Shula Keshet and Sheffi Paz hold polar opposite stances toward the migrants living in south Tel Aviv, but there is one thing on which they both agree: South Tel Aviv is undergoing both ghettoization and gentrification.
Keshet and Paz live in adjacent neighborhoods, Naveh Sha’anan and Shapira respectively, both home to large populations of migrants and foreign workers.
But while Keshet serves as a defender of those populations, Paz is aggressively advocating to have them deported. At the same time, both would like to see the government take responsibility for the neglected, dilapidated, prostitution- and drug-ridden neighborhoods of the southern side of Israel’s cultural capital.
Instead, what they both see, albeit through different lenses, are long-time residents of the neighborhood being pushed out
to make way for tycoons to build luxury homes for the rich.
“Today we are going through a radical part of gentrification. They are deporting us, too. They want to drive us out to build high-rise buildings for the tycoons, to change the whole population here. The ‘White City’ will enter this area,” says Keshet, who was born in the neighborhood and still lives there today,
“It’s gentrification against the Mizrahi families,” Keshet tells the Magazine during an interview in Naveh Sha’anan. Keshet feels that two types of racism are at play here: one against the African migrants, and another against the veteran residents of the neighborhoods who are typically Mizrahi. “Gentrification is meant to make the people’s lives terrible,” she says, later pointing out the many large complexes that are under construction or the shiny new ones that already exist.
“The whole neighborhood has become real estate for the rich – destroying houses to build. People will have to leave when the prices go up,” she asserts.
Lamenting the massive central bus station in the neighborhood – which is a center of pollution, noise, crime, drugs and human trafficking – she accuses the establishment of having destroyed the neighborhood.
“It’s a crime by the establishment against the residents. And then they located most of the foreign workers and migrants here. They brought the asylum-seekers on buses and made it a ghetto,” Keshet says. “Even the crowdedness is against human rights.”
She adds that women, children and the elderly pay the heaviest price and that residents suffer from poor infrastructure, a lack of educational institutions and health centers. She also complains of frequently seeing sewage running down the streets along with a multitude of rats.
Having been born and having spent much of her life in the neighborhood, Keshet says, “I know the history and nobody can tell me it became terrible because of the asylum-seekers. But, of course, it became worse.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she points out, said he would rehabilitate south Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, the Transportation Ministry signed a new contract with bus station owner Kobi Maimon for another 24 years. “Is that rehabilitation? No, it’s suffocating us to death,” says Keshet.
The station, in her opinion, “is the most terrible thing that is destroying south Tel Aviv,” and “the thing they have to deport” is the many buses that come in and out of the area every day.
As we pass sick, poor and homeless people sitting on the streets surrounding the bus station, Keshet remarks that they get help exclusively from the residents.
“The whole neighborhood is full of drugs... they make us suffer for 80 years and now they want to kick us all out,” she charges, accusing the establishment of waiting for the veteran residents to sell their homes “for nothing” and leave the neighborhood. “On the one hand you see total neglect, and on the other you see new buildings.”
A different perspective
Paz and Keshet agree on several elements: the veteran population is being pushed out; the government is not fulfilling its duty; refugee applications should have been checked long ago; and south Tel Aviv is in dire need of rehabilitation.
But contrary to Keshet, Paz points an accusatory finger at the migrants. She wants them out of the country – and fast. She takes us to a park in her neighborhood, Shapira, where there are many migrant children and few native Israelis playing. She sees this as a representative picture of the change the neighborhood has undergone.
“It’s a total occupation of the neighborhood,” she states. “This place says everything.’ Paz – a known anti-migrant figure – tells the Magazine she “doesn’t have the energy” to walk with us though Naveh Sha’anan, seemingly because of the animosity her appearance there will evoke. Even her phone ringtone is an Israeli song titled “In the End Everyone Returns Home.”
