Welcoming the strangers among us

Welcoming the strangers among us

Former Montclair filmmaker explores Israel’s refugee crisis

Scene from a protest at the Holot Detention Center in 2015. Photo by Ellen Livingston
Scene from a protest at the Holot Detention Center in 2015. Photo by Ellen Livingston

In 2012, while visiting her daughter in Tel Aviv, Beth Kruvant happened upon a controversial spot. Levinsky Park had become a meeting place and sometimes a makeshift home for up to 65,000 people who fled through Egypt from trouble spots in Africa — Darfur, South Sudan, Congo, and Eritrea — the same locale where Jews from Germany, Eastern Europe, Russia, and Arab counties had congregated decades before. 

Kruvant’s daughter, Dara, who had been working in a refugee health clinic and studying for a master’s degree in crisis and trauma at Tel Aviv University, had told her mother about the migrants whose lives revolved around the park in the southern end of the city. Upon seeing it for herself — the current population of Africans in Israel is now estimated to be around 45,000, according to Kruvant — Beth decided their stories needed to be told, and that a documentary would be the most effective vehicle.

So, between 2012 and 2016, she spent two weeks each year recording their experiences in Levinsky Park and beyond, and interspersed their words with the highly vocal supporters and detractors of Israelis in their midst. The film, which won the 2017 Best Documentary Award at the New Jersey International Film Festival in June, was produced by Good Footage Productions, based in South Orange, and was edited by Montclair resident Cindy Kaplan Rooney.  

To some Israelis, the recent arrivals from Africa are refugees in need of housing, jobs, education, and social services after they risked dangerous journeys from their oppressive homelands. To others, including many in the Israeli government, the newcomers are considered unwelcome infiltrators who undermine the country’s stability, contribute to its crime rate, and possibly threaten Israel’s identity as a Jewish state.

Kruvant described the debate as “a tug-of-war that is tipping to the right because this government is very right wing” and, she alleged, employs social policies that discriminate against those who are not Jewish.  

Many Israelis agree, and feel it is imperative on the government to provide social services to these impoverished migrants.

Every three months the newcomers are required to update their status with the Israel’s Interior Ministry or face the prospect of arrest and incarceration, which is “living in misery in a place in the desert an hour and a half from Tel Aviv that is isolated from everyplace else while they wait to be deported,” Kruvant said. Those from the Sudan could face genocide if they return home, and for Eritreans, deportation means going back to a land with what Kruvant called “intense repression.”

That said, she added, Israel does not deport unless someone commits “a flagrant violation.” The more common problem is detention. “They are incarcerating and not reviewing these refugees on a case-by-case basis unless there are lawyers who will take the government to court and push the government to rule on their individual cases.” To that end, she said, attorneys have filed court challenges to anti-immigrant crackdowns, arguing that they violate basic human rights.

A key moment in the struggle came in January 2012 when a homeless man froze to death after police had torn down the tent he had used as a shelter. In response, individuals Kruvant referred to as “do-gooders” organized a program called “Soup Levinsky,” a daily feeding of indigent people in the park. Other volunteers followed suit by organizing shelters, informing people of their legal rights, and providing them with medical attention.

Finally, after an outbreak of tuberculosis, “the Israeli government woke up,” she said, though not necessarily out of altruism. Fearful that immigrant patients would spread communicable diseases, the government set up special health clinics in several parts of the country and encouraged refugee children to attend schools.

One Tel Aviv native who watched the film and now resides in New York and returns to Israel on a yearly basis told NJJN “Levinsky Park” lacked empathy for long-term residents of the area “who lock themselves in their houses for fear of going out because of the rise in rapes, robberies, and assaults by the African immigrants.”

Several residents expressed that fear on camera, though the film doesn’t pursue that side of the story. “There has been much controversy about rapes in the community — but there is more Israeli-on-Israeli crime and the African crime is exaggerated to instill fear,” Kruvant wrote in an email to NJJN.

Approximately a year ago the refugees began to find other shelter, and today Levinsky Park is a place for refugees to meet and talk, not to sleep. They live in a way similar to that of “our refugees on the Lower East Side lived,” Kruvant said, harkening back to an immigrant generation who lived in crowded tenements and struggled in poverty.  

Apart from government efforts, the African migrants have managed to build their own social structures, including churches for the Christians and mosques for the Muslims. Legally, the undocumented Africans are not permitted to work, but “they all find jobs under the table. They all find food and they all find benefits,” she said.

Kruvant, who moved to New York City from Montclair in 2016, sees one strong similarity between the people of Levinsky Park and refugees in other parts of the world, including the United States.

“Because of our right-wing government there are a lot of parallels between what is happening in Israel and in the United States, so there is a lot of interest in the film, especially among American Jews,” she said. The Israeli situation “relates a lot to what is happening” in the U.S. in terms of living in fear, seeking work, and trying to be granted asylum.

“My message is that the situation is complicated,” Kruvant said. “There is a worldwide refugee problem. There are needs piled upon needs. Some people feel their existence may be threatened. We have to be sensitive to all people.”

The film will be screened on Oct. 20 at 7 p.m. at Voorhees Hall on Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus followed by a Q&A with Kruvant. For more information, visit njfilmfest.com.

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