South Tel Aviv: The land that time forgot

When upmarket international magazines pieces about how gorgeous Tel Aviv is, you can bet their wide-eyed writers won’t be sampling Levinsky or Har Zion streets.

By AKIN AYAJI
July 23, 2010 16:21
Cartoon of migrant worker

South Tel Aviv 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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We’re moving apartments in a week or so, from tranquil suburbia to Tel Aviv. I’m quite excited about the move, to be honest; I’ve always been a city boy at heart. Suburban life is pleasant, but it’s just not for me. I’ve missed the hustle and bustle of metropolitan life, the variety and diversity of the big city.

Tel Aviv has everything I need: coffee shops, liberal bohemian culture, beautiful people, the beach... yup, it feels like I’m going home.

Of course, I’m talking about north Tel Aviv.

After Shas councillor Binyamin Babayoff’s recent outburst – followed closely by the “fatwa” issued by 25 south Tel Aviv rabbis – to the effect that the Talmud prohibited letting apartments to gentiles, I could pretend that the south of the city wasn’t an option for reasons beyond my control.

I mean, I’m not religious, but I’m not one to get between a man and his God.

Yet that would be untrue. The neighborhoods of Hatikva and Neveh Sha’anan were never on the cards when we were flat-hunting, because they’re not terribly nice places to live. They weren’t an option because we’re lucky enough to have a choice.

On one point, we can all agree: Whenever the upmarket international magazines and style supplements commission fawning pieces about how gorgeous Tel Aviv is, their wide-eyed writers won’t be sampling Levinsky or Har Zion streets; what’s the point when one can find the “authentic” Tel Aviv just up the road in Neve Tzedek? The southern neighborhoods don’t do very much for the nice PR picture of Tel Aviv as the cosmopolitan center of the Middle East.

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But let’s be frank: Not very many of us know very much about the south of Tel Aviv, either. A glimpse from a car or a train; the occasional misfortune of having to change buses in that labyrinthine hell, the Central Bus Station.

By and large, the impoverished neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv don’t feature very prominently in our bourgeois imagination. Which is why it becomes so easy to be shocked and surprised when people start spouting forth about “filthy infiltrators,” and the like.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not sanctioning what Babayoff and the rabbis have to say about the shifting demographic landscape of south Tel Aviv. My point is that it is a complicated narrative; when one scratches beneath the surface of their petty populism, something else emerges.

The surprising thing about south Tel Aviv is how little it has actually changed over the years. True, there are more black and Asiatic faces now than before, but the general decay and neglect of the neighborhoods is much the same now as it was a decade ago. Trash remains uncollected, public spaces are untended.

This part of town really is the land that time forgot.

If I lived in south Tel Aviv, I’d be pretty miffed that social amenities and services do not even begin to match those a couple of miles further north. I’d be angry about the fact that schools are underfunded, and that teachers are obliged to achieve much more with our children using much less; I’d be annoyed that beautification projects and schemes bypass the parts of the city that I call home.

The temptation to blame the urban blight on the new populations – and it is telling that loaded words like “influx” and “infiltrators” are so often tossed about like confetti – is strong. But this is to avoid engaging with complex facts.

LET’S IMAGINE that someone gave Babayoff or the rabbis a magic wand with which to make the horrid foreign workers and goyim disappear. He no doubt imagines that crime would evaporate overnight, that the streets would bloom with flowers, that children would skip hand in hand along pristine streets, and so on.

Yeah, right.

Beyond this, there is the fairytale that suggests the new populations are universally freeloaders, fake asylum-seekers abusing the generosity of the Israeli state for their own gain.

Um... well, one can believe this if one wishes. But it isn’t true. Most immigrants – legal or illegal, migrants or refugees – work. They work pretty hard.

They work pretty hard because they have to, and for relatively low wages.

There is a separate argument, perhaps for another day, waiting to be had about the ethics of bringing in foreigners to work in low-paid jobs. But my point is that a majority of the people Babayoff loathes so much are here because the country needs them as much as they need the country.

Perhaps it’s easier to brush him and the rabbis off as part of an illiberal religious minority. But that would be just as dishonest.

Tel Aviv as a whole has a responsibility for the condition of south Tel Aviv. To pretend that it doesn’t exist, that it is merely a manifestation of religious demagoguery, would be hypocritical. That would be to disclaim responsibility for the situation and to avoid the need to do anything about it.

Admittedly, there is always something a bit seductive about anti-clerical rhetoric – especially if one is as godless as I am. But then, I remember a story my mother tells about life in England in the 1960s.

London was a far different place then from what it is today: It was commonplace to see adverts for lodgings come with the caveat, “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish.”

Racial prejudice was institutionalized; this wasn’t too long after the infamous Smethwick election campaign and the abhorrent – if admittedly catchy – electioneering slogan “If you want a nigger for a neighbor, vote Labor.”

Nice times, huh? My parents, with a small child – my older sister – needed a bigger place to live, and struggled for a while to find an accommodating landlord. But they persevered, and succeeded in the end. Their new landlord, by all accounts, was a fair and kindly man, although he used to scare the wits out of my sister when he came to collect the rent.

It was probably the hat and beard that did it for her; he was a hassidic Jew, you see.

Mum still hasn’t forgotten, 40 years on; I do hope that 40 years from now, there’ll be second- or third-generation immigrants with similar stories to tell about south Tel Aviv.

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