Since the mid-2000s, African asylum seekers and refugees have entered Israel in an attempt to find a safe haven until matters in their home countries are resolved. Their arrival has entailed a debate as to the nature of immigration to Israel. Officially, the Law of Return entitles immigrants to an Israeli citizenship provided immigrants are either Jews or descendants of Jews. The entrance of non-Jews has affected the country’s social make-up, challenging the image of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Moreover, the immigrants’ presence has obliged the state of Israel to put a greater emphasis on human rights issues and universal responsibility for assistance.
The lack of a formal Israeli immigration policy implies that the fate of newcomers, such as refugees or asylum seekers, is often left to initiatives of individual agencies rather than to state organizations. Under such circumstances, this study will inquire, how is food used by social agencies and what messages does it convey? “Marak Lewinski” (ML), meaning Soup of Lewinski, on which this paper focuses, is a good example of individual agency which uses food as a means of connecting citizens and African refugees. This voluntary organization consists of individual men and women who have undertaken to make sure African refugees and asylum seekers, who live in a small park on Lewinsky Street in Tel Aviv, do not go hungry. In the particular context of African refugees in Israel, food has become a medium of expressing compassion, solidarity, and protest against the Israeli government that has failed to attend to the refugees’ basic needs.
The story of ML can be read as a narrative of change in the social and cultural worlds, positioning Israeli national discourse against that of international human rights. Nationalism is a form of social solidarity, and one of the historical foundations upon which modern democracy was founded. Israel presents a good example of the nexus of nationalism and democracy, as Zionism strives for and supports an independent Jewish state. This nexus between nationalism and democracy in Israel determines the cultural character of the political community and institutes selective immigration policies which are designed to establish and secure a Jewish majority in the country (Afeef 2009; Perry 2010; Yonnah 2004).
Furthermore, the story of ML exemplifies the decline in the Israeli middle class and its attempts to expand the boundaries of social entitlement and assistance within Israeli society. The notion of the middle class in Israel implies ownership of property, a steady professional job that offers a stable income, benefits, and often long-term security, providing one’s offspring with a respectable education, and the means for enjoying leisure-time activities. In recent years, however, the Israeli government has renounced the sufficient provisioning of specific social services by cutting back on mandated benefits and pensions. These cuts, combined with rising real estate prices, education, and health services, has prevented many professionals from maintaining a middle-class lifestyle. The shift from a welfare state to neo-liberal politics has created a job market with few tenure-track jobs, smaller pensions, and fewer benefits. In addition, the financial returns on academic credentials have been steadily decreasing over the years. No longer able to maintain the standard of living to which they have grown accustomed, many Israeli middle-class professionals are facing increasing socio-economic insecurity (Mohar 2015).
In their meeting with the refugees, I argue, ML volunteers have been using food charity to challenge the putative relationship between citizenship and welfare assistance, defining the latter as embedded within the discourse of human rights and public compassion. The park has become a space of inter-cultural exchange where multiple worlds, networks, processes, and independent agents interact. Through their participation in ML the volunteers interpret the social and economic gaps between themselves and the refugees. They view these gaps as indicative of the benefits of citizenship, a steady job, and a home to return to, conceiving, to a greater or lesser extent, of their involvement in ML as emerging from a collective Jewish history. The volunteers interpret Jewish history and collective memory as generating a moral obligation to assist individuals who have been expelled from their homes and whose basic needs are neglected by the state in which they have sought shelter. By serving food to the refugees, the volunteers have expanded the social boundaries of Israeli society to include the refugees at its margins. This symbolic act of charity has widened the social distance between locals and refugees, enabling the volunteers to “act middle class,” or engage in charitable activities that require very few financial commitments but which reposition them within the symbolic boundaries of the Israeli middle class.
The Historical Context of African Migration to Israel
As a result of the decolonization struggles during the years following World War II, a series of new, independent nation-states were established in parts of Africa. Some of them achieved stable governments almost immediately; others, however, were ruled by dictators or military juntas, enduring long civil wars. Years of exploitation by colonizing countries have resulted in poverty and subjection to arbitrary division into ethnic and linguistic groups, leading to the foundation of states that lacked geographic, linguistic, ethnic, or political affinity.
