Protests and Christmas carols in Tel Aviv’s Neveh Sha’anan neighborhood

Night Light Festival illuminates streets with food, music and art.

December 24, 2016 19:46
4 minute read.
Anti-immigrant protestors wave flags as Christmas carolers sing from a balcony in the Neve Sha'anan

Anti-immigrant protestors wave flags as Christmas carolers sing from a balcony in the Neve Sha'anan neighborhood on Thursday ​​. (photo credit: OMER BITAS)


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Neveh Sha’anan in south Tel Aviv, home to around 30 nationalities, is likely the only place in Israel where you can have Chinese dumplings and a plate of injera bread topped with Eritrean salads on the same street, or where you can hear a Filipino foreign worker argue with a Sudanese asylum seeker over the price of an electric bicycle in their common language – Hebrew.

Neveh Sha’anan is also a neighborhood where many of the original low-income Jewish residents, who over the past decade have seen the local demographics flip to a Jewish-minority area, feel abandoned by the Tel Aviv Municipality and isolated in their own homes.

The simmering tensions between the Jewish residents and the foreign community – mainly asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea – were front and center when a municipality-sponsored “Chrismukkah” Night Light Festival illuminated the streets with food, music and interactive art installations, this past Thursday and Saturday nights.

“This is the crap of Tel Aviv, and we think that coming one night and putting up some lights doesn’t cover up the crap,” anti-immigrant activist and Neveh Sha’anan resident Sheffi Paz said. She wore a “Liberation Front of South Tel Aviv” T-shirt as a four-person chorus sang Christmas carols in the background. “We are against Africans taking part in any activity here. This is a very cynical way of the municipality and the leftists here to paint this place as the next big trend.”

In the mid-2000s, Israel experienced an influx of around 50,000 African asylum seekers (seeking refugee status in Israel or abroad), many of whom now have children, who concentrated in south Tel Aviv. Neveh Sha’anan, which sits across from the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station and has long been known for poverty and crime, experienced the most dramatic demographic shift. The government calls these asylum seekers “infiltrators” and wants to deport them when possible, leaving the Tel Aviv Municipality and a number of NGOs to foot the bill for their social welfare. Many asylum seekers keep to themselves for fear of deportation, and many declined to be interviewed for this story.

“The Israeli community is actually the weakest in the neighborhood, the immigrant communities are very tight-knit,” said Yasha Rozov, a neighborhood artist who organized the Night Light Festival along with filmmaker Ivry Baumgarten. “We think that anyone living in the neighborhood, Israeli or African, should be able to get access to all services, including culture, and every year when we do the festival the municipality makes a bit more effort to fix the neighborhood.”

The artists won a grant from the municipality in tens of thousands of shekels (the exact figure is still unclear, according to Rozov) to “illuminate the multicultural abundance and complexity of the neighborhood,” according to the artists.

The official event page is a bit blunter, calling for “a conversation between past and present with artists, residents and the general public,” in “the most vilified neighborhood in Tel Aviv.”

On Thursday, the streets of Neveh Sha’anan were vibrant with 22 art installations including colorful videos projected onto buildings and flamenco guitarists among other musicians. The festival succeeded in drawing hundreds of visitors to the little-visited neighborhood.

“What they did here is something amazing – it’s gorgeous,” Orli Elimelech said while listening to Christmas carols.

The carolers were perched on a balcony singing Christmas songs and renditions of American pop songs to classic Christmas melodies. Below the balcony a handful of protesters led by Paz waved black flags, yelled expletives directed at asylum seekers, and blew whistles to drown out the music.

“What is this, a zoo?!” one protester shouted.

“It really ruins the atmosphere. The problems here are very deep and being against anyone isn’t going to fix it,” Elimelech remarked.

Rozov and Baumgarten’s idea for the festival is to recreate through art installations the original 1920s urban plan of the neighborhood (by famed architect Josef Tischler), which is meant to be shaped like a menorah.

“It’s a modernist ideal turned a little more Jewish,” said Rozov. “Levinksy Street is the shamash [middle candle].”

But Tischler’s menorah plan was thwarted when construction of the “new” central bus station in the 1960s took up the left side of the candelabrum; it also ushered in an era of loud buses and smog for the surrounding neighborhoods.

But now, according to Rozov, the neighborhood is experiencing a process of gentrification creeping eastward from the Florentin quarter. “Other artists and I come here because we want to be able to own a studio. Classic gentrification is the artist coming in and paving the way for gentrification.”

Rozov is hoping to preserve the cultural aspects of neighborhood as it gentrifies. “The urban sprawl is going to hit the neighborhood and we are hoping to create a more sustainable environment for its multicultural aspects. If the local residents can capitalize on the multiculturalism of the neighborhood, they can profit. This is kind of new to Israel, there are people from over 30 countries living in the neighborhood, there is a lot of culture here that we as Israelis don’t have access to.”

Nevertheless, while the festival brought in hundreds of Israeli visitors, the Sudanese and Eritrean residents largely kept to themselves and mixing between outsiders and locals appeared minimal. But at one art installation an interactive pottery making workshop allowed asylum seeker and Israeli children to squeeze their tiny hands around spinning wet clay, as their parents and onlookers smiled above.

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