Shiri Raphaely
Last updated: 28 May, 2012

Historical amnesia: Israel has forgotten where it came from

Our columnist Shiri Raphaely reflects on her time working at a human rights clinic in Israel in reaction to the anti-immigration riots in Tel Aviv on May 24th.

About a year ago I was watching a young Israeli physician examine an Eritrean boy at the Physicians for Human Rights clinic. He sat and looked at the ground as his cousin explained that he wasn’t sleeping at night, instead waking up sweating in terror. He said he was wetting the bed and that he couldn’t keep his food down. When he was asked to get up and walk to the examination table, he wrapped both his hands around his thin right thigh and lifted – left, lift, right, left, lift, right. Only 13, he was thin and weak because of his trek across the Sinai desert. Along the way he was kidnapped and held captive for three months by a Bedouin criminal organization where he was tortured, deprived of food and water and forced to wait as his family in Eritrea was extorted of thousands of dollars. That day in the clinic, wearing donated clothes that hung off his frame, was his second day in Tel Aviv.

Watching the compassion and attentiveness with which this Israeli doctor treated not only this patient, but also every other one who walked into her office was the final impetus to my decision to be a physician. The brief moment in which you can lay your hands on another person and bring your attention to focus solely on their story is an opportunity to transcend the barriers built by conflict, history and fabricated differences. In Israel, those barriers are constant fixtures. At Physicians for Human Rights – whose Tel Aviv clinic currently treats primarily African refugees – you see them crumble down, at least for a little while. It was at this clinic, because of these interactions, that I felt the most hopeful about where Israel might go, and where I could feel proud to be Jewish. That’s where I felt that our history as a people was being used to cultivate compassion.                   

But yesterday, about 1000 protesters took to the streets of Tel Aviv to call for the expulsion of African asylum seekers from Israel. Some wore T-shirts that said “Death to Sudanese.” They were organized by MKs who called the refugees a “cancer.” They dismantled a car driven by two black men that had driven into the chaos. Several people were hurt and other injuries were prevented only because activists warned African families and individuals to stay off the streets. This protest – not the first race riot in Israel – was not hidden or small. It was mainstream, public and disturbingly large.

How do I feel about this?

Disgusted. Ashamed. Saddened. It is sickening to think about the fact that Israel was built by refugees and the children of refugees (my family included) and yet, somehow in 64 years, we have forgotten. In a country that reinforces the memory of the Holocaust and encourages citizens not to forget the history of discrimination and delegitimization, how horrifyingly twisted are yesterday’s events? I write about that boy because his story does not sound so far from that of my grandmother’s. They are different but they are so much the same.

I hope that this is when American Jews can step in. These protests are part of a larger disturbing trend and we should not sit by as it happens in our name. We should urge Israel to choose options that protect the dignity of all human beings, and not a “chosen few.” We should encourage voices and actions of Israelis who live by these values – like those of the doctor who continues to inspire me. Our history and its lessons should be moving us to help and welcome those in need. I understand the challenges Israel faces, but those do not warrant, and never have warranted, a disregard for human life.

Please check out, and for more information and photos. Also, please go here to sign on to this letter by IRAC (the Israeli Religious Action Center) to President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to respond to the violence.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Your Middle East.