DeportationsAnthropologist Chronicles Israel's Deportation Campaign

Published 27 August 2019

The United States is not the only country using deportation to deal with a large number of undocumented illegal immigrants. A new book details nearly twenty years of similar deportation campaigns against undocumented migrant communities by another nation — Israel.

In June, President Trump promised that his administration would work to deport “millions of illegal aliens” from the U.S. via increased Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and a ramping up of Border Patrol agents.

Now, Associate Professor of Anthropology Sarah Willen has released a book chronicling nearly twenty years of similar deportation campaigns against undocumented migrant communities by another nation.

The book, titled Fighting for Dignity: Migrant Lives at Israel’s Margins, draws on Willen’s ethnographic fieldwork and personal relationships with migrants in Tel Aviv, Israel. In it, she shares stories of people’s lives: their migration experiences, and their daily struggles as migrants, but also as parents, friends, employees, parishioners, and community members.

“Beyond just struggle or suffering, the book gives voice to the hopes, dreams, and desires of the people I came to know,” she says. “It also explores how ideologies and government policies create dividing lines, and how they impose ideas of inclusion and exclusion.”

After the Second Intifada in 2000, military closures on the West Bank meant that Palestinians, who were vital to the Israeli workforce, could no longer get to their jobs. So, the government granted companies permission to recruit migrant workers from Thailand to work in agriculture, and from Eastern Europe and China to work in construction.

Other major sources of migrants were Filipino in-home caregivers, recruited to care for Israel’s aging population, and unauthorized migrants from Africa, South America, and elsewhere who came with Christian pilgrimage groups.

UConn notes that between the mid-90s and early 2000s, Israel—especially Tel Aviv—changed because of these migrations. By 2002, unemployment was high. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government estimated that there were about 300,000 unemployed Israelis and about 300,000 migrant workers.

At that time, Sharon launched a mass deportation campaign, targeting city dwellers and those who looked visibly different, says Willen. The campaign began by casting unauthorized migrants as criminals in radio public service announcements, suggesting that migrants were destroying Israeli society.

“The announcements had sinister music and a voice that essentially said, ‘These migrants are a problem and they need to go,’” she says.