Paz moved to Shapira from central Tel Aviv 25 years ago. She was drawn to the neighborhood because of the low prices, and ironically, because of the multiculturalism. But she estimates that back then there was a 3:1 ratio of native Israelis to foreigners, which she described as “a great mix.”
It must be noted that at the time Paz, who has undergone a hard political transformation, was a left-wing activist. “I had good Nigerian neighbors who were deported,” she recalls. When the authorities came to deport them and others, Paz hid them in her home. “I was a leftie back then and I didn’t like the way they did it... in the night,” she explains.
She continues to remember her Nigerian friends fondly. So why the different approach to her new neighbors? Paz says it’s a matter of numbers.
Back then, she says, the character of the neighborhood remained Israeli and Jewish. But today, “When you have a majority that is the foreign population, it determines the character of the neighborhood.”
She says there are hardly any Israeli businesses left, “but we don’t want to buy from them [the migrants]. We don’t want to support them.”
Paz categorizes today’s Shapira residents into three groups: veterans, migrants and hipster lefties.
“I was one of those [lefties] when I arrived, but we respected the tradition, the open-door community, the Mizrahi neighborliness,” she says.
“Today it is no longer the free atmosphere it used to be,” Paz laments.
While she agrees with Keshet that the biggest mistake was situating all the migrants in south Tel Aviv, she believes they would have made their way there anyway. “Even if they put them in Ramat Aviv, they would have come here – where there are NGOs, shelters and other community members.”
‘Nobody wants to be here’
This is an assessment which Eritrean community leader Tomas Yowhannes, 29, rejects.
Yowhannes slept in south Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park for 53 nights until he found a job and a place to live. “They brought us all here – we had never heard of south Tel Aviv before,” he tells the Magazine.
But now, he says, there are challenges to leaving south Tel Aviv.
“Outside of south Tel Aviv they won’t rent us a flat and they won’t give us work, and parents won’t have anywhere to send their kids to school... and we can’t get health insurance or a driver’s license... It’s all connected to status,” he says.
In south Tel Aviv, there are educational facilities for migrants, a point flagged by Paz, who says the Israeli children no longer have schools in their neighborhood and now must go instead to neighboring Kiryat Shalom.
Yowhannes has been in Israel for eight years since he crossed through Sinai, where migrants have experienced traumatic horrors.
Today he lives in Givatayim, after having spent six years in Ramle and one year in the Holot detention facility. His experience of life in Givatayim is a pleasant one. At first he says it was hard to find an apartment, because migrants who don’t have legal status can’t get checkbooks from the banks, the common method of payment for landlords.
“When I searched for an apartment, I wrote in posts, ‘If you are a racist don’t talk to me,’” he says. But he found a home and lives happily with Israeli neighbors. “At first I felt they were scared of me because of things they heard about us. But we got to know each other and they started to understand why we are here and it’s OK.”
He works at the community’s offices in south Tel Aviv every day, and remarks, “Nobody wants to be in south Tel Aviv, but there is no solution. Nobody likes being here.”
“You see how the families live on top of each other and pay a lot of money for it, and then they take 20% of our salaries,” he adds, in reference to a law put in place last year that says employers must deduct 20% of the wages of Eritrean and Sudanese employees who entered Israel illegally from Egypt and don’t have legal status.
Recent brawls between pro-regime and anti-regime Eritreans in Israel have given additional ammunition to the anti-migrant camp to dismiss claims that they are asylum-seekers.
Former minister Gideon Sa’ar, for example, expressed his support for anti-migrant protesters during a series of clashes last month.
“Perhaps the absurd spectacle of street battles in Tel Aviv between supporters and opponents of the Eritrean regime will open people’s eyes,” he wrote on social media. “European courts have ruled that there is no inherent danger in the return of every Eritrean citizen to their country.”
Yowhannes paints a picture of dictatorship, suffering, lack of freedoms, imprisonment and torture in the country they fled.
