Ayelet Gundar Goshen

Ayelet Gundar Goshen
Photo: Alon Sigavi

What does the term refugee mean to you?

There is a telephone conversation I had with my grandfather that I will never forget. He is a balding ninety years old man, and words he left unspoken were always more numerous than the words he did say. However, on the evening before he left his home in Tel Aviv to move to a nursing home, I insisted we talk. I asked, "Did you pack everything?", and he replied, "I packed everything." I asked, "How does it feel to leave your home after thirty years?" I was sure that it would be difficult for him, maybe because it was so difficult for me. My grandparents had lived in that house since I was born. I could recognize the walls by touching them with my hands, just as you identify the touch of someone close. But my grandfather surprised me. Instead of talking about how difficult it was, he smiled and said, "I had to leave so many houses, sometimes fleeing in the middle of the night, so to leave another house doesn’t really make a difference."

My grandfather was a refugee. During  war and after it he crisscrossed Europe.. From Pinsk to Russia. From Russia to Siberia. From Siberia to Russia. From Russia to Poland. From Poland to Italy. From Italy to Palestine. He was expelled, then sent back, and then left again. Initially, he was driven by  forces greater than him, but in the end he reached Israel by force of his own will power. I think about all the miles he had to walk. Even the longest journey is worthwhile if there is a home at the end. Odysseus sailed for many years to reach his island. The Israelites crossed the entire desert to reach their land. But what happens when at the end of all those miles there is no home? When you cross the desert, only to discover that at the end of the road there is nothing, just more desert. This is the tragedy of the current wave of refugees.

Is flight from poverty less legitimate than flight from war or political oppression?

When a person  flees a war, he or she is escaping injustice that originates from other persons. When someone runs away from political oppression, he or she is escaping injustice that originates from others, too. As human beings our sense of responsibility towards people fleeing persecution stems from a sense of collective responsibility in relation to the injustice originating from us, humans. We witness evil and sinful deeds that  people inflict on others. Through  compassionate action, we seek to cleanse ourselves of that sin and to prove that we are different.

And what about flight as a result of environmental problems?

On the contrary, when a person  escapes the horror of drought, he or she is fleeing from the forces of  nature. In such a case, our sense of collective responsibility is reduced, since the suffering is not man made, but a result of  fate. We do not feel  moral outrage, nor do we feel we have to cleanse ourselves of some collective sin and  prove that we are different from the perpetrators of the crimes.

Besides, since the dawn of humanity, the forces of nature have been viewed as an expression of the will of the gods. The Flood was  the result of divine wrath towards the sinners. Drought is the punishment for the sins of the people. This is magical thinking, of course, but it did not disappear along with the ancient world. The Protestant view- that abundance is a reward  of God's love and poverty is a punishment for the original sin- is still part of our current cultural ethos. When someone is fleeing from harm caused by another person, we run to support him, but when someone is escaping poverty, which is considered a “punishment from above”, something in our superstitious  thinking is aroused. If the drought is sent by heaven - maybe it is well deserved?

When does one cease to be a refugee?

Exile, perceived by those experiencing it, is something that is supposed to be temporary: they were forced to leave, but are waiting for an opportunity to return. In contrast, migration is a permanent state: it is a deliberate decision that the time is right to relocate the center of your life to another place on the globe, and it involves a systematic behavior intended to maximize the value of the transition process. The Hebrew language even has a word to describe the immigration of Jews to Israel as “Aliya”, not just immigration. And still, since refuge is primarily a matter of an inner sense - even those migrating due to their own free will may feel, under certain circumstances, as refugees.

On the practical level, a person ceases to be a refugee when the country from which he or she fled poses no danger for them anymore. Thus, under international laws refugees cannot be forced to return to their country of origin as long as there is real danger to their freedom based on race, religion, opinion or social affiliation.

Beyond the legal aspect, there is of course an emotional facet: the point in time at which  a person ceases to feel like a refugee. For example, the poet Riri Manor, who immigrated to Israel from Romania at the age of 9, writes, "To live as a refugee in the tent of another language" Manor is an Israeli poet. She writes great poetry in Hebrew, but the displaced nine-year-old girl still exists within her; the girl living as a refugee in another language’s tent, a language that is not her own.

My grandfather was born in 1926. Maps showing the names of countries at the time of his birth are no longer relevant. He is a 90 year-old man who escaped from the Soviet Union, which no longer exists, and in his escape he passed through other states and empires, which no longer exists. Does the fact that the country or city from which you escape d has been totally destroyed and no longer appears on the map, also negates your sense/state of being a refugee? Of course not. A human can sit in a nice house, gaze through the window at a beautiful garden, and still feel foreign towards the house and the garden. Since this house does not smell the same as that house, as that garden. There are places and scents you will long for until you die.

