On Wednesday night, after two days of listening to intense discussions on
Israel’s strategic problems at a conference at work, I find myself in south Tel
Aviv. As we drive past the ruins of the old bus station and into Africa, it
feels like the day I went back to visit the home where I was brought up in
Yeoville, Johannesburg, this well after the end of apartheid and after the
Nigerians and Angolans moved in.
For the first time in more than four
decades in Israel, I tell my wife that there is no way she’s parking on the
ill-lit streets around us, (and we live in Abu Tor in Jerusalem, where our car
insurance agent suggests we leave a rattlesnake in the car at night). We spend
some time looking for a safe haven, settling on in front of a
two-story-shabeen-type restaurant crammed into a single-floor apartment on such
and such street, which was well lit and had humans around, all Africans. Even
the frame shop next door had black models in the frames they were trying to
Across the road was Levinsky Park. In the middle a long, silent and
respectful line of people recently arrived from Sudan and Eritrea. Food and soup
was being handed out by beatnik types, one called, immodestly, Mother Theresa,
but who very well could merit the name. Night after night these good people come
out and feed these refugees, by any definition of the word, who come into Israel
after a nightmare journey, are put on a bus by soldiers, and after a cursory
check of their identity, are loaded on a bus again and let off in the middle of
urban Tel Aviv with absolutely nothing in their possession, other than, perhaps,
the phone number of a relative who survived the journey through war-torn Sudan
and cut-throat Beduin in Sinai before them.
I then follow my determined
spouse down to the Shapira quarter, always a desperately poor place in the city
and home to some its most famous soccer hooligans, where locals are protesting
the rise in crime, drop in property values, harassment and their parks being
taken over by ever-increasing numbers of unemployed, penniless African refugees
who are dropped off by the buses every day, sometimes several times a day and,
as a result, become and create victims, through no fault of their own.
the conference I attended, the prime minister pledged that he would find a
solution to the problem. The security fence along the Egyptian border, he said,
was nearing completion. As for the 60,000 Africans here, he continued,
international law makes it complicated; that their countries of origin have to
willingly accept these refugees back, or a third party has to be found to accept
them, something the Foreign Ministry is, according to Binyamin Netanyahu,
diligently working on. In the meantime, he said, there was not much that could
be done other than providing more policing and crime prevention.
is. Instead of being put on a bus and taken to the middle of Tel Aviv, refuges
should be taken to an instantly built kibbutz somewhere in the South. Those
hanging around Levinsky Park, who are happy to clean toilets to stay alive and
become objects of near-slave labor conditions at the hand of heartless
contractors and cleaning firms, would be taken there as well.
would be a clinic, kindergarten and schools.
But more important, here
they would learn trades and skills they can either take home with them, or to
the new countries they decide to immigrate to. These can be in first-aid and
nursing, arid agriculture, water conservation, dairy management, education and
In the time they spend here these poor people, who have
been through the inferno of East Africa, escaping war and madness in their own
wretched countries, people with no hope or possessions, dropped off into the
cruel world of money-hungry people and poor, frightened and unwilling Israelis,
could be given hope and a profession, something of value to take back home with
them, or to the countries that agree to let them come in.
From a burden,
these refugees who have reached the supposed Promised Land can learn and benefit
from the experience; Israel would be doing something good for the world, the
same type of magnanimous gesture that Menachem Begin made when he welcomed
Vietnamese boat people into Israel in the late 1970s, when others refused to do
Israel has so much to offer.
This is the time. We don’t need
more police to control the situation, but a policy that is smart, constructive
and has Israel be what it was supposed to be: A light unto the nations. An
amnesty date will be set, and monetary incentives will be offered to those who
come into the program and when they leave to start new lives. They will be
Israel’s best ambassadors; not the magnets for hatred and fear and the unwitting
spark of racism in Israel.
I saw many things from my perch on a shaky
table outside Babba Pizza at the heart of Wednesday night’s demonstration. I saw
the hooligans stirring up the crowds, and the fascists who take advantage of any
opportunity for a fight, and a culture- clash between those demonstrating
against the Africans, and those who came out on behalf of the
There was not a Black to be seen, by the way. This was Israel
at war with itself.
Here we have the opportunity for real Tikkun Olam. It
would be a sin not to take it.
The writer is a senior research associate
at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.