African Migrants in Israel

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Israel, Knesset member Einat Wilf was saying, is the only first-world economy where migrants from Africa can literally walk across the border.  She was speaking on September 10 at the American Jewish Committee headquarters in New York alongside Mark Hetfield, interim president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), about the challenges of coping fairly and responsibly with migrants from Sudan, Eritrea, and other troubled African nations who have entered Israel in increasing numbers in recent years, most of them helped across the Sinai border by Bedouin traffickers.  The informal luncheon program was in conjunction with the meeting of the administrative council of the AJC’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights.

MK Einat Wilf


Mark Hetfield




While African migrants arrived in Israel at a relatively modest rate until 2005, the numbers increased sharply in 2006, and the best estimate is that there are now approximately 60,000 African migrants and asylum seekers in Israel.  The issue has become charged in the last several months, in the wake of protests in Tel Aviv and several incidents of violence against Africans in the spring of 2012.  Interior minister Eli Yishai has ratcheted up the rhetoric further, calling overtly for the mass deportation of African migrants.


Hetfield and Wilf emphasized different aspects of the issue.  For Hetfield, the central problem is that Israel has not faced up to its legal and moral obligations to ascertain the real status of those who cross the border into Israel.  Did they flee their countries of origin because of threat of persecution or violence?  If so, they have certain rights to care and protection under Israel’s own commitments to international law.  If they arrived for other reasons (for better economic opportunity, for example), Israel may indeed have the right to deport them, if it does so in a manner that respects due process  (and, I would add, human dignity).


The issue, as Hetfield presented it, is that Israel has simply stalled on the process of determining who is a legitimate refugee, instead terming all of the African migrants “infilitrators” and detaining large numbers indefinitely in isolated holding facilities.  Hetfield called for a new level of “honesty” — that is, a ratcheting down of the rhetoric and investing in the human resources to consider the situations of the migrants on a case-by-case basis.  The angry rhetoric, he argued, not only deprives men and women of basic rights — it also threatens to contribute to Israel’s negative image in the international community.


Wilf, while acknowledging the imperfections of the current system, insisted that Israel had to look for ways to limit the flow of African migrants.  “We feel left alone with this problem,” she said.  From her point-of-view, the issue was also one of honesty — how to speak honestly about the face that Israel cannot possibly absorb an unlimited number of economic migrants.  Conceding that the angry rhetoric against Africans by Israeli leaders is counter-productive, Wilf argued that those outside Israel frequently over-react to the customary hyperbole of Israeli political expression.


(As for this last point . . . Wilf is obviously right that Israeli politicians exaggerate for effect, and that Minister Yishai knows full well that mass deportations are not on the horizon.  But .  . how can Israelis expect the world to take seriously the ugly rhetorical fulminations of Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, while at the same time excusing their own leaders’ hyperbole as raised voices in a family quarrel?)


In any case, the issue of the African migrants to Israel is powerful, important, and under-reported.  Jews, better than most, understand the pains and perils of crossing borders to flee persecution and violence.  Israel, like other open societies, has a steep price to pay for its spirit of freedom and its economic prosperity — it has become a magnet for distressed peoples.  How can it maintain its commitment to being a homeland for the Jewish people, while at the same time doing its share to shelter others in flight from violence?   Are there any Israeli leaders who have the will to confront the various forms of racism, discrimination, and inequality that are corroding the fabric of Israeli life?   These problems are by no means unique to Israel — but for better and worse (and mostly for worse), Israel is under an international microscope.  How it treats some of the world’s most vulnerable people will have ramifications beyond the consequences for individual men, women, and children.



n.b. For an account of work in south Tel Aviv with an NGO serving migrant populations in Israel, see 2011 Sorensen Fellow Shani Rosenbaum’s essay, “Giving Voice.”

Desert Roots: Empathy and Judgment

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My colleague Mitra Shavarini’s new book, Desert Roots, is a moving and honest memoir.  It traces the history of her family in Iran from the early part of the 20th century, through their immigration to the United States in the wake of the 1979 revolution, to her parents’ anguished decision to return to their homeland in 2005.

