Writing is the Closing of Circles: Nava Semel

‘WRITING IS THE CLOSING OF CIRCLES’: NAVA SEMEL

From R. Lentin, Israel and the Daughters of the Shoah: Re-occupying the Territories of Silence, (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2000)

Introduction

I met Nava Semel on November 25, 1992 in the apartment she shares with her husband Noam Semel, director of the Tel Aviv Cameri Theatre, and their three children, Iyar and twins Eal-Eal and Nimdor. Semel was born in 1954 in Tel Aviv. Her father, Itzhak Artzi, a former Knesset member and deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, was born in Bukovina and is not a concentration camp survivor. Her mother, Margalit (Mimi) Artzi (nee Liquornik), also born in Bukovina, is a survivor of several concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Kleineshenau. The twins, born in the US while Noam Semel served with the Israeli consulate in New York, have American passports. ‘This too is part of my being a daughter of survivors,’ Semel explained, ‘at least when the helicopters come to rescue the survivors here, they would be saved.’ Semel’s brother, Shlomo Artzi, is a leading Israeli popular singer. Semel is small, short haired, and very intense. Her use of the Hebrew language is very precise. She had obviously done a lot of thinking about being a daughter of Shoah survivors and has written both fiction and journalism about it.

Nava Semel describes her childhood as an ‘ordinary Israeli childhood.’ She served in the army as a news producer with Galei Tsahal, the army radio channel. She began writing when she had her first child. Her collection of short stories, the first ‘second generation’ fiction collection published in Israel, Kova Zekhukhit (A Hat of Glass) (1985), met with a wall of silence when it first appeared, but has been written about extensively since then. The collection was re-issued in 1998 with an introduction by the literary critic Nurit Govrin. Several stories have been translated into English, German, Spanish, Turkish and French and appeared translations in Germany and Italy in 2000.

In all the stories there is a ‘child of’ persona and they are all based on the various stages of learning about and coming to terms with her parents’ survival as Semel explains in the following narrative. Indeed, in all her books, the reality is often viewed from a child’s point of view.

Her one-woman play Hayeled meAchorei Haeinayim (The Child Behind the Eyes) (1987), a monologue of a mother of a Down Syndrome child, had many showings in Israel and abroad and several radio broadcasts internationally. In 1996 it won the Austrian radio play of the year award. Her two novels for young people, Gershona Shona (Becoming Gershona) (1988/1990), and Maurice Havivel Melamed Lauf (Flying Lessons) (1991/1995) deal with young people living among Shoah survivors in search of an Israeli identity. Both were translated into English. In 1996 Flying Lessons was selected in Germany as one of the 30 best books of the year. The novel Rali Masa Matara (Night Games) (1993) is the story of a group of Israeli forty-something friends playing a treasure hunt on the 1987 Day of Independence, half a year before the Intifada broke out. The novel Isha al Neyar (Bride on Paper) (1996) tells of life in a pre-state Israeli moshava (collective settlement) in the 1930s. Semel also translates plays, mostly on Shoah-related themes.

In 1996 Semel won the Prime Minister’s Award, a twelve-months writing scholarship. In 1999 she collaborated with her father in writing his biography (Artzi and Semel, 1999), documenting the story of a young Zionist journeying from Europe to Israel. And writing the script for a documentary film on Transnistria, based on her journey to the death camps in 1998.

Since our initial meeting, which proved seminal to writing this book, Semel and I remained in close contact. I have chosen to present her entire narrative not as an ‘ideal type,’ but because it seems to be the ‘key story’ to the interpretation of the other narratives. The narrative encompasses most of the elements highlighted by the other narrators and theorised in later chapters. These include breaking the silence surrounding the Shoah and Shoah survivors, the confrontation between the Jewish Shoah and Israel’s ‘new Hebrews,’ ceremonial memory versus intimate memory and the ‘masculinised’ Israeli ‘normality’ versus the stigmatisation of Shoah survivors. Moreover, perhaps because my parents, like her parents, came from Bukovina, the trajectory Semel’s narrative presents, her ‘thematic field,’ from the split subjectivity of being a silenced child of survivors, stigmatised in the new state of Israel, and a member of (our) first sabra generation, to being a writer who is re-interpreting the puzzle of Shoah daughterhood, resonates most with my own trajectory.

