(JTA) — They marched down Allenby Street today, past the market and the traffic jam of buses and cabs, their chants echoing around buildings and into courtyards.
“What we want?” one man yelled.
“Freedom!” hundreds chanted. “No more prison!”
Most of them Eritrean, most of them men, the crowd swelled as it reached the beach and turned right up the boardwalk, filling the bicycle lane and leaving only a narrow path for pedestrians. Opposite the concrete facade of the U.S. embassy, they stopped, sitting in rows, forming lines on the side of the street, now numbering in the thousands. Some crossed their hands above their heads, as if bound. Others wore white T-shirts with the words “No more prison! We want freedom!” printed in black around a picture of hands in handcuffs.
The Israeli government calls them infiltrators, and says they are young men who have willingly left economic hardship in Eritrea and Sudan for the promise of employment and a decent salary in Israel.
The government has portrayed the 55,000-person African migrant community, most of whom live in the poor neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv, as a demographic threat to the Jewish state and has called for them to leave. Last month, the government opened a detention center in southern Israel for the migrants.
Monday’s march, on the second day of a three-day strike, aims to tell a different story about the migrants, whose chant “We are refugees!” encapsulates their fight with the government.
The migrants say they have come to Israel escaping totalitarianism, abuse and war. If they return to their homelands, they say, they will be killed.
They want Israel to recognize them as refugees under international law and to allow them to work and live in the country legally — a status European countries have afforded many Eritreans and Sudanese.
So, beginning Sunday, the migrants went on strike by the thousands, leaving their jobs as street cleaners, custodians, factory workers and in restaurants and hotels. Yesterday they filled central Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, a public space seemingly made for mass protest.