Jewish Book Council recently spoke with Liad Shoham about his new book, Asylum City.
Elise Cooper: I didn’t know Israel has an illegal immigration problem. Did you write the book to inform readers?
Liad Shoham: I described something happening in Israel, but illegal immigration is a global problem. These people are needed by the economy but many times are unwelcome. They also can pose a threat to the identity of the nation they enter. I wrote specifically about what was happening in Israel, but it has international implications.
EC: Can you explain why Ethiopians are allowed to stay but not Eritreans?
LS: The basic law of Israel states that every Jew in the world who comes here is entitled to automatic citizenship. Ethiopian Jews were granted citizenship after coming here simply because they were Jewish. Eritreans are not Jews, but Christians, so when they come here they are considered illegal immigrants.
EC: Please explain why Israel does not just deport the Eritreans.
LS: I write about it in the book. Eritrea has a very harsh regime. Anyone persecuted in their country, as in this case, will not be deported. It goes back to why Israel was established in the first place, that not many countries would protect the Jews from the Nazis during World War II. Because the Eritrean regime is totalitarian, Israel’s policy is that they will never be deported.
EC: Were they granted visas?
LS: No. Most non-Jews who want to come to Israel are granted visas and allowed to stay a few months. However, the Eritreans have come to Israel illegally by crossing our border from the Sinai Peninsula. It is a very complicated situation.
EC: It was interesting how you explore all the different sides of this problem through the murder mystery. Please explain.
LS: I had Gabriel, one of the asylum seekers, confess to a murder to rescue his sister. I wanted to explore all the different angles and give it a panoramic view. Many Israelis are sympathetic to them but realistically understand that Israel is not able to support them financially. A few think they should be given full rights and citizenship. Another viewpoint is to deport them back immediately. But the overwhelming majority feels they should not be deported and they should be given minimum basic rights while at the same time making sure the border is secure with the building of a wall. I included these opinions while presenting the ‘people of interest’ in the murder mystery.
EC: You show us through a character’s eyes how the asylum seekers are treated. Please explain.
LS: First, let me state that the color of their skin is irrelevant. Israel has accepted Jews from all over the world: Ethiopian, Chinese, Hispanic, Eastern European, and Western European, but the underlying thread is that they are all Jews. The government does not exploit [the asylum seekers], but also does not grant them any opportunities. The problem is those who try to exploit them, exemplified by the quote in my book, “I’ll never get how people who grew up in this country can exploit other refugees.” Because of this and to prevent an increase in crime, the police told the government that asylum seekers should be allowed to work. Currently our government is turning a blind eye, realizing the jobs they are taking are ones Israelis don’t want — the menial jobs of washing dishes, cleaning streets, and picking fruits.
EC: How are they exploited?
LS: The Bedouins who are hired to move them across the desert have kidnapped them for sex trafficking, held them hostage for ransoms, tortured the men, and raped many of the women. Israel is unable to control the crimes, because they take place outside our border. Within Israel there are those who have set up businesses surrounding the asylum seekers’ needs. For example, just as in the book, since they are not allowed to open bank accounts, Mafia bosses have become their bankers, transferring money to the asylum seekers’ families.
EC: Why do you call them “asylum seekers”?
LS: That is the legal term. They are not refugees because they will not be granted the rights of citizenship, with free education and health services. Nor are they illegal immigrants because we cannot deport them as we could if someone crossed the border illegally who was from France, for example. Israel never deports any group that is persecuted. I believe Menachem Begin best summarized the intention, paraphrasing: ‘Israel cannot stand by when people are being persecuted and are not accepted by any other country.’
EC: What do you want your readers to get out of the book?
LS: A good entertaining crime novel. Beyond that, understanding that Israel is unable to open its arms financially to all immigrants. We cannot grant citizenship because we need to preserve the Jewish identity of Israel. After all, Israel is a Jewish state. 99% of Israelis agree and feel Israel has the right to keep its borders and prevent permanent status to people who want to stay here. The question arises, what will happen to those already here, approximately 70,000 out of a total Israeli population of 8 million? When I started researching the book I thought a lot of Israelis would tell me “securing our Sinai border, and preventing people from coming here is unacceptable.” One of my surprises is that nobody claimed it. Everyone believes Israel is not the solution for Africa and since they came here illegally they should not be made citizens.
EC: Can you give a heads up about your next book?
LS: It will be called Blood Oranges and deals with corruption in municipalities. Anat will be a character in the book. She moves to a small city about twenty miles outside Tel Aviv where she finds herself investigating the death of a journalist.
Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national security articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A’s for many different outlets including the Military Press. She has had the pleasure to interview bestselling authors from many different genres.