Semel has been central to my work, not in the sense of being a ‘key informant,’ nor in the sense of being a ‘co-author,’ but our collaboration raises important issues about voice and authorship. Like the other narrators, Semel has been engaged in ‘researching’ the meaning of being a daughter of Shoah survivors in Israeli society, and, like the other narrators, she is a ‘woman of voice,’ who has broken the silence about the Shoah in her own family and in Israeli society by writing herself onto Israel’s cognitive map. The feminist strategy of ‘giving voice’ to voiceless people might seem superfluous, if it was not for Semel’s and the other narrators’ recurring stories about silence. While this book is based on their narratives, ‘it is the researcher who narrates, who “authors” the ethnography’ (Stacey, 1991: 23). The question of authority and authorship is particularly thorny when researchers insist on a collaboration process with their informants, but ultimately produce the research text themselves, no matter how modified or influenced by the narrators. My work with Nava Semel and the other narrators was dialogic, yet the question of ‘giving voice’ remains open. Dialogue as a research strategy employs Myerhoff’s notion (1992) of the ‘third voice,’ born by the virtue of the collusion between researcher – a sociological narrator, embodied, situated and ultimately responsible for her own words, her own ‘multiple selves’ – and narrators. Read more

Time to close the Direct Provision system

To be published in Metro Eireann

arn-stop-dpOn Saturday 18 November a rally organised by United against Racism heard moving speeches by several asylum seekers living the Direct Provision for-profit incarceration system where men, women and children are held often for up to ten years. The Irish Times reported Mavis who has lived in Direct Provision with her three children for fifteen months, as saying: “For me every day is a struggle, to watch my children suffering and getting sick. I wish one day somebody, an Irish citizen would go into my life for one week and they would know what a hell it is. I don’t even have words. Waiting and waiting for a decision is one of the hardest things a mother can do. What can we do? We have to pray and hope.”

The rally was part of the campaign to close the Direct Provision system, end deportations and grant asylum seekers the right to work, as per the Supreme Court recent ruling. According to Lucky Khambule of the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI), the restrictions imposed by the government on asylum seekers’ right to work, including not working while appealing their applications for refugee status, amount to a total denial of asylum seekers’ right to work.

Beside bed and board – including inappropriate, out of date and insufficient food – asylum seekers are forced to exist on a weekly “comfort allowance” of €21.60, and their lives are decided by for-profit managements that dictate who shares their rooms, what and when they eat, who can visit them, when they can do their washing and what facilities their children enjoy.

As I have written many times before, Ireland must close the Direct Provision system that racializes, dehumanizes and segregates asylum seekers, whose plight Irish society “manages not to know.” This continues decades of disavowal, as Una Mullally has recently written in The Irish Times, “The Mother and Baby Homes and Magdalene Laundries were hiding in plain sight for years. We knew they existed, we knew – in broad brushstrokes – what went on there. Direct Provision centres hide more successfully in our communities, towns and cities. Many of us are not aware of their locations. That makes their presence even more insidious. But we know that they’re there. We know this system exists. We can’t keep repeating the process of unjustly hiding people away. They are not less than. They are people just like us, with families and aspirations.”

Together with the current rise of racism and Islamophobia, asylum seekers are being targeted by many racial states. In Australia’s inhuman off shore concentration camps asylum seekers are deprived of water and food and are beginning to be infected by cholera, as the camps are being closed. Israel too is beginning to close its concentration camps in the south of the country, forcing asylum seekers to either be willingly deported to Rwanda (which is being paid $5,000 dollars for each person it admits) or face indefinite jail. Ireland’s Direct Provision system, while not quite so deadly, condemns asylum seekers to a frozen existence in DP centres where private for-profit operators such as the international catering company Aramark are paid millions of euro to maintain Ireland’s version of what the African American activist Angela Davis terms ‘the prison industrial complex.’

Besides the obvious benefits to the Irish economy of allowing asylum seekers to work, pay taxes and spend money, and beside the obvious human benefits to Irish society of their talents and enterprise, there is also the moral imperative of Ireland’s choice to close the dehumanizing Direct Provision system, end all deportations, and use Ireland’s new wealth to include asylum seekers in solving our appalling housing crisis. The time to act is now.

Incarceration, disavowal and Ireland’s prison industrial complex

Incarceration, disavowal and Ireland’s prison industrial complex

Paper presented at the ‘Irish Prisons: incarceration, repression and control’ conference, Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast 26-27 October 2017.