Last night, we celebrated the book’s publication at the Laurie Theater at Brandeis, in an unusual format.  Mitra talked about the difficult process of writing the book – of laying bare a family’s painful secrets – and read a series of passages.   The reading was followed by two powerful but very different responses.  Brandeis undergraduate Leila May Pascual performed a song that she wrote in response to Desert Roots about her own experience of coming to the United States (in her case, from the Phillippines); and Brandeis sociologist Kristen Lucken  gave a short talk placing the book in the context of immigrant experiences more generally.

Then, Brandeis alumni Will Chalmus ’07 (Ethics Center Student Fellow, 2006) and Sheila Donio (who worked with our Peacebuilding and the Arts program)  and their colleagues in the Boston area Playback Theater troupe presented a series of improvised performances based on audience members’ responses to Mitra’s reading and book, and based on audience members’ own immigration experiences.

There are a dozen good reasons to read Desert Roots, among which is Mitra’s graceful writing, informed by her study of the technique of social science portraiture which she teaches to the Sorensen Fellows each year.    The story of her great-grandparents and grandparents in Iran is a vivid tale of larger-than-life patriots wrestling with the complexities of British colonialism, colored by violent deaths and tragic family separations.  The 1979 Iranian revolution looms large, as it spurred both her father and her husband-to-be, on separate trajectories, to make their way alone to the United States.  And Mitra’s extraordinary candor about the painful family rifts in the new world makes for a searing account of the immigrant experience in the late 20th century.

Mitra Shavarini

I was particularly struck by how deftly Mitra manages to balance empathy and judgment.  Her account is devoid of false sentimentality.  She portrays unsparingly the ways in which her father Reza took out his frustrations on his wife and his daughter, treating them at times with what can only be called cruelty.   Yet she manages also, by showing Reza’s own sufferings as a young man (and as an older man in his dislocation in the United States) to draw out a reader’s compassion.   Mitra does not hide her bitterness over the harm that her father did to others – and her reader shares this judgment – but the whole force of her account shows that empathy does not mean that judgment must be suspended.  We need to understand the sources of anger, but this does not mean that we let cruelty off the hook.

Mitra is also bravely honest about her own failings.  In writing about her own experience with anorexia as a teenager in Rhode Island, she helps us understand the roots of her suffering in her uncertain state between two cultures.  But Mitra also makes her reader confront the harm that she herself visited on those around us – particularly her mother.  She doesn’t let herself off the hook simply because she was suffering, or because she was not yet an adult.    Desert Roots takes us deep into the life of two nations, and an extended family, and it refuses to let anyone – family member or reader—escape unscathed.

The tyranny of small ideas

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In today’s New York Times, David Brooks (Brandeis H ’11) chides President Obama for failing in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention last night  to articulate “big ideas.”  The “modest” ideas in his personal platform, Brooks argues (citing as an example a proposal to train more math and science teachers) are no match for the scale of the issues facing the country and the world.

Whether Brooks is right that Obama has eschewed big ideas may be debatable.  Certainly the president’s Republican opponents have claimed vigorously that the Obama agenda has been far too big.  If health care reform is any indication, it doesn’t seem like the president is hesitant to tackle large problems.

But the complaint got me thinking about the whole nature of big ideas – and whether we in higher education contribute enough to the kind of sweeping approach to large-scale trends and problems that Brooks is calling for.

Sure, academics frequently produce grand theories and ambitious proposals for change, and no one doubts their importance.  But there is another approach to “big ideas” that is, perhaps, less typical of higher education, but equally vital.  That kind of big idea is less a theory than a process – an approach to human concerns that is collective in nature, sustained over time, not static but dynamic, encompassing debate and revision, drawing on a full range of disciplinary approaches, and engaging communities beyond the college campus.   It’s the kind of process that allows higher education to be a meaningful partner in change across society.

Now academics bring a healthy skepticism to the whole idea of size in idea-making.  Expounding big ideas is pretty easy.  Grounding those ideas in a thorough understanding of the problem – that’s a step that many people in public life tend to skip.  We in higher education tend to see our role as gathering, analyzing, and understanding the data necessary to make bigger ideas possible.

In addition, we tend to put a premium on the value of exchange of ideas, on nurturing an environment where different points-of-view – often radically different points-of-view – can be heard, discussed, debated.  The value of academic freedom makes us wary of collective projects that have too much institutional weight behind them – such designs threaten to crowd out alternative voices.

