Just as the US is a nation of refugees and immigrants, so is Israel. Israel is one of the few countries that still accepts (if you are the right “kind”) refugees on an annual basis. In the early 1990s 500,000 Russians immigrated and just last year 16,000 French Jews sought refuge in Israel. It’s no mystery why people seek refuge and two exhibitions at the Israel Museum address this. The two exhibitions are purposely in adjoining galleries even though they deal with different times and different issues. The first is an exhibit of photographs by Yaakov Shofar entitled “Born in Israel” which documents the social history of Israel in the 1970s (a time when I lived in Jerusalem for a year), the time of the Black Panthers movement. It was a protest movement of young people from the Musrara and Katamon neighborhoods in Jerusalem, where immigrants from North African countries were housed starting a few years after the independence of Israel. They were protesting the violent attitudes of the police and the judicial system which was prejudiced against them. The leaders of the State at that time opened discussions with the young Panthers by asking “Were you born in Israel?” It makes us think about the question of origin and underlies the social tensions in Israel then and now. Of course it resonates for Americans at the current moment as well.
The second exhibition is also photography by Ron Amir called “Doing Time in Holot”. Amir’s work has been dedicated to bringing marginalized communities to our attention in photography and video. This show focuses on African migrants and asylum seekers who have basically walked across Africa (rather than making the risky Mediterranean crossings we hear about in the media). The photographs and videos were created over a three year period and mostly are empty of people, just their presence is noted. The Holon Detention Center is located in a desolate area of Israel near the Egyptian border and houses 3000 people mostly from Sudan and Eritrea. The inmates must be inside during the night and be accounted for. They are given food, shelter, and some money. It’s a difficult issue since Israel ha been a refuge throughout its history, so how can people be turned away though it’s impossible to take an unlimited number of people as well. As always it’s complicated.
This brings me to the end of my current trip. It’s raining as we prepare to leave Israel. The holiday of Tu Beshvat was celebrated while we were here and even though it’s winter the trees are beginning to bud. It’s all good preparation for returning to the north coast of California.