Ongoing repression and military conflict in their countries of birth have caused many to migrate, mostly to neighboring countries in search of safety. The current conflict in Darfur, for example, started in February 2003. It involved two warring parties: the Arab Militias, known as Janjaweed, supported by the government of Sudan, and two rebel groups that represented the oppressed Africans. The Janjaweed deployed sophisticated weapons and communications technologies and were compensated with a monthly income and a variety of other benefits in exchange for their ethnic cleansing operations in Darfur. They attacked villagers late at night or early in the morning, setting fire to every hut within sight, attacked those who returned to salvage their property, and sabotaged water supplies, crops, and food provisions, precipitating a deadly famine. The Janjaweed also recruited professional criminals, many of whom had, then, been recently released from prison, to carry out various atrocities in exchange for the right to loot the property of their victims (Quenivet 2006; Vehnamaki 2006).
Rebels protested against the political, ethnic, economic, and social marginalization of the region. Since 1989, the government of Sudan has aimed to impose Islam on the country’s ethnically and culturally diverse citizenry. It has favored Muslims politically, socially, and economically, and waged Jihad against non-Muslims. Christians were isolated and resettled in “peace villages” in order to facilitate the imposition of Islam and the favoritism of Muslims. All public revenues remained in the north of Sudan, where the Arab political elite resided. Anyone who opposed the government’s campaign of repression faced harassment, detention, and, in many cases, torture (Quenivet 2006; Vehnamaki 2006).
The Sudanese government vehemently denied the subsequent accusations of genocide as biased and false. Although it justified the Janjaweed attacks as necessary, the government carefully avoided officially backing the militias by claiming it could not control them. In 2005 it was estimated that 1.5 million Darfurians had been displaced, half of Darfur villages had been burned to ashes, and over 300,000 people had lost their lives. NGOs accused the Janjaweed of killing men, raping women and girls, and enslaving children. Civilians belonging to particular tribes were massacred and others were seriously injured, both physically and mentally (Quenivet 2006; Vehnamaki 2006).
Etitrea, a one-party state which has been governed since 1994 by The People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1991. During the independence struggle, the 1998 Eritrean-Ethiopian War, and post-war period, many atrocities were committed by the Ethiopian authorities against unarmed Eritrean civilians. Moreover, human rights violations were committed by the government or on its behalf. The 1998-2000 war between Ethiopia and Eritrea also undermined opportunities for development and democracy. In an attempt to instill control, elections in Etitrea have been repeatedly postponed and its president, Isaias Afwerki, has remained in office since 1993. The government promoted a homogeneous national Eritrean identity, based on the common goal of collective struggle for liberation. Freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association were severely limited. If arrested, those who practiced “unregistered” religions, tried to flee the nation, or evade military duty, were imprisoned. As a means of protecting Eritrea’s sovereignty, inculcating national pride, and forging a disciplined populace, all Eritreans aged between 18 and 40 were required to complete a mandatory national service, including military service. The latter required a long, indefinite commitment, which influenced many Eritreans to flee the country in an attempt to circumvent such a prolonged deployment (Perry, 2010; Riggan 2011; Sorenson and Matsuika 2001; Weldelaimanot 2010).
Most Western countries have accused the Eritrean authorities of arbitrary arrests and detentions, and of jailing an unknown number of non-accused people for their political activism. NGOs were denied access to the country, resulting in exacerbated starvation. The political situation transformed Eritrea into one of the top refugee-producing countries, whose number of escapees have been considerably disproportionate to the size of its population (Sorenson and Matsuika 2001; Weldelaimanot 2010).
Homelessness, National Narratives and Food
The migration flows of refugees and asylum seekers to Israel, then, has been the result of ongoing political repression and military conflicts in nearby countries, such as Sudan and Eritrea. Beginning in the mid-2000s, this pattern of non-Jewish migration to Israel has encompassed tens of thousands of asylum-seekers, many of whom entered the country through the Sinai border. Despite being guarded on both sides, this border was not as heavily monitored as Israel’s other international borders, due to the relatively peaceful relations between Israel and Egypt. Generally speaking, Israel was not the asylum-seekers’ first choice. Most of them wished to reach Europe where they could unite with relatives, friends, or other refugees. Israel, envisioned as a modern, Western and democratic nation, could provide a safe place, albeit temporary, where they would not be persecuted any longer and from where they could seek a permanent country of residence (Afeef 2009; Kritzman- Amir and Berman 2010; Paz 2011).
