel. After arriving at Holot around 5:00 pm, I encountered thousands of Sudanese and Eritreans sitting outside the facility. They were playing games and chatting; they appeared to be excited by the fact that an event is about to happen, and some even approached us as we exited the bus. Groups of young men were sitting in the shade, on the public benches outside the facility and under improvised shade covers. They had set up stands with goods that may have been brought to them from the city, including items such as personal hygiene products, small electronics, shoes, shirts and even some food and drinks, some of which were donated. Around 5:30 pm a group of volunteers and I started organizing mats on the ground in preparation for a theater performance and movie screening that were especially organized for the occasion. As the event began, the host called Africans and Israelis to sit together–“black and white,” in his own words–directly engaging with the racial tension accompanying the issue of asylum seekers in Israel. I was fortunate to speak with Billie, an Eritrean who has been incarcerated in Holot for the past nine months. He told me briefly about life in the prison; and he gave me his number and promised to meet me every time I come to visit in the future.