Introduction

In September 2014 residents of several asylum centres in Ireland staged protests against their incarceration. Since April 2000 asylum seekers have been dispersed to ‘Direct Provision’ centres, managed by private for-profit companies under the supervision of the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA), an arm of the Department of Justice and Equality, costing the state around 50 million euro per annum. Residents, who get bed and board, are not allowed to work or access third level education, and until August 2017 were given a small weekly ‘residual income maintenance payment to cover personal requisites’ of €19.10 per adult and €9.60 per child, increased to €21.60 per adult and first to €15.60 and then to €21.60 per child per week (Bardon 2017). Steven Loyal (2011) describes the Direct Provision centres as Goffman’s (1991[1961]) ‘total institutions’, where residents are controlled as to what and when they eat, who they share rooms with, who can visit them, and what access they have to crèches, laundries, kitchen facilities and appliances, and argues that ‘the negatively socially valued category of “asylum-seeker” becomes their master status.’

Although the Direct Provision system was originally intended for no more than a six months stay, 19.5 per cent have stayed for over three years. The average length of stay was 38 months while 450 people had been living in Direct Provision for more than seven years, leading to people becoming de-skilled, bored, depressed, destitute, and institutionalised. By September 2017, there were 5,063 people in Direct Provision centres. Seven of the centres are State-owned, the others are operated by for profit companies (Gartland, 2016) – making the Direct Provision system part of what Angela Davis term the ‘prison industrial complex’.

Many asylum seekers live with deportation orders in a state of deportability (Lentin and Moreo 2015), arguably making them what the Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben (1995) calls ‘bare life’, at the mercy of the laws of the sovereign state, which exempts itself from these very laws. And as Eithne Luibhéid (2013: 91) argues, ‘Direct Provision institutionalized the construct of the “asylum-seeker” as a distinct, undesirable type of person who must be subjected to relations of governance that were intended to deter, control, and incapacitate’.

The Direct Provision protesters demanded that all asylum centres be closed, that all residents be given the right to remain and work in Ireland, and that all deportations end. These demands are articulated by MASI, the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, a platform for asylum seekers to join together in unity and purpose.

In October 2014, apparently in response to these protests, the government appointed a working group ‘to report to Government on improvements to the protection process, including Direct Provision and supports to asylum seekers.’ The Working Group was made up of representatives of migrant-support NGOs but had no significant representation of asylum seekers themselves. While the then deputy Justice Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin admitted that the Direct Provision system is ‘inhumane’, and that ‘the way we treat asylum seekers and people in the (Direct Provision) system says a lot about us as a country’, the Working Group was charged with reforming rather than closing the Direct Provision system (The Journal 2014).

The Working Group’s recommendations were largely not adopted by the government (although the Minister for Justice said in October at the Senead that 98 per cent were adopted), and the Direct Provision system remains in place. However, in 2016 the government increased the ‘comfort allowance’ paid to asylum seekers in Direct Provision centres by an insulting amount. In 2016 the government introduced the International Protection Act based on a Single Application Procedure. The new act raises serious concerns in relation to firstly, the erosion of refugee families’ reunification rights; secondly, the impact on the applicants already in the asylum process in relation to the availability of appropriate legal advice and sufficient time and resources to shorten the waiting time; and thirdly, the ease with which deportations could be effected. In May 2017 the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that the absolute ban on asylum seekers working was unconstitutional (Carolan 2017), and in October 2017 the Minister for Justice announced the intention to give asylum seekers in Ireland the right to work after six months in Direct Provision, a problematic announcement as very few details have been worked out. Lucky Khambule will elaborate on these developments.

Against this background, this paper makes three interlinked propositions. Firstly, I propose that as Irish state and society managed to ignore Ireland’s system of ‘coercive confinement’: workhouses, mental health asylums, mother and baby homes, Magdalene Laundries and industrial schools (O’Sullivan and O’Donnell 2012), they also ‘manage not to know’ about the plight of asylum seekers in Direct Provision. The Direct Provision system isolates asylum applicants, makes them dependent on state handouts and carceral rules, and makes it difficult for them to organize on a national level. ‘Managing not to know,’ or disavowing, erases the Direct Provision system from Ireland’s collective consciousness, but I suggest that asylum seekers signify the return of Ireland’s repressed, confronting Irish people, themselves e/migrants par excellence.

Secondly, I propose that we must not theorize residents of the Direct Provision system as passive victims at the mercy of sovereign power, to whom everything is done, but rather as active agents of resistance.

Thirdly, and more broadly, the incarceration of asylum seekers must be seen as continuing the tradition of administrative detention of political prisoners in the north of Ireland and of the widespread Irish practice of incarceration. I therefore theorize the Direct Provision system as the current embodiment of the island of Ireland as two parallel carceral states, where the prison industrial complex has historically incarcerated one in every hundred people in the Republic and administratively detained political prisoners in the north. I conclude, following Angela Davis, by calling for the total abolition of imprisonment and incarceration. Read more