The dramatic presence of migrants compels nation-states to reconsider criteria for political and social membership (Brubaker 1996; Gupata 2012; Raijman, 2010, 87). The influx of Sudanese and Eritreans has been viewed, by both state authorities and citizens, as a threat to the social make-up of Israeli society and as challenging the putative narrative of Israeli citizenship and identity. However, little has been done to translate Israel’s obligations under international refugee law into a domestic legal framework. Rather, the local asylum system mimics Israel’s immigration laws in discriminating against non-Jews, particularly those from what are deemed to be ‘enemy states.’ Asylum seekers are being granted group protection in the form of temporary permits to reside in Israel (Afeef 2009; Kalir 2009; Kritzman-Amir and Berman 2010; Perry 2010, 158; Sabar 2004; Sabar and Posner 2013). Yet, at the same time, they face imprisonment, deportation, and forced return to their home countries. Moreover, the state has implemented a policy that requires refugees to stay within designated areas, preventing them from seeking employment. Local NGOs have tended to most of the day-to-day needs of asylum seekers. As the number of the refugees increases, however, many NGOs are being stretched to their administrative limits, since many lack the requisite finances and facilities for handling such burgeoning numbers (Afeef 2009; Kritzman-Amir and Berman 2010; Perry 2010).
Contacts between locals and asylum seekers usually remain somewhat minimal. This dynamic, however, prevents many incoming refugees from familiarizing themselves with the host society (Smets and Saskia 2008).1 Social gatherings in local churches, restaurants, or parties facilitate the formation of migrant and refugees’ communities. These have become anchors for newcomers and provide a sense of home in a foreign land (Ejorh 2011; Kalir, 2009; Lewis 2010; Sabar and Shragai 2008). Encounters between locals and refugees have mostly taken place in open public spaces. During these meetings architectural locations are imbued with meanings and memories forming public spaces that are associated with migrants, although many of them are not built by or meant for immigrants (Low 2000; Sen 2012). In such quotidian locations, ethnic boundaries and behavioral practices are negotiated and defined, and spatial routines initiated and sustained (Knowles 2012, 511; Marte 2011). In Tel-Aviv, particular areas were gradually transformed into informal spaces for migrant laborers and, later on, for refugees (Sabar and Posner 2013). Lewinski Park, located in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Tel-Aviv, is one of these designated areas, and it is there that the volunteers of ML meet with the refugees and communicate through food charity.
The communication between the volunteers and the refugees was made possible because food, as claimed by David Sutton (2013), is a kind of unspoken language which contextualizes, situates, moralizes, and challenges the supposedly neutral, non-cultural language of neoliberal economics. Furthermore, it is a medium that helps define group boundaries (Douglas 1972), creates and consolidates solidarity, and structures social relationships, reflecting a set of alliances that only grows with time. It can either serve the semiotic function of demonstrating equality, closeness, and solidarity or as a means of maintaining hierarchical relations or segmentation (Appandurai 1981; Dickinson 2013, 361-2).
Food can also be used as a proxy for social and political protests. In summer of 2011, for example, Cairo’s Tahrir Square became the epicenter of the Egyptian people’s demands for bread, dignity, and justice. Stories about food activism provided a vivid testimony for the ways in which some men constructed their positions somewhere between Islam and being in the world. Their efforts and conversations manifested actions concerned with issues such as food supply and food corruption. In other words, bread had become a potent symbol linked with what many viewed as the comprehensiveness of their Islamic faith (Naguib 2013).
The Greek economic crisis was also an example of the relationship between food, identity, and politics. Protesters opted for throwing yogurt on politicians, aiming to remind the latter that they had betrayed their Greek identity by implementing measures and policies which widely seemed antithetical to Greek notions of social justice (Vournelis 2013). In the case of Occupy Wall Street, food became a medium for communicating an alternate vision both for the food system and for New York City, which was once based on equality, solidarity, and mutual aid. The activists were operating a soup kitchen, making food available to whoever wanted it. The presence of free food was used to obscure and deny the political agency of these activists and their vested interest in calling attention to New York’s vast injustices of inequality (Dickinson 2013). The case of ML, as we shall see, is different. Rather than being a movement of those who have gone hungry, it is a manifestation of protest by those who, by giving food to the needy, reassure and reinforce their privileged position. This position, they claim, require them to protest against the Israeli government’s refusal to attend to the refugees’ needs.
The Setting: Methodology
In the fall of 2012, I came across an article in a local newspaper describing hundreds of African refugees and asylum seekers2 lining up for food prepared and served by the volunteers of “Marak Lewinsky” (ML). This article brought me to Lewinsky Park in Tel-Aviv in October 2012. What I witnessed there led me to return week after week during the subsequent seven months, at which point our food provisions were no longer needed. Once a week, I used to cook a large pot of rice with lentils in my home kitchen for individuals I did not know and with whom I could not converse. Engaging in these weekly rituals heightened my awareness of global political and economic forces, over which I had no control and against which there was little I could do. Due to these forces I found myself committed to helping hundreds of people who have been dispossessed from their homelands and saw no future for themselves. Food was both the medium and the message. Although I had no original intention to conduct field research in Lewinsky Park, I could not resist the urge to jot down some notes about what I saw and how I was feeling. After a few weeks I realized that in addition to my commitment to participating in ML’s weekly services, I felt compelled to transform my impressions of these complex dynamics into a scholarly paper. This article, I decided, would seek to document how the state of Israel, of which I am a citizen, systematically neglected people who longed for some peace of mind, safety, and human compassion.
