In 1951, Israel helped draft the Convention relating to the status of refugees at the UN. The treaty — the first of its kind — formally defined a refugee and was initially meant to protect European migrants who were victims of the Holocaust. My grandmother, fleeing her hometown in Czechoslovakia after the war, was one of them.
She lived in Israel for three years during her early adolescence, defining years for any individual. There, she worked and slept on a kibbutz — a type of collective community in Israel — deeply entrenched in the quixotic Zionist culture of the time. She was free, and she was building the Jewish homeland. She still remembers those years fondly.
But it is not with fondness that refugees currently in Israel will remember their time spent there. Holot prison, the largest refugee detention center in the country, acts as a jarring metaphor for Israel’s treatment of African asylum-seekers. Housing 3000 refugees from Eritrea and Sudan, the prison is located deep in the unforgiving Negev desert, isolated from nearby cities. The camp’s locality mirrors the state of African refugees in Israel: in limbo, sequestered, forgotten.
Holot was established as a means of psychological manipulation, so that detainees will “voluntarily return” to their home countries or to other African countries with which Israel has agreements, such as Rwanda and Uganda. (The UN has requested that Israel release the official agreements with these countries, but Israel has repeatedly declined, citing “security reasons.”) This is necessary because Israel will not forcibly deport asylum-seekers, as it is written into Israeli constitutional law that an individual cannot be forcibly returned to a place where his/her life is in danger. Life in Holot is thus far from pleasant: prisoners are not provided with adequate nutrition, must be present for the morning check-in and 10 p.m. curfew, and live without proper heating or air conditioning. There are books for the prisoners to read, but they are at a higher reading level than most can manage. They are not allowed to learn Hebrew.
”Every day is the same,” says Jack, a 27-year-old Darfurian refugee who left his home country in 2003. ”Walking, doing nothing, just thinking.”
And yet, many stay. This is not necessarily the natural choice — in 2013, the Israeli Knesset passed the fourth amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law, stating that refugees can be placed in prison for three months without trial before being placed in an “open-air detention facility” such as Holot. This law was applied retroactively, so that many of the refugees living and working in the country were given 30 days to report to Holot, or $3500 to leave the country and be deported back to “unspecified countries” in Africa. These countries are normally Uganda or Rwanda, and upon arriving in these countries, the money given to refugees by the Israeli government is immediately taken away, and they are given three-day visitors visas and left without benefits. There have also been several instances of refugees being arrested and sent back to their home countries.
Since Israel began summoning asylum-seekers to Holot in 2013, about 10,000 have left the country. But despite the brutal conditions, there is perhaps a certain sense of safety Holot provides. After fleeing his home village when it was destroyed by Arab militia, Jack spent 10 years of his life running — being expelled from both Sudan and Egypt — before coming to Israel. He spent some time working in the country, moving between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, before being summoned to Holot when we went to get his visa renewed.
”People always ask, ‘What is Israel?”’ He says. ”I know Israel. I worked and lived here.”
But even though he is no longer running, he is still not in control of his destiny.
”You ask a young girl, ‘What will you do in five years?”’ He says. ”She will finish her degree, get a job… It’s been 15 years that I don’t know what I’m doing. I live day to day.”
There is a clear solution, according to Elliot Glassenberg, a local activist who is involved in the Holot Project, an organization that aims to provide visibility to Holot prisoners. According to Glassenberg, NGOs generally agree on a three-step solution: One, end the policy of detention without trial; two, re-allocate funds currently being used to keep prisoner in Holot, using them to strengthen the infrastructure of southern Tel Aviv (where most African migrants are concentrated); and three, grant work visas to asylum-seekers.
”It’s a problem that’s very solvable,” says Glassenberg. ”The government is just lacking the political will to do so. It’s a very morally uncomplex issue.”
On the day I visited Holot, it was the anniversary of the breakout of the War in Sudan. There were musical performances to commemorate the day, with a sound system and instruments set up on the garbage-strewn land outside the prison’s gates. Performers, ranging in styles from hip-hop to traditional African music, spoke in motivational idioms between songs. Some people danced, others drank beers by the cars of their visiting friends.
”We have Israeli friends, we have a good relationship with the Israeli people,” says Mahonen, an Eritrean refugee who was working in a nursing home in Tel Aviv before being summoned to Holot. ”Now we are suffering in this place, but we never lose hope.”
My grandmother was working to build a free and just Israel, a Jewish homeland that would welcome all ethnicities and religions. It becomes clear when visiting Holot that we are still far away.
”When a group of people have gone through oppression, there are two possible outcomes,” says Glassenberg. ”Empathy; or, a post-traumatic stress response where one closes oneself in and feels that everyone is out to get them. The leaders of Israel are generally following that second response.”
The situation surrounding Holot is far from the only issue of social justice in Israel, but it is one that certainly does not receive the proper amount of attention. We need to work towards realizing the vision my grandmother and the early Zionists had of a tolerant Israeli society.