Until now, I’ve just said no to blogging. For one thing, I don’t read blogs; they seem, to me, too easy, like emailing your question to your professor, rather than going to his or her office for help. When my work hasn’t been published in the in the past, frankly, there has been a reason; I don’t want to be the final authority regarding whether or not my work has an audience. Strangely, I’m patient about publishing. I’m old-fashioned. I like to call my short non-fiction “essays”, put them in an envelope with stamps, and receive the rejection letter in the mail months later, delighting in any hand-written feedback from the person who held it while reading.
Perhaps most importantly, I’m working on a novel that covers just about any territory I’d want to blog about; I’m afraid to consider in non-fiction what needs to rise to the surface in fiction. As poet Robert Frost says, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
And if there is one subject I particularly don’t want to blog about, it’s Israeli politics. And let’s face it; if it happens here, it’s political. I live here, in Israel, in the Negev. My novel, Measuring Rain, is set in this very desert, and the characters include an American Jewish water scientist, a Bedouin woman, an Ethiopian Jewish Israeli woman, and two North African refugees in Israel: one from Sudan, one from Eritrea. In my wildest fantasies, the book gives me an international platform (see: wildest fantasies) to speak out about refugees, drought, and sustenance, and to start a foundation (wildest) led by my friend, Tsehaye, to provide education for refugee children—wherever they may come from and live at the time—who can’t register for school. Also, I hope to write a beautiful book that moves people, which is good, because the wildest fantasy part can’t come true without a beautiful book.
A few things happened this past week to convert me into a blogger. Mainly, something shifted here in Israel under Netanyahu’s authority—a shift that makes me feel that not speaking out immediately is actually dangerous. Since African refugees started pouring into Israel roughly four years ago, there have been plenty of Israelis who have devoted their lives to helping, and plenty more who have opened their hearts any way they could. Too, there have been plenty of Israelis who hold fast that we should help only “our own”, a cultural norm I attribute to the existential fear at the root of so many personal, social, and political problems, here. But okay: help your own, help others; see the world in these dichotomies or experience the ways in which everyone and everything is connected; any mulling I have to do over all that can come through my novel however it chooses, however many years from now. Like I said, I'm patient.
This past month, however, the overt, systematic and legalized pressure to fire African asylum-seekers who aren’t permitted to obtain legal work permits, evict them from their homes, and the State’s vote of approval to build a detention camp to house 10,000 asylum-seekers in the Negev has me stunned, heart-broken, and, frankly, scared. I’m afraid for these refugees--most who haven't yet been granted official refugee status and some whom I know personally--but also, for the first time, I’ve joined the fearful masses: I'm afraid for Israel.
Does no one adhering to these new regulations hear this echo: People fleeing for their lives, seeking asylum, being turned away by the passive indifference of other countries, sent back to their death? These asylum-seekers—whom Netanyahu has recently deemed “infiltrators", a term that caught on quickly—from Eritrea, Ivory Coast, Congo, Somolia and Sudan, have fled genocide, torture and imprisonment just for speaking out, rape, and other atrocities. Once they’ve left their countries illegally—the only way they could—risking their lives and children’s lives—they cannot go back safely. No country along the way is safe for them, either. Unlike most of the refugees who found their way to Israel in the past, these people did not intend to come here. They walked until they were safe. Israel was the first safe place.
Can a country built by refugees and holocaust survivors reconcile rounding people up into a detention camp? Can she reconcile making lists of people who house African refugees, to shame them, as a local Haredi neighborhood did this week, in the name of religious law no less? Can she reconcile a new implementation of fines against employers who have employed certain refugees for years in jobs that no other Israelis want? What happens to a people who promise never to forget, when the very lessons they swear upon manifest in walls, not only around the borders of their country, but around their hearts? Can’t we see that the very way some of us see these “infiltrators” is the way we were seen?
Israel can't grant residency and work permits to every asylum-seeker who crosses her border. No country can do this. But Israel's policies of deterrence are hurting everyone. Where do we see this going? African refugees in Israel have not delighted in being here in mere safety; many have felt more depressed here than ever before. Before, there was the dream of freedom. Now, there is the reality: no permission to work legally to support their family, no way to leave. Israel hasn’t wanted to grant official refugee status, enabling many seek asylum elsewhere, because they don’t want to become known as a portal to the West, thus encouraging more people to sneak across the border. So while many of the refugees here are asylum-eligible in other countries, they can’t go forward, nor can they go back. Israel can’t deport anyone eligible for asylum, and those they can legally deport would be unsafe. As long as Israel is more concerned with deterring people than helping them, everyone is stuck.
This humanitarian crisis is a God-given opportunity for a country built by refugees and survivors--children of refugees and children of survivors--to lead the world in finding international solutions. What is Israel going to ask of the world, and her nations, by way of collective consciousness and responsibility? After all, Israel knows what happens when people take care only of their own.
Mostly, what are we, residents and citizens in Israel, going to do to stand up against the pressure to fire and evict our survivor neighbors, leaving them without shelter or means to feed their children? Haven't they lived through enough trauma? What is the rabbinical community going to do to take back Judaism, sending a clear message to Haredi Rabbis who have so much control in Israel that the more they use Halekha to separate, the more they turn the Jewish diaspora off from Israel; the more they turn the secular Jewish community in Israel, secular? What are we going to do to fight against the term "infiltrator", because we know what happens when we dehumanize an entire population? Right now, in the my Negev home, walls are going up to send asylum-seekers back to their death; to build a camp for those who are here. We can say No, in the names of our family members who didn't survive, in the name of every value on which Israel was built. We can say no because if this is the direction in which Israel is going, surely she has forgotten.
I said that there were a few things that happened this past week to convert me into a blogger. Here are the others: My friend, Shlomit Zarur, an intuitive counselor and healer, told me, You know, you think you need your novel in order to have a platform to help refugees (on a large scale), but that’s not really the way it works. It doesn’t work that the world grants you permission because of your book; it works that you see yourself as having that permission because of your book.
At the same time, my journalist friends, Ilene Prusher and Tovah Lazaroff, helped me turn a facebook note about all this into an op ed for Israeli papers. When I did so, I felt an awareness of audience as I never had before. When I write about Israel on facebook, I’m instinctively careful. People who have never lived here already know enough about Israel’s bigotry, aggressiveness, and stubbornness; they don’t tend to understand the context, nuance, or history here, nor can they know anything they don’t read in the papers: news, not stories. I feel a sense of responsibility to share what will open people’s minds, not confirm their outrage. When I began to write for Israelis, however, the context was a given. And what I found, in doing so, was that I want to write for Israelis; there is so much at stake, here.
Shlomit was giving me another piece of advice, something concrete and personal that was essentially about getting centered, and as she did, she said: If you do this, you’ll find all the questions to your answers. I smiled, repeating back to her what she had just said. She started to say, I meant…, then stopped.