I informed the organizers about my decision and, during my fourth week as a volunteer, began recording field notes of both the events which transpired during my shifts and the informal conversations I had with other volunteers. I never made any attempts to conceal my background as a professor of sociology, and one who specializes in the sociology of food. In a number of cases I worked shoulder to shoulder with either former students of mine, two colleagues, or four other acquaintances. Since I always arrived by car, I was often asked to deliver the leftovers to nearby nursery schools for the refugees’ children. While I delivered the leftovers, other volunteers usually cleaned up the facilities and stored our tables and chairs in a safe place. Afterwards, I usually returned to the Lewinsky Park to pick up two other volunteers, both professionals who claimed they could not afford to buy a vehicle of their own. After reflecting on my frequent conversations with these volunteers, as well as my field notes, I began exploring my personal feelings regarding the refugees. Doing so also helped me formulate questions regarding the state of Israel’s responsibility towards asylum claimants and the many roles played by food in global migration flows.
ML was founded in the winter of 2011-2012 by men and women from of various locations, professions, social backgrounds, and experiences with political and social activism. Most of them were professionals who, following considerable shifts within the labor market and the weakening of social welfare programs, had experienced a number of difficulties with maintaining what they would identify as a middle-class standard of living. Many volunteers I spoke with frequently criticized the Israeli government for neglecting its responsibility for providing asylum seekers with welfare assistance and, consequently, felt personally obliged to do something to improve the refugees’ lives. The volunteers either prepared food in their home kitchens, as I frequently did, or bought food and brought it to Lewinsky Park. In addition, a local restaurant provided a huge pot of meat soup on a daily basis, and local bakeries often donated the bread and cakes that were left by the end of the day. Dinner was served at 7 p.m. from Monday through Thursday and on Saturday. On Friday, a lunch consisting of salads, breads, various spreads, fresh vegetables, fruits, and sweets was served to the refugees. ML’s organizational framework was kept intentionally loose, allowing volunteers to participate whenever they could or wanted to. Some MF activists were appointed or volunteered, to manage a daily shift either once or twice per week. In order to monitor and control the daily quantities of provisions, volunteers would log into the organization’s website, register for a particular shift, and indicate what they were planning on bringing.
The volunteers were frequently met with hostility by a handful of local residents. They were accused of contributing to the ‘deterioration’ of the neighborhood by helping the refugees, and thus attracting them to Lewinsky Park, rather than supporting the residents’ struggle to clear the locale of populations they deemed as a menace to public order. The refugees, conversely, were suspicious of the volunteers, and, at least initially, were doubtful of both their underlying motivations and the organization’s longevity. Nonetheless, some 800 people would quietly line up to receive their daily provisions, always waiting until everybody had been served before returning for seconds. Somehow there was always enough.
During the nightly servings, two distinctive zones were created: one for the volunteers and another for the refugees. Marked by two tables, one for preparation and the other for serving, the boundaries between these two zones were respected by the refugees. Each beneficiary received a bowl filled with rice, a meat-based soup, and vegetables, along with a hardboiled egg and a sandwich. Once everyone had been served, usually more than once, a variety of sweets—ranging from fresh fruits to various types of cakes—were served. With time, capable individuals were identified among the refugees and recruited by the volunteers for helping as translators and line attendants or were put in charge of retrieving and returning the group’s tables and utensils before and after each serving. Such spatially-focused routines helped to create a and familiar space which facilitated the organization of the daily servings and discouraged any confrontations between the volunteers and the beneficiaries.
“Why Am I Here?”
The volunteers deployed food provisioning as a method for communicating a message that challenged putative national narratives and introduced a discourse that emerged from Jewish historical experience and collective memory. As descendants of Jewish Holocaust survivors, they believed the state should neither ignore asylum seekers nor disregard their basic needs. Providing food to the refugees was the activists’ way of defining citizenship as generating responsibility to assist non-citizens, protesting against the state’s negligence in regards to the needs of its inhabitants, and assuming responsibility for the society in which they lived. Simultaneously, food activism, enabled the volunteers to extend the social boundaries of Israeli society to include non-citizens within the lower margins. This extension provided the volunteers, many of whom were struggling with their own hardships, with an opportunity to “act middle class” and reposition themselves within the domain of the Israeli middle class.
