They are normally behind the scenes, but now they are the ones making a scene. Tel Aviv is in the throes of a pot washers’ rebellion.
In this city, you can eat in a fancy restaurant without ever encountering the illegal African immigrants who are most likely cutting your vegetables and cleaning the china. You can stay in a smart hotel and hardly notice the army of Africans in the kitchens and laundry rooms. A majority of the 60,000 African immigrants who have sneaked in to Israel illegally are working menial jobs here.
But in early January, they marched out of the shadows and into the limelight to protest the threat of mass detention and deportation that hangs over them. They marched on foreign embassies. Almost one in four illegals converged on central Tel Aviv for a mass protest.
There are also strikes. A call went out from protest leaders for their fellow Africans to skip work, and many have complied. At one trendy restaurant the owner is in no mood to talk about the past few days; the businessman has been at the sink washing up because his African employees have refused to do so.
This is the story of a community in which, overnight, hierarchies have vanished. Until now, detention was almost exclusively an issue for newcomers. Many Africans endured a stint in prison upon arrival but were released after a few weeks or months. They were given short-term visas that tolerate their presence in Israel; they went on to find work, to which the state turned a blind eye; and they rarely considered the possibility that they could imminently be detained.
But a new government shift means that old-timers are receiving summons to report to detention. More than 1,000 have already received notices, and others expect to receive them when they next go to renew their visas. Today, even the asylum-seeker aristocracy foresees a future enjoying the hospitality of the Israel Prison Service.
Philiops Tesfai has been in Israel since 2010 and is a highly atypical illegal immigrant: He’s fluent in German and English and has landed a well-paying job selling insurance. “In Israel now, you can’t plan for tomorrow — you have to live just for today,” he said, discussing his fear that he will end up in detention when he goes for his next visa renewal, in February. He added, “I will be treated like every other person in the community.”
Just three months before the protests started, the fortunes of illegals appeared to be looking up.
It seemed that even newcomers were to avoid detention, after Israel’s High Court stopped the state from detaining new arrivals for up to three years, deciding that the legislation it cited to justify the practice was unconstitutional. The government quickly passed new legislation that allows imprisonment upon arrival of one year, and indefinite detention in an “open facility” at any subsequent point. And, despite demands by African immigrants, the government has not implemented a transparent process for examining asylum requests, and it has failed to examine the vast majority of the 1,800 asylum applications received so far — leaving critics saying that it is failing to meet its responsibilities under international refugee conventions.