The issue of refugees is especially significant when we discuss the Palestinian refugees. When Israel was established, 300-500.000 Palestinians left or were expelled from the land that was now named "The Jewish State". They kept the keys to their houses. Now, there are over five million Palestinians, descendants of those refugees, holding those keys. This is one crux of the disagreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Is there a natural right to asylum?

If we look at ancient times, we will see that the right of refuge was applied in many cultures, and that different nations recognized this right In the Bible, cities of refuge are mentioned as cities to which a person fled after accidentally killing someone, but the meaning is not very different from today – it is the place where one escapes to when ones birthplace is not safe and one’s life there is in danger.

If we accept the liberal premise that certain freedoms are the natural right of every human being, as a human it is difficult to remain indifferent when someone who is deprived of those rights reaches the gates of your city. The complexity begins when we ask: Who is responsible to protect these rights? If the Syrian government violates the natural rights of its citizens, does another government have the responsibility to protect/uphold these rights, by granting refugee status to those citizens?

If yes: is this right unconditional, or can it be forfeited?

I think the answer is, "Yes, to a certain degree." The issue of degree is important, since it takes into consideration the limits of human kindness. While Divine Grace is infinite, human kindness is like yogurt: it has its expiration date. People are no angels, and if we want to create social change, we must take this into consideration. When a person asks, "Am I my brother's keeper?", the answer is - "yes", but "yes" does not mean that everyone must or can share equally all that he owns with his brother. It would be lovely if it would work that way, and maybe Marxist education may one day be able to do so, but for now, I am willing to settle for a less equitable distribution - as long as people share rather than turn away.
The question is what is our moral responsibility towards the suffering of others? To what extent are we willing to diminish our comfort, our economy, and our luxuries, in order to help those who have nothing?
It is clear that Israel will not absorb the entire population of Eritrea, but the current situation, in which only 1% of the asylum seekers receive refugee status, is human obtuseness.

Do you think that the number of refugees a society can absorb is limited?

Yes, for the same reasons I have described above. People are afraid for their economy and their political stability, and this is a justified fear. The question is to what extent you allow this fear to rule you, and to what extent is your view objective? The current Israeli government rejects its responsibility towards refugees – in fact,  we hardly ever grant refugee status to asylum seekers. We cannot accept everyone. However, does this mean that we cannot accept anyone?

If yes: where do you draw the line, and why?

Refugee Aid is a mission shared by the western countries and if every state had participated, we would have been able to formulate a joint plan to protect human rights, at the same time as save guarding the economy and stability of the country’s providing aid. . The solution may not be ideal, but at least far fewer people will be harmed. Currently, the discussion is a very dichotomous one – either you support unconditional and unlimited aid, or you are completely against any help and full of xenophobia. I think this dichotomy does not reflect reality. It undermines our ability to act in an informed and efficient manner.

Drawing the line should start long before the refugees knock on the gates/doors of Europe, the borders of Israel, or the passages into Turkey. Drawing the line must begin in the countries from which these refugees originate.
What would have happened, for example, if we had woken up ten or fifteen years ago, and we anticipated the current wave of refugees? What would have happened, if the West - currently investing billions in fences, medical infrastructure, refugee camps, and crime prevention - had dedicated one tenth of these sums in order to support the economy and agriculture in Africa? How many refugees would have had no need to come to the affluent,  established west if we had been willing to become seriously involved in curbing the mass killings, rape and slaughter of the wars in Syria, Sudan or Eritrea?

The most significant aid for refugees begins with stopping the reasons which causes them to become refugees.

Are there privileged refugees in your country, i.e. refugees that are more welcome than others? If yes: why?

After World War II Israel welcomed the Jewish survivors with open arms. The country was established in order to serve as an asylum for Jews from all over the world, who are persecuted because they are Jews, and it has fulfilled this purpose. Here too, of course, there was a hierarchy. Some were better welcomed than others. Some suffered discrimination. For example, in an aerial operation carried out by the Israeli Air Force and the Mosad, Israel brought the Ethiopian Jews to Israel. During the 1980s, more than 6,000 people came to Israel, after a long and difficult journey. However, many Ethiopians experience discrimination in Israel, especially compared to those who came from European countries, such as the Jews who fled persecution by the communist regime of that era.
The gap intensifies once the refugees are not Jewish. While the “Law of Return” grants all Jews the right to immigrate to Israel, whether they are refugees or not, simply because it is the country of the Jewish people, the gates remain locked for others. Eritreans and Sudanese make up the bulk of the refugees in Israel, and they are treated completely different than Jewish refugees, who are perceived as part of us. However, the Israeli government's position towards the Eritreans and Sudanese is still more positive than towards the Palestinian refugees of 1948. Here, the answer is “By no means, no!”. It is perceived as an existential threat to the very essence of the state as a Jewish state.