“You can’t be free, you can’t learn or build a family. You can’t say a word against the regime,” he tells the Magazine. The option for men, he says, is either the army or jail.
“From my perspective, they don’t have a right to stay here,” he says of the pro-regime demonstrators. “If they have no problem with their country, then why did they leave it?”
However, Yowhannes says the Eritrean Embassy in Tel Aviv is responsible for stirring up trouble.
Those who want an Eritrean passport, he explains, must go to the Eritrean Embassy and say they support the regime.
“Maybe they still have things in Eritrea, like a home or a car, and they don’t want to lose them,” he says. “And they are also told that they need to act against the anti-regime Eritreans here... so they won’t think that war in Eritrea drove them here.
“The regime is sending people to cause problems in the community so that our requests won’t be addressed, so that the State of Israel will think we bring violence with us,” he said at a demonstration last month.
Addressing all residents of south Tel Aviv at the demonstrations – those protesting against asylum-seekers as well as those supporting them – he said: “I also do not want to live in fear of violence. I fled from fear of violence. I am very sad that violence is entering south Tel Aviv. I thank and support the police in their efforts to keep order and to protect the residents, and we promise to do everything we can to maintain safety in the neighborhood.”
A businessman’s plan
According to Yowhannes, members of his community would be happy to relocate so long as they are guaranteed jobs, living accommodations, educational facilities for their children and access to transportation.
A plan being promoted by a group of prominent businessmen addresses most, if not all, of these concerns.
The proposal, which was signed by 64 businessmen and industry leaders, is a one-time economic plan that seeks to decentralize the migrants from south Tel Aviv, and help provide them with jobs and housing in locations across Israel where there are job vacancies.
Signatories include Ilan Cohen, entrepreneur and former director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office; Terra Management owner and CEO and former Tourism Ministry CEO Eli Gonen; Shraga Brosh, president of the Manufacturers Association; Israel Prize for Industry laureates Yehudit and Yehuda Bronicki; Yarom Ariav, former Finance Ministry director-general and executive chairman of Lavi Capital Ltd; and Yossi Kucik, chairman of the Zur Shamir group and a former director-general of the PMO.
“The situation at the moment is at a dead end,” Ariav tells the Magazine. “The plan to deport the migrants to a third country has failed,” he said, adding that Netanyahu is aware that some 16,000 will have to remain in Israel, which is why he announced the agreement with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The deal reached in April between the PMO and the UNHCR – which the former then swiftly canceled – stipulated that Israel could deport some 16,000 migrants to Western countries, while granting a “suitable” legal status to some 16,000 others.
“We are talking about a problem that is limited,” Ariav stresses, noting that no new asylum-seekers have tried to enter Israel since the government built a fence along the border with Sinai in 2013.
Paz rejects this argument, opining that the migrants stopped trying to come to Israel not because of the fence, but because they know there is “no hope” for them here. “They came to Europe in boats... they will go to where there is hope. The technical issue is the smallest part of it,” she asserts. “If they could guarantee to us that it would end with the 16,000 migrants, then maybe we would consider it.”
According to the plan, asylum-seekers would be dispersed from south Tel Aviv and integrated into various cities and communities throughout the country within three years and south Tel Aviv neighborhoods will undergo a rehabilitation process within five years.
The plan is consistent with the outline presented by the prime minister and agreed upon by the UNHCR – and which the businessmen are calling on Netanyahu to reinstate – but it can also be adopted as part of an alternative framework.
The two main points upon which the plan rests are employment and housing. The plan seeks to expand employment opportunities while removing obstacles to the employment of migrants in industries that are suffering from a shortage of manpower. It also seeks to remove barriers faced by migrants who wish to rent apartments across the country.
“There are 25,000 positions that are empty,” Ariav tells the Magazine, referring to the fields of agriculture, tourism, restaurants and construction.
Israel, he says, brings foreign workers to fill these positions and takes advantage of them. “So instead of bringing them, we can distribute the migrants in the cities.”