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The volunteers’ decision to provide food to the refugees demonstrated disagreement about entitlement to social inclusion and provision of sustenance through citizenship. The national narrative, represented by state authorities and local residents of the area, identified the refugees as a threat to the homogeneity of Israel and emphasized the state’s right to exclude refugees from its social boundaries. Members of ML did not negate the affiliation between Israel and the Jewish people. As descendants of Jewish Holocaust survivors, many volunteers believed themselves to be obliged to pay back their historical debts to Mankind in general and to specific individuals who assisted the Jews during the Holocaust in particular. Noga, one of the founders of ML, who worked for a publishing house, said:
My grandparents were refugees. They owe their lives to good people who made sure they survived WWII. Now my turn has come to help those who needed to flee from their countries and have no home to return to. It’s important we understand we can all be refugees at one time or another and we need to help each other.
By connecting personal agency to family history, Noga draws parallels between the Jewish collective experience and all refugees, regardless of their religion, race, nationality, or particular historical experience, positioning the issue in a universal context. Although a particular moment in the history of a people, which many nation-states do very little to prevent, homelessness generates individual agency in order to minimize suffering. Cooking for refugees is a way of expressing sympathy and compassion as well as compensating for the state’s negligence.
Gideon, a salesman in his sixties, joined ML for similar reasons. Within the framework of his job, he was required to travel around the country so he volunteered to deliver food to the park from wherever he had visited. He says:
My parents suffered from hunger during the Holocaust. I couldn’t live knowing there were hungry refugees in Israel. I am so ashamed. It’s the least Israelis could do to help them. I’ll keep on doing it for as long as there’s need for food.
Both personal history and shame motivated Gideon to establish a human chain connected through food charity. Israelis from all over the country were cooking dishes in their domestic kitchens for individuals they did not know. Yet they could relate to their histories and present-day living conditions. Gideon enabled them to express their protest against the government by active participation in ensuring their sustainability. The state of Israel avoided assisting refugees, claiming they were not entitled to citizenship in the state of the Jewish people, while the volunteers relied on their Jewish collective memory and experience in explaining their engagement in helping them.
Since the ML network consisted of independent and busy individuals, connected primarily via social media, the organizational framework was kept intentionally loose, which enabled people to participate when and how they were able to do so. Consequently, it was hard to foresee problems that might occur during the daily servings, which volunteers had to respond to as they emerged. For example, participants and contributors were never criticized for not showing up for one of their shifts. For those who did, however, the volunteer supervisors always thanked them both personally and via the organization’s website. On the one hand, the loose organizational framework demonstrated just how hard, and yet essential, it was for finding the time to support people whose lives were in utter chaos. On the other hand, this framework stressed the volunteering dimension of the project and presented participation as a noble act. For instance, when Danny, who was in charge of bringing disposable plates and utensils, was almost 30 minutes late to the shift and would not answer our calls, no one got angry. Money was collected from whoever was present and plates and utensils were bought in a local store. When one local chef forgot to prepare a soup, all the volunteers praised his long-term commitment to ML.
Furthermore, the loose framework made it impossible to estimate in advance how much food would be available. Interestingly, images of Jews lining up for a bowl of soup in concentration camps were frequently recalled on nights when there was more food than was actually needed. One evening, as the volunteers were getting ready to serve dessert, a film producer called to let them know that he was on his way to the park with all the food that was left from that day’s set. Nira says:
There was a huge amount of chicken and beef. Although the refugees have all eaten, they lined up, knowing it might take months before they got to eat meat again. It started raining and they hesitated whether to seek shelter or get another chicken leg or a steak. I couldn’t sleep that night. It brought back all these pictures … You know …
No one asked Nira what crossed her mind. The volunteers assumed she was referring to the Holocaust—a sensitive issue that is deeply rooted in Israeli collective memory. Moreover, as many in Israel believe that the Holocaust was a unique Jewish experience, the volunteers often refrained from bringing up the similarities between the Holocaust and the tragedy of African refugees. Orit, a theater director who was unemployed throughout my fieldwork, explained the connection between Jewish history and her work in ML, without referring explicitly to the Holocaust:
Being a state that was founded by and for Jewish refugees, Israel cannot abandon refugees. But the state of Israel locks them up in camps, deports them and practically sends them to their death. It’s our duty as Jews, as citizens of a democratic state, to help refugees so we justify our own existence.
