Q & A with Liad Shoham

Liad Shoham’s latest book, Asylum City has a riveting plot that involves a mystery based around social issues. This is not a typical thriller since the reader is engrossed not only in the crime plot but also the current issue facing Israelis. Since the author is a practicing attorney, the descriptions are realistic and accurate. He uses his job experiences to write a gripping novel that is in many ways similar to the US immigration problem: should border security be implanted before solving the immigration problem, what to do with those illegally in the country, and is there a humanity issue. The problem in Israel has arisen from the Eritrea Africans who are trying to escape persecution by migrating to Israel through the Sinai Peninsula.

Elise Cooper: I was surprised to read 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 with similar lines. These people are needed by the economy but many times are unwelcome. They also can cause some kind of threat to the identity of the nation they enter and appear to be transparent to the police. I wrote specifically what was happening in Israel but it takes on international implications.

EC: Can you explain the difference of allowing Ethiopians to stay versus Eritreans?

LS: The basic law of Israel states that every Jew in the world that comes here is entitled to automatic citizenship. Ethiopian Jews were granted citizenship after coming here for the simple fact they were Jewish. Eritreans are not Jews, but Christians, so when they came 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 a visa?

LS: No. Most people not Jewish who want to come to Israel are granted a visa 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 very interesting how you explore all the different sides 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 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 explore in your book through a character’s eyes how the asylum seekers are treated. Please explain.

LS: First, let me state that it does not matter the color of their skin, which is irrelevant. Israel has accepted Jews from all over the world: Ethiopian, Chinese, Hispanic, Eastern European, and Western European, but the underlying thread is they are all Jews. The government does not exploit them, but also do not grant them any opportunities. The problem is those who try to exploit them, that is 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 the 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 that are hired to move them across the desert have kidnapped them for sex trafficking, held them hostage for ransoms, tortured the men, and raped 90% 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 that transfer money to the asylum seeker’s family.

EC: Why do you keep calling 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 the quote by Menachem Begin best summarizes 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 the readers to get out of the book?

LS: A good entertaining crime novel. Beyond that, the understanding Israel is unable to financially open its arms 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 to 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.