“It has to be done in an organized way,” he notes, saying the migrants would receive training. The businessmen also stress that the number of migrants absorbed by each community will be limited to 1% of the community’s population. The municipalities which absorb them will also receive incentives – as will employers, who would be exempt from employer’s tax – and the migrants would also receive benefits and long-term work visas.
The businessmen seek to establish a fund to help the migrants with apartment rentals.
Last month a local news site reported that Kibbutz Beit Ha’emek refused to absorb migrants as part of an initiative by the kibbutz movement to absorb migrants from south Tel Aviv. Questioned about this incident, Ariav says there is a “massive difference” between an organized state plan that operates on incentives, and a private and sporadic initiative.
“We think that the plan we proposed should be implemented by the government. Resources should be allocated to the issue and the plan should be executed on a national level. In the past, the State of Israel faced far greater challenges, such as the absorption of a million immigrants from the [former] Soviet Union within three years. We are convinced that the program is viable,” Ariav says.
According to the plan, south Tel Aviv will also undergo a rehabilitation process to improve infrastructure and help solve the problems of prostitution and drugs in the area.
“We are business people and we are telling the government that this is a good plan,” says Kucik. The fact that Netanyahu came out with the UN agreement in a press conference, he points out, shows that he knows it’s a good plan.
“He did a U-turn because of pressures but we know he thinks it’s a good plan and talks are still ongoing,” he remarks.
The businessmen want to dispel the belief that one must choose between the good of south Tel Aviv or the good of the migrants.
This plan, Kucik says, is a “win-win-win” for everyone – the Israeli economy, the residents of Tel Aviv and the migrants.
It was developed in consultation with Keshet and her associates. However, another plan that appears to be advancing is more aligned with Paz and the anti-migrant camp.
A PROPOSAL initiated by Construction Minister Yoav Gallant seeks to declare south Tel Aviv a national priority in light of the high number of asylum-seekers living there. Gallant hopes the resolution will be passed by the cabinet in the coming weeks. Contrary to the businessmen’s plan, Gallant’s proposal does not address the migrants themselves.
According to the proposal, certain areas will be declared national priorities according to the proportion of asylum-seekers living in them. The first local authority to receive benefits worth tens of millions of shekels will be Tel Aviv and its relevant southern neighborhoods, as well as other areas with high populations of migrants.
“The basic idea is how to make the lives of the permanent citizens better, without taking care right now, by my office, with what the solution should be with the migrants, because these are neighborhoods that in the first place haven’t been in the best situation, and nowadays are getting worse and worse. And we have to take care of the people,” Gallant tells the Magazine.
He explains that the plan could run parallel to any government proposal “to make sure that those refugees will go back to their homelands, but in the meantime we have to make sure that those people do not create a situation that is unbearable in the neighborhoods where they are.”
The proposal includes funds from a number of government ministries – construction and housing, interior, culture, education, public security, science and development of the Negev and Galilee – to improve the situation in the neighborhoods. This will be done through welfare, employment and leisure programs, educational activities and enrichment programs for youth. A focus will be placed on the elderly, at-risk youth and single mothers. The proposal also seeks to strength personal security by placing more cameras and sensors on local streets and by increasing police presence.
Gallant said he has been working on the proposal for about a year, as it took him time to recruit the various ministries.
The government will put NIS 30 million into south Tel Aviv, and the municipality will match that sum.
“Gallant’s plan is in cooperation with us,” Paz says. “Sixty million isn’t a lot. There are people here in very difficult situations,” she stresses, complaining that all the aid and resources provided by NGOS are currently directed at the foreign residents, which she says evokes anger among Israeli residents who are in need of assistance.
“So Gallant’s plan can balance it out a bit,” she adds.
Whichever plan is adopted, or both, or parts of both – it can only constitute a positive step forward for Tel Aviv’s dirty, crowded, neglected and dilapidated neighborhoods.