Coming here makes me a better person. It turns me into a citizen who assumes responsibility for the society in which she lives. I act in order to render Israel more democratic, assuming responsibility for people regardless of their origin, race, religion and formal status. I want to live in a country where people’s needs are satisfied. I do whatever I can to make it happen.
By contextualizing their agency in Jewish European history, a dominant constituent of Israelis’ mode of thought, the volunteers suggest that the role Jews have played in history has been reversed. The foundation of the Jewish state implies Jews are no longer miserable victims in need of assistance from citizens of countries in which they themselves have once been citizens. Rather, they are safe and fortunate individuals whose turn has come to help those left homeless due to world-historical atrocities.
“Israel Doesn’t Do Anything to Help Them”
In addition to contextualizing food-related activities within a Jewish historical experience, and as part of the responsibilities of the Jewish State, the ML volunteers deployed food provisioning as an informal vehicle for protesting against municipal and national authorities, who have only intensified the refugees’ numerous problems by incessantly emphasizing the ‘threat’ that they purportedly pose against putative social homogeneity in Israel. Hoping to put pressure on authorities to fulfill their duties under the internationally-recognized Refugee Law, the ML volunteers turned to a variety of international organizations for financial and moral support. What’s more, by positioning the refugees above local residents in the city’s Lewinsky Park neighborhood, the organization’s volunteers circumvented the State’s social welfare structures and programs, informally constructing an alternative social hierarchy and ethical standards in their place.
The volunteers accused municipal and state agencies not only of neglecting the refugees but also of doing everything in their power to prevent them from obtaining assistance. Take two examples. In winter 2012, missiles were fired from Gaza to Tel-Aviv. The first time the sirens went on, a local policeman prevented the refugees from entering the public shelter before local residents were safely accounted for inside. In protest of this inhumane gesture, the ML volunteers refused to enter the shelter and stayed with the refugees. Noa says:
I was so angry and ashamed. We protested to the Mayor and one of us went to City Hall and made sure this would never happen again.
During that period, and after a long negotiation process, the city provided the activists with a container to store the tables, dishes, utensils and donations of dry foods and clothes. However, after a couple of weeks, the container disappeared. City authorities denied having anything to do with it. Only after threatening to get in touch with the press was the container restored, yet with an entirely different lock and without the right key.
International organizations, such as the Red Cross, were more willing to lend a hand. Often after their intervention, the city realized it was essential to contribute its share, if only to prevent negative publicity. Orit tells us:
On a cold weekend of winter 2011, the Red Cross let the refugees stay in their quarters under the condition that they left the place by 8 a.m. on Sunday. They expected that the refugees would refuse to leave and would leave the offices messy and dirty. But at 5 a.m. on Sunday, the offices were spotless and the refugees left on foot to the park. The Red Cross wanted to provide them with one of their tents … However, the Mayor objected and provided tents which were not as good and didn’t keep them warm enough.
Contrary to municipal agencies, who considered the refugees an undeserved burden on their already limited resources, international organizations felt obliged to provide assistance. They intervened, Orit contended, because they viewed the refuges as civilized human beings. Although the volunteers relied on the support of international organizations, only seldom did they mention similar groups around the world as inspiring their local activism. For instance, the only time I heard anyone refer to Occupy Wall Street was after someone mentioned that the movement’s supporters, who could not come to the location in New York City, called en masse into nearby restaurants and grocery stores ordering food and other supplies for the protestors. Hoping to mimic this strategy, one member of ML arranged for people to call into a local grocery store, asking them to donate money, which would be used for purchasing the supplies for the refugees at Lewinsky Park. However, it was not published on the website and very few people ended up calling in. When I asked him about what had prevented people from donating resources via telephone, he contended that Israelis preferred actual participation to anonymous monetary donations, and that very few Israelis believed that local grocers would use the collected funds for providing food to the refugees.
Food was available to whoever wanted it. However, local residents generally refrained from partaking, fearing they would be viewed by their compatriots as sharing the refugees’ plights. Many accused the MF volunteers of favoring the refugees over their fellow citizens and of contributing to the deterioration of the neighborhood by helping perpetuate the presence of purportedly ‘threatening’ populations. Despite these provocations, the volunteers largely tolerated such accusations. Edna, a social-worker, for instance, claimed:
I’ve been accused of disloyalty by people who could have been my patients. I tell them we’re here for those who cannot go on welfare or use soup kitchens. Our help prevents them from stealing.
