If you’ve been following my Facebook feed or the Israeli news, you will have noticed that the government is deporting thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees. And according to the reports in Rwanda, where they’re being sent, many of them are being killed, raped, or robbed. It’s a potential death sentence- from a country built on the ruins of the Holocaust. It’s appalling.
I’m proud to have joined with friends who support the refugees to advocate for them- and with them. I helped organize an Olim for Refugees rally (the first ever!) and I helped hang up signs against the deportation another night. For the first time in many months, I feel Jewish again. The leaders speaking in the name of my religion who were deporting my refugee friends- they made me feel isolated and distant from my own Judaism. But no longer- because what I’ve come to realize is they don’t represent me, my values, or Judaism itself. And I’m representing mine by opposing them.
One of the interesting features of the debate about refugees is how residents of my neighborhood in South Tel Aviv refer to them as “mistanenim” or “infiltrators”. It’s graffitied throughout my area, along with requests to deport them. To send them “back where they came from.”
The more I’ve come to learn about my Palestinian neighborhood, the more incongruous these calls sound. Yes, you read that right- Palestinian neighborhood. Do any Palestinians live here today? No. But, as I’ve come to discover, almost the entirety of South Tel Aviv was once covered by the Arab village of Salameh. The entirety of its 7,807 residents were expelled by Zionist forces in 1948- on purpose. In the initial stage of the depopulation in the winter, the Palmach militia’s orders were: “attack the northern part of the village to cause deaths, to blow up houses and to burn everything possible.”
Several months later in April 1948, the Haganah militia succeeded in completely depopulating the town in an operation known as “Mivtza Hametz”. This phrase bears explaining. Mivtza is “operation”. And hametz, or how American Jews might write it- chametz- well that’s the bread we get rid of before Passover. When we can only eat matzah and unleavened products. Because the bread is not kosher, it’s not fit for the holiday. There’s even a ceremony known as bedikat chametz– checking for the chametz- that many Jews do to make sure no corner of your house has any bit of bread in it before the holiday. The symbolism of cleansing couldn’t have been lost on the commanders choosing such a specifically Jewish name for the operation. Using symbolism from a holiday about freedom to describe expelling villagers is enough to make this Jew nauseous.
These days, few physical objects remain from the village, although I’ve discovered some important ones and keep finding more clues in my neighborhood. As I described in a previous blog, I found a mosque and mukhtar’s house covered in graffiti, trash, and shit. I also found a well about a 30 minute walk away, also filled with graffiti, trash, and shit. And here’s the kicker- I discovered what used to be another Palestinian well. As confirmed by both internet research and talking to area residents. It’s a 4 minute walk from my apartment- and is today largely a trash-filled parking lot.
The more I dig I notice bizarre street patterns- swirly avenues with lots of empty space. Suspicious in a city with exorbitantly high real estate. And illogically rounded streets for communities supposedly built in the days of automobiles. I’ve started to notice some older stones at the bottom of newer walls. With bullet holes. And stones in the park near my house with markings indicating they were likely used in a building before. And an article explaining how the stones of the destroyed well near my house were used to decorate local gardens…perhaps even in my park. I have to do more digging and am doing some investigating, but I think there are many more remnants of Salameh in my neighborhood than people might expect- or even notice.
What’s particularly interesting is how in many neighborhoods in Israel, including in South Tel Aviv, there are signs congratulating “veteran residents”- havatikim. The Jewish Israelis who have been there a long time. The thing is that’s absurd. The vast majority of Jews in my neighborhood didn’t step foot here until the 1930s or 40s- or later. The village of Salameh is listed in the 1596 Ottoman Census– and who knows how long before that it existed. Meanwhile, its former residents and their families, now estimated at over 40,000 people, can’t even come back.
So here’s what really irks me. A bunch of flag-toting nationalists in my neighborhood are complaining about African refugee “infiltrators”. When their own grandparents weren’t even born in this country. When some of them, like me, were actually born abroad in Iraq or Morocco or Uzbekistan.
This land doesn’t belong to Israel. I’m not even sure about the extent to which I believe people can or should own land- I feel that Native Americans had it right when they said the land belongs to Mother Earth. And we need to share it. And I think people should be free to live where they want, including Jews who feel connected to this place. To the extent the soil beneath my feet does in fact belong to someone, it belongs to the villagers of Salameh who lived here hundreds and hundreds of years before being expelled by Zionist militias.
So to each and every Israeli who has the chutzpah- the gall- to call my refugee friends “infiltrators”: look in the mirror. Because if you think that only my neighborhood is built on the ruins of Palestinian villages, you’re wrong. So is Tel Aviv University, so is the awkwardly named “Conquerors Park” (Gan Hakovshim) in my cover photo, so is all of Florentin, and huge swaths of Ramat Gan, Bnei Brak, and so many other places. Here’s a map in case you’re curious whose community you’re living on: http://zochrot.org/en/site/nakbaMap.
We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it. This country has tried to erase its Arab past- sometimes with great success. Although because of me and other activists, that task will be quite difficult to complete. Because you can bulldoze entire villages, but you can’t erase people’s memory. Nor change the truth.
In the end, on some level every Israeli Jew is an infiltrator. Including me. That’s telling it to you dugri– or straight. We have a connection to this land and most of us haven’t been here for 2000 years. We’re hardly qualified to tell refugees to “go home”.
So to every Moroccan or Algerian or Libyan in my neighborhood who says “send them back to Africa”, my response is quite simple: pack your bags. Because guess what? You’re African too.