These are useful correctives, but they still leave me wondering whether we in higher education do enough to contribute and model the kind of shared approach to large-scale issues that we want to see in our public life.   After all, within colleges and universities – especially those with a liberal arts bent – we have extraordinary resources to bring to bear if we are willing to harness our efforts.  What other institutions can bring to bear on large-scale problems such a broad range of  expertise?    What other institutions have such ready access to the vigorous if raw talents and energy of young people, who are the drivers of the world’s future?   And which other institutions are better protected from the demands of politics and profit that so often limit the possibilities of productive collective thinking?  (Of course there are serious political and economic pressures on higher education, but compared to most other areas of human endeavor, the members of our communities are better if not perfectly protected from those pressures.)

Yes, we encourage and nurture forms of big ideas all the time – through individual scholarship, publications, conferences, and all of the accouterments of academic life. At other times, perhaps, we get sidetracked by the tyranny of small ideas, focused so narrowly that we fail to make the connections that bring those ideas to life.

Nevertheless I suspect that there is a way to complement these more individual, time-bound projects with a more enduring and collaborative process – to repeat, an approach to human concerns that is collective in nature, sustained over time, not static but dynamic, encompassing debate and revision, drawing on a full range of disciplinary approaches, and engaging communities beyond the college campus.

To do so would take a good deal of will, leadership, and resources.  But it would also do a great deal to make higher education an even more productive partner in the great enterprise of social change.

Sorensen Fellows Return from Summers of Service and Learning

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One of the pleasures of the return of students for the fall semester at Brandeis is to listen to students wrestle with the meaning of some extraordinary summer experiences.

At the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life, we welcome back this year’s crop of Sorensen Fellows, a half-dozen undergraduates who spread out across the world and embed themselves in NGOs and other organizations working on issues of peace, justice, rights, and poverty.   This year’s group worked in Northern Ireland, Swaziland, the West Bank, Tanzania, and Rwanda.


Now they will spend the fall together meeting in a weekly class sponsored by the Center where instructor Mitra Shavarini will guide them through an intensive intellectual exploration of their experiences, which will culminate in a published collection of essays using the “portraiture” social science technique pioneered by Harvard professor Sara Lawrence Lightfoot.

In the meantime, they’re already spreading the word around campus, hoping that their experiences can spark conversations about the meaning of social change and its complexities.   This week’s Justice features an account of the experiences of Andrea Verdeja ’14, who worked under challenging circumstances with the Al-Feniq Center in the Deheisha refugee camp near Bethlehem on the West Bank.

Andrea Verdeja ’14 worked as a Sorensen Fellow in the West Bank.

It’s also exciting to see the activities of past Sorensen Fellows bear fruit.  Two students from our 2011 group have founded their own NGOs to assist in an ongoing way the communities they have gotten to know.  Paul Sukijthamapan ’13 spent the summer of 2011 in East Timor, where he worked in a medical clinic and under the tutelage of an American physician there came to understand the complexities of access to care there.  (He wrote a terrific account of his experiences in the class with the other Sorensen Fellows.)    Paul then went out and founded Project Plus One, an NGO designed to support and sustain medical care in the East Timor community where he lived.  Two more Brandeis students, Max Xu ’13 and Jake Lurie ’14, spent the summer in Timor Leste extending Paul’s work, as described in an excellent account on Brandeis NOW this week.

Jessye Kass ’13 actually helped found the Attukwei Art Foundation in Accra, Ghana, even before she spent the summer of 2011 there as a Sorensen Fellow and wrote her own account of that experience that fall.  The NGO provides arts programs for children in some of Accra’s poorest communities.  Four more Brandeis students joined Jessye in the summer of 2012 to work at Attuwei.

The energy and dedication that Paul and Jessye have shown in continuing and extending their work is inspiring.  Their work raises interesting and important questions, too, about the nature of social entrepreneurship – both its impressive achievements and the challenges that young people face when trying to create effective and sustainable solutions to big problems.  But these questions are for another day.  For now, it’s a pleasure to welcome them back to Brandeis and to salute their extraordinary work in the spirit of the Center’s founding board chair, Theodore C. Sorensen.

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