Do refugees in your country receive fair treatment?

As of June 2016, Israel has had approximately 41,477 asylum seekers, most of them from Eritrea and Sudan. They do not receive the status of refugee, and are not viewed as “asylum seekers”. The State of Israel sees them as “infiltrators”, and only one percent of them are recognized as refugees. Thus, they stay in Israel without any viable status, do not receive work permits, and do not have access to essential services. Currently 3,600 people are imprisoned (under difficult/ harsh conditions) at the “Holot” facility located in the Negev, where they are being pressured to leave Israel “voluntarily”.

Would cuts in the social security system in your country be acceptable to you if they were to facilitate the absorption of more refugees?

Yes. But I don’t think it has to reach that the money Israel invests in the settlements could be directed to this purpose, as well as to other worthy causes.

What are the requirements for successful integration?

- on the part of the refugees?
- on the part of the citizens of the host country?

A refugee is a guest. When you enter the house of another, you try to maintain the rules of conduct in the house. This does not mean that you have to dissolve your identity or yourself as a person and as a subject, but a sense of cultural sensitivity is required. That also applies the citizens - cultural sensitivity is necessary in this case as well, since a host is not supposed to make his guests feel uncomfortable.

When I hiked in South America, a storm destroyed the tent of two guys who were camping/ camped next to us. It was freezing outside, and we invited them to enter. They knew that they wouldn’t be able to stretch their legs, and we knew that we wouldn’t be able to stretch ours. Everyone was uncomfortable, but the next morning we were all dry.

If we switch/transfer from the tent in South America to a more practical level: integration of refugees in Israel requires work permits. People need to be able to sustain themselves, in order for them not to become a burden on the welfare system, and for themselves to maintain the experience of capability and autonomy. Today, the lack of work permits to asylum seekers in Israel diminishes their ability to integrate into society. Integration also requires access to education. It is true that this has economic significance, but the economic significance of the lack of education is much greater in the long run.

Do you know any refugees personally?

During my work/job at ACRI (the Association for Civil Rights in Israel), I worked briefly with the aid centre for refugees and foreign workers. I guided groups of students in the field of civil rights and we conducted tours and meetings with refugees and asylum seekers. As a psychologist, a few times I visited sort of improvised kindergartens for refugees in order to meet the children and play with them. These few meetings left a huge impression on me.

Do you actively support any refugees?

When I wrote my novel “Waking Lions”, which tells the story of an Israeli doctor who injures an Eritrean refugee, I worked with Physicians for Human Rights. They helped me research the medical situation of refugees arriving in Israel. Sometimes I feel that the act of writing about refugees in Israel is a meaningful action in the world, since the writing raises awareness of what is usually repressed in Israeli discourse. But most of the time, I feel that writing does not change the reality but merely records it, and a real action is required in the world, not in front of the keyboard.

How will the refugee situation in your country develop

a) over the next two years?
b) over the next two decades?

It depends on the geopolitical developments of the next few years. This is the Middle East and in the Middle East anything can happen. Currently, Israel does all it can to make African refugees give up and not come here. With great satisfaction, the government reports that it works.

Can you imagine a world without refugees?
This is like asking, “Can you imagine a world without evil, or human injustice?” I can imagine such a world, but I would not bet on it. Wherever there are people, there will be persecution and injustice. But wherever there are people, there will also be grace and compassion. Humans are capable of both; it is embedded within us. Injustice and compassion are fighting within us all the time, as a society and as individuals and the human struggle is to decide between them.

Do you think you will ever be a one?

I belong to a nation to which/ in which refuge is part of its essence. People that wandered from country to country for centuries. I was born in Israel, and I thank my historic fortune, since if I had been born three generations back, my situation as a Jew would have been much worse. The existence of this state seems obvious to me as an Israeli who was born into the current situation. But I do not forget, not even for a moment, that this can change - it has changed in the past. Here, a Jewish state existed once, and it was destroyed. This historical lesson is engraved in every Jew.

The debate in Israel today evolves around the meaning of this historical lesson - does the fear of becoming refugees again affects us to close our hearts to those refugees who are now coming to us? Or, maybe on the contrary, do we have a moral obligation rising from our historical memory, and from the realization that the future is ever changing?

How much “home” do you need?*

A lot, but not too much. I am deeply rooted in the Hebrew language, and I am very much connected to the scents, the flavours, and places that are home to me. On the other hand, as a writer, it is necessary for me to feel unfamiliar to some extent. Freud wrote about “Das Unheimliche”, the moment when even the most familiar place becomes strange and threatening. I think that this observation of the unfamiliar is the space wherein writing develops.

*This question was taken from Max Frisch’s questionnaire concerning “heimat”.