The cutting of welfare allowances and liability, due to a general shift away from the welfare state model and towards a neo-liberal socio-economic program, generated a great deal of anger among the neighborhood’s residents. However, rather than directing their frustrations towards the state, many chose the ML volunteers as their scapegoats. Highlighting these individuals’ hypocrisy and shortsightedness, Edna pointed to the means by which Israeli citizens can still obtain assistance from governmental agencies, in contrast to the refugees who are completely ineligible for state-sponsored assistance of any kind.
Moreover, some locals went as far as drawing similarities between one’s support for the Palestinians’ struggle for independence and the ML volunteers’ food provisioning program for the refugees at Lewinsky Park, considering both issues as unproductive distractions from the “real” issues of Israeli poverty, negligence of marginal populations, or a national decrease in welfare budgets. One evening, a right-wing politician crossed the park with a number of her supporters on their way to a neighborhood gathering. One of them yelled at us:
You should be ashamed of yourselves. Where’ve you been before the refugees ruined our lives? How could I forget! You’re busy supporting Arabs, sleeping with them. You’re despicable.
As they shouted these words, we all remained silent. She viewed us as intruders who were committed to providing assistance to groups that she perceived as contributing to the deterioration of the lives of her local constituents. She contended that Israeli citizens were expected to express solidarity with other citizens, rather than with groups who were putatively excluded from Israeli society. The volunteers, however, maintained that the inhumane consequences of not taking any action in defense of the refugees’ essential human needs virtually obliged them to disregard any national boundaries being arbitrarily imposed between them. As sympathetic as the volunteers were to this woman’s complaints, they claimed she was better off than the refugees because she, unlike the refugees, was entitled to services provided by the state.
Some residents challenged this claim. For instance, in addition to serving dinners, the ML volunteers provided weekly food supplies to a number of Sudanese families which had been granted permission to stay in Israel for medical assistance but, contradictorily, denied work permits. One Friday afternoon, as one volunteer, Ofer, and I were packing the supplies, a local woman in her sixties stopped and asked for one of the boxes, saying it was her only chance to prepare a Sabbath dinner for her young children. Ofer arranged a small basket for her with canned vegetables and a handful of snacks, but she was not satisfied, insisting that she was entitled to receive whatever the refugees were getting. Ofer said to me:
With time you learn to be assertive. I do my best to help whoever asks for food but she has places she can go to for food. I learned to negotiate with the locals and make sure everybody received something.
Themselves victims of neo-liberalism, local residents, like this woman, were trapped between improving their social position in general, and vis-à-vis the refugees in particular, and admitting that they were as needy as the refugees. Most locals seemed uncomfortable with having to ask for food. In negotiating their sense of entitlement to the organization’s provisions, however, and protesting against the group’s solidarity with “outsiders” over and above Israeli citizens, the locals positioned themselves in the same social strata as the refugees. The ML volunteers, in contrast, constructed a social hierarchy of entitlement which positioned the residents of the Lewinsky Park neighborhood below the refugees, granting the latter assistance to which locals were not automatically entitled. Their social marginality and poverty were acknowledged, yet citizenship granted them access to services from which the refugees were excluded. This reversed hierarchy of poverty and priority was deployed as a means of expressing dissatisfaction with governmental policies regarding both citizens and refugees.
“I Have a Nice Home to Return to”
The ML volunteers’ food-related social activism initiated two complementary processes. First, following their encounters with the refugees in Lewinsky Park, many volunteers began reflecting upon their own lives. Although the majority were of a middle-class background, their daily lives did not resemble the typical markers of a middle-class standard of living. Many were coping with economic hardships, due either to unemployment or to a sudden increase in their living expenses, and many could neither afford to buy property nor save for retirement. Meeting the refugees made them appreciate what little they had. Second, by identifying the refugees as entitled to the group’s assistance, as opposed to the neighborhood’s less well-off Israeli residents, the ML volunteers paradoxically extended the social distance between themselves and the refugees, which subtly repositioned them within the boundaries of “the middle class.”
According to the volunteers, emotional exhaustion was one of the most difficult consequences to cope with. It was hard to constantly see, and interact with, homeless people who depended on individuals of relatively moderate means for their daily sustenance. Nevertheless, many had a difficult time accepting that they, despite any challenges they might have been faced with, were still significantly better off than the refugees. Take Lilli, a graduate student who made a living as a Teaching Assistant and a bartender. After volunteering in the park between four and five days per week, she eventually reached a breaking point:
Last winter was very rainy and seeing hundreds of wet people waiting for food didn’t make things easier. I refused to wear a raincoat or have someone hold an umbrella above my head. Getting soaked to my bones was my way of identifying with them. I had a home to go back to while they were sleeping on wet grounds covered with nylon sheets. I no longer minded my shabby apartment and crazy roommate. I’d go home, prepare myself a cup of tea and just sit and tremble.
