Guest post by Nine, writer and editor based in Kuala Lumpur. Nine has a background in the sex workers’ rights movement and is the editor of Straits Eclectic, an anthology on Malaysia and identity (Gerakbudaya Enterprise, 2017). Nine is on Twitter @supernowoczesna.

Review of The Unchosen: The Lives of Israel’s New Others, by Mya Guarnieri Jaradat (Pluto Press, 2017). 

The Unchosen brings to light the experiences of Israel’s migrant workers, asylum seekers and refugees. Originating variously from Eritrea, Ghana, India, Nepal, the Philippines, the Sudans and Thailand, their stories and journeys may differ, but each arrives in a land expecting to find labour rights, a good standard of living, and refuge. Instead, a system aimed at denying them any future in the country conflates them with one another and stokes public sentiment against them. Journalist Mya Guarnieri Jaradat examines the specific hurdles migrants face as well as the history behind their disenfranchisement, and demonstrates how the presence and treatment of non-Jewish foreigners in Israel is connected to the occupation and to Zionism.

The book’s first chapters introduce different migrant populations and their barriers to stability, before delving deeper into the shaping of mainstream Israeli opinion by xenophobic media and politicians. Guarnieri begins by profiling Filipinx workers, whose options in Israel are generally limited to working as caregivers, regardless of their level of education. Tied to their employers and vulnerable to becoming ‘illegal’ at a moment’s notice (including through their employer’s death), they are banned from bringing their families and from having romantic relationships while in Israel. This denial of family life and privacy results not only in great emotional pain, but in desperate measures taken by those in relationships. Guarnieri describes couples who walk separately on the street, fearing detection by immigration officers, and a man who has slept in his van every night for years rather than risk living with his wife.

Israel-born children of migrant workers are stateless, with no viable life prospects once they finish high school. There have been a couple of window periods for naturalisation, but their very specific requirements excluded many. The author introduces parents who took the risk of quitting their jobs and becoming undocumented in the hope that this would give their children a chance to qualify. Meanwhile, the authorities have deported migrant fathers in a bid to break up families, and mothers with small children have been followed by immigration police in search of the illegal kindergartens set up by migrant communities denied access to affordable daycare.

For Thai farm labourers in Israel, exploitation seems to go unchecked: victims of abuse and trafficking are removed from the country before having the chance to claim compensation, while farmers keep their licence even when abuse has been identified. With no state interpretation available to Thai workers in the country (who numbered 22,000 in 2015), it is next to impossible for them to access support or file a complaint. The debts they left home with, compounded by the shame of being sent back, leave victims of trafficking at grave risk both to their physical and mental well-being.

In her extensive reporting on African asylum seekers, Guarnieri describes perilous journeys from Eritrea and the Sudans: war and persecution, kidnapping and trafficking, torture camps in the Sinai peninsula and gunfire from Egyptian forces at the Israeli border. Those who make it into the country are detained on arrival – some were forced to labour in agricultural settlements (known as moshavim and kibbutzim) during their detention – then released with no information on how to get a visa or how to survive. Although generally barred from working, they receive no state support and are expected to pay taxes for any work they undertake; and although Israeli labour law is meant to protect all workers regardless of their status, most asylum seekers remain unaware of their rights.

Guarnieri also examines what happens to those who undergo ‘voluntary departure’, a term which obscures how the state paves the way by deliberately making life in Israel impossible. Repatriated Sudanese risk imprisonment, torture, and constant harassment by the authorities, while there has been no word from the thousand or so Eritreans who returned to their home country. Eritreans sent to Uganda and Rwanda were variously kidnapped and trafficked, denied the right to work, and arrested for unlawful residency. Those attempting to reach Europe have died at the hands of Daesh in Libya, or drowned in the Mediterranean.

Hostility towards foreigners is not novel, nor is it unheard of that authorities strategise intolerable conditions to deter asylum seekers. The author outlines what makes these particular conditions unique to Israel and reveals how they interact with Zionism: the reliance on migrant workers that has replaced a previous reliance on Palestinians, and the concern with upholding the ‘Jewish’ component of ‘Jewish and democratic state’. Migrants and asylum seekers, drawn to Israel by the image it paints of a fair and tolerant society, and an expectation that it would provide sanctuary given its own troubled origins, discover on arrival its exclusionary nature instead.

The Unchosen details Israel’s considerable efforts to avoid meeting its obligations under national and international law. The scope of the book is impressive, covering historical, political and legal developments. While it is overall an engaging read, the narrative jumps back and forth in time, and the reader may occasionally find it a little hard to keep track of what is current. A couple of themes merit further exploration; there are no (acknowledged) LGBT voices in the book, for instance. It would have been interesting to discuss the origins of Israel’s ban on migrants having relationships – is this a blanket ban, or are same-sex couples exempt? Is the premise population control, or preventing non-Jewish foreigners from settling in the country? The brief mention of sex trafficking also raises questions – the only information shared comes from activist Shula Keshet, who is recorded elsewhere as opposing the sex industry as a whole. Conflation of consensual sex work with sex trafficking is commonplace, and it is not certain whether this was avoided here; a more thorough discussion of the issues might have helped make things clearer, and the inclusion of migrant sex workers and/or sex trafficking survivors would have added valuable perspectives.

Having said that, the book does an excellent job in cataloguing the big and small injustices that combine to foster despair among those who navigate Israel as outsiders, and exposes the ways in which a xenophobic bureaucracy, run in the interests of capitalism, can nurture and reward exploitation. Written in language accessible to a diverse range of readers, its appeal to those interested in migration is obvious, but furthermore it should be of great interest to readers seeking to explore themes of otherness, national identity and the national security state outside of the Israel/Palestine, Jew/Arab binary.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Nine (2018) Book Review: The Unchosen: The Lives of Israel’s New Others. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/07/book-review-0 (Accessed [date]).