- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 11, 2005

TEL AVIV — His face half-shrouded in darkness, the Nigerian laborer stares out at Dizengoff Street from the window of the Rosenfeld Gallery as if to tempt Israeli passers-by into an obscure world.

Beneath the image, a few words of text explain the melancholy stare of the man identified only as “Kaster.”

“They can’t send me back to Nigeria. People will find me there and kill me,” the foreign worker is quoted as saying.

The image is one of nearly 80 photographs in “Below 7,” an exhibit of pictures taken by Israeli photojournalist Ilan Spira that shed a disturbing light on Israel’s foreign workers living in the shadow of forced expulsion.

Hundreds of thousands of foreign workers flooded the country over the past decade to perform cleaning and hard-labor jobs shunned by Israelis after Palestinians were barred from entry. Now faced with double-digit unemployment, Israel’s government wants the illegal foreign workers to leave.

Mr. Spira, 29, has infiltrated the Filipino and African workers like no other Israeli. In fewer than four years, he progressed from birthday photographer to funeral photographer to a one-person case worker helping the migrants navigate a hostile environment of immigration police and government bureaucrats.

The images and stories brought together in “Below 7” are part journalism, part historical document and part art. Mr. Spira’s work has brought the lives of a largely ignored community out of the shabby back streets of south Tel Aviv into the open.

“I wanted to show their life in a way that no one in Israel knows,” said Mr. Spira, a newspaper photographer for Yediot Ahronot. “I chose to do that by showing their children and their weddings. I wanted to show that they have culture, and that they are human beings like everyone else.

“On the other hand, I wanted to show what they’re going through — like the funerals, and especially the violence and the deportations.”

The show has been given wide media coverage in Israel.

Diana Dallal, who manages the Rosenfeld Gallery and helped set up the exhibition, said the show is unique for its scope, depth and emotional exploration of the lives of foreign workers.

“At the beginning, it was a closed community. Slowly, slowly they gave him entree that no one else had,” she said of Mr. Spira. “What we hear on the news is mainly statistics; it’s news that is remote,” she said, referring to reports on the expulsions.

Mr. Spira struck up a relationship with migrant workers in Tel Aviv nearly four years ago, photographing their children at Bialik Elementary School. As communities of African and Filipino workers burgeoned in south Tel Aviv, Mr. Spira was hired to photograph children’s birthday parties and then weddings, giving him access and familiarity available to few Israelis.

When the Israeli government decided to crack down on illegal workers, Mr. Spira found himself witness to numerous instances of what looked like police brutality and harassment. In addition to weddings, he began photographing broken limbs and scenes of sobbing at farewell parties for expelled migrants.

In doing so, Mr. Spira learned the language and even the codes of a distressed community.

“Below 7” refers to a pregnant women who stays out of public view for fear of expulsion. After the seventh month of pregnancy, however, the expectant mothers are immune from the immigration police even if they are in Israel illegally.

The images show the bitter ironies of the foreign workers’ existence in this country.

One photo shows the jubilation of a girl, her grin almost too wide for her face, at an end-of-the year ceremony at a Tel Aviv public school. Elsewhere, another child not much older wears a frilly dress but her youth is belied by evidence of trauma beyond her years; the title of the photo is “Twenty-three days imprisoned.”

Another image shows a pudgy African boy modeling his Purim holiday costume portraying an Israeli police officer. A migrant worker beaten by police is attended by a doctor in a government hospital.

Israel’s immigration police countered the issues raised by the exhibition by saying in a statement that officers come into contact with 190,000 foreign workers, but only have received a few complaints.

“The instances described [in the exhibition] don’t reflect the real treatment. The presentation of policemen as violent is a huge injustice to the police, who are executing a difficult mission,” the statement said.

Angie Robles, 51, a Filipina cleaner whose mother, Claudia, 74, used to be known as the “oldest foreign worker” in Israel, said that even after her mother was expelled last August, the immigration police continue their predawn raids on her apartment. Mrs. Robles, who is also an illegal immigrant, believes she is being spared expulsion because she is the primary caregiver for her mother’s many grandchildren.

Mrs. Robles said she hopes the exhibition opens the eyes of Israeli politicians.

“If those who are in charge … see this and they feel what we feel, maybe they will feel soft-hearted instead of stone-hearted. Maybe they will see it and say, ‘What are we doing?’” she said.

Mr. Spira said his pictures will remain a testimony to the life of foreign workers.

“The police cannot deny that they break legs. The photos are here. I have the proof,” he said.

“You should expect that after what happened to us [as Jews], we should appreciate what is happening to the foreign workers. You would expect that we know how to treat other people in a different a way.”

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