Shiri, a law student, underwent a similar experience:
I thought it would get easier with time but the more I came, the harder it became. What kind of a country have we become that we let people live in a park and depend on me for food? I used to shower for hours when I got home, as if I was getting the world’s problems off my skin.
Anat, a self-employed single mother in her forties, found it hard to pay for the six pounds of rice she was cooking every week. Even she admitted that coming home from the park made her feel grateful for what she had.
I’ve a home to return to, a son to hug, and food to eat. Coming here made me realize how fragile life was. I mean, we could all be homeless at one point or another. The state doesn’t give a damn about us.
Ongoing meetings with the refugees made the three women appreciate what little they had, regardless of their limited means, without exonerating the Israeli government from its responsibility toward both the refugees and its citizens. A “crazy roommate” and living in a country which, ostensibly, no longer assumed any sense of responsibility for its inhabitants, outweighed homelessness. It was precisely in positioning themselves above the refugees that the volunteers became conscious of how vulnerable their own lives really were, and how they too may find themselves in the unfortunate position of having to depend on the goodwill of others.
Food charity enabled the organization’s volunteers to humanize the refugees, who were often described by local residents, and even governmental officials, as “monkeys who should be locked up in the zoo.” An ongoing symbiotic process of mutual observation and learning helped establish modes of conducts which were respected by both parties. Netta tells us:
Little by little we learned how to talk to them and how to set limits without humiliating them. We learned what kind of foods they liked, we started adding the spices they used and we have never served anything that we wouldn’t eat. For instance, at the beginning, some of us peeled tangerines and oranges for the refugees until one of us said: ‘they aren’t children. They can peel fruits by themselves.’ They, too, have learned. We insisted that they keep the park clean and after a while we no longer needed to remind them to clean after dinner. We identified those who spoke a little English and put them to work with helping us.
Food, and its provisioning, holds the potential of meaning different things to different people. While uniting the ML volunteers and the refugees in a subtle conversation regarding compassion, existential vulnerability, and social positioning, for instance, the group’s nightly feedings ultimately established stark boundaries between them. For the refugees, the volunteers’ food charity highlighted their dependence on strangers, as well as how limited their future prospects really were. For the volunteers, food served as a means of taking a stand against the Israeli government, as well as the discrimination of local residents, both of which view refugee communities as ‘threats’ on the putative social homogeneity of Israeli society. By expressing compassion toward those who have been excluded from state-sanctioned social boundaries, therefore, the ML volunteers were spurred to appreciate what little they have.
The ML volunteers deployed food charity as a means by which they contextualized, moralized, and challenged the putative social homogeneity of Israeli society, intertwining the country’s Law of Return and citizenship entitlements, such as social welfare assistance. Additionally, daily confrontations with others’ chronic food insecurity brought to the surface unresolved socio-economic issues, including the consequences of forced migration for both the refugees and the receiving country and the considerable weakening of Israel’s welfare-state system which, as is the case elsewhere, has resulted in a deteriorating middle class.
Food was also used as a vehicle for expressing dissent against the state’s immigration policies. The story of Tahrir Square in Cairo, the demonstrations in Greece, and the occupation of Wall Street were all protests against their respective governments’ negligence in regard to the needs of their own citizens. Conversely, the case of ML is an example of how notions of citizenship and national ethos (which the volunteers contextualized in Jewish morality and collective historical experience) can influence citizens to engage in various forms of collective action in order to push their governments to fulfill their responsibilities toward non-citizens.
By including the refugees at the lower margins of Israeli society, the ML volunteers’ food assistance program served as both a vehicle for transnational connectivity and a means for expanding Israel’s socio-economic boundaries. While the state and the residents of Tel Aviv’s Lewinsky Park neighborhood sought to marginalize and exclude the refugees on the basis of Israel’s narrative of citizenship and identity, the volunteers included them on the basis of a humanistic discourse according to which “we could all be refugees.” National solidarity was replaced by transnational, or human, solidarity and was embedded within a transnational hierarchy of rights and entitlements. Through this symbolic act of borderless welfare assistance, however, the volunteers also reinforced a kind of social distance between themselves and the refugees. In taking responsibility for the refugees’ essential needs, therefore, the ML volunteers were able to “feel” middle class by subtly repositioning themselves between more financially well-off Israelis and the refugees in Lewinsky Park.
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