Another side to south Tel Aviv

Were Israel to harness potential for dialogue among veteran Israelis, migrant workers and refugees, the entirety of Israeli society would benefit.

refugee rally Tel Aviv 521 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
refugee rally Tel Aviv 521
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
In his article published in The Jerusalem Post Magazine on June 7, Ben Caspit attempts to give a voice to the veteran Israeli residents of south Tel Aviv, describing an environment of overcrowded housing and insufficient infrastructure that has deteriorated into crime, fear and decay.
“Hell on earth,” he names it. But rather than recognize the root of the problem – the absence of government policy visà- vis all of the vulnerable populations living in the area, he blames and stigmatizes the weakest population group in Israel – people with no status, no rights, who sought the promised land as a haven from their suffering.
Natasha Roth and Leah McDonnell, in their thoughtful and well researched response to the article, published in +972, rightly point out that many of Caspit’s claims and assumptions are wildly contrary to fact. While we may expect more from a journalist, his attitude is not surprising, as it gives expression, albeit in an extreme manner, to widespread feelings toward refugees in Israel today.
A recent study published in The Jerusalem Post showed that 59.9 percent of Israelis believe the refugee community is dangerous for Israeli society and 68.8% believe that refugees are a burden on the Israeli economy. This despite the fact that crime rates are lower among foreigners in Israel than among the general population and refugees hold jobs that Israelis don’t want – jobs that Israel willingly imports thousands of foreign migrant workers every year to hold.
The feelings of fear and deep frustration of those who live in south Tel Aviv should by no means be dismissed.
Despair is genuine and the reasons behind it often justified. Nor should one enter into discussion of who perpetuates more violence against whom. That would miss the point. The residents of south Tel Aviv, like so many others, are made to bear the brunt of the absence of government policy on immigration.
Still, it should be noted that the extreme “reality” Caspit describes is far from that experienced every day by those who live and work in south Tel Aviv – an area composed of a number of smaller neighborhoods that are disadvantaged but do continue to function.
Caspit’s unequivocal reaction of shock is just indicative of the perspective of an outsider looking in, perhaps expressing personal nostalgia vis-à-vis the changes undergone by Naveh Sha’anan since the time it was just a poor, neglected and crime-ridden but entirely Israeli neighborhood.
Though the general atmosphere in the neighborhood has deteriorated due to overcrowding, inadequate infrastructure and the unplanned-for meeting of populations that do not know or understand each other, the neighborhood is no more dangerous and threatening than other very vulnerable neighborhoods of Israel’s geographical or social periphery where unemployed men have taken over the public space and wait for menial work-opportunities that are unlikely to be handed to them.
What is certain is that those Caspit refers to as mistanenei avoda (work infiltrators) – a new term apparently coined by the journalist himself to further remove them from the scope of Israeli public solicitude – are not given a face or voice.
The Africans of south Tel Aviv are described as a mass of threatening, undifferentiated figures that have turned into the “sovereign” “occupiers” of the area.
Among the dozen interviewees mentioned in the article, not one is a refugee.
No opportunity is given for an asylum seeker to let the reader understand why and under what circumstances they came to Israel, or how hard they must work to survive the harsh reality of living in a democratic country with no real status, without rights and without access to even basic services. Nor does Caspit give voice to the fact that despite their struggles, most of the Africans that crossed the Sinai border into the country since the mid-2000s are grateful to have arrived in Israel, to relative safety and security and the hope of an end to arbitrary persecution.
ASYLUM SEEKERS in Israel live in a perpetual paradox that is largely the result of Israeli authorities’ inability – or unwillingness – to formulate clear and consistent guidelines on migration and asylum. In order to claim asylum, asylum seekers must cross the border, but if they cross the border they are labeled “infiltrators” – a criminal offense according to the latest permutation of Israel’s Anti-Infiltration Law.
In order to gain refugee status, their claims must be assessed, but with rare exceptions they are not given access to the process that would assess the validity of their claims. For asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea (some 90% of African asylum seekers in Israel), a Foreign Ministry unofficial decision to grant them “group protection” for now prevents their deportation, yet this “protection” denies them the rights granted to recognized refugees. This legal limbo prevents any alternative solution; without a recognized status, they are stuck here – they cannot apply for asylum in a third country, cannot be returned by the state to their homes. While they are stuck here, they need to survive, but the government does not provide for them and threatens employers with sanctions if they employ asylum seekers. The High Court of Justice ruled that the ad hoc threemonth “conditional release” visa that most receive from the Interior Ministry allows asylum seekers to work de facto, but the ministry continues to stamp their visa papers with a dissuasive “this is not a work visa.” As a result, many employers will not employ them, or will do so only under precarious and minimal (sometimes illegal) conditions. Some, seeking a stable income, want to open businesses to support themselves and their families and to provide a service to the larger circles of compatriots.
Like migrant communities all over the world, they want to eat the food they grew up with, watch movies in their language, and have their hair cut by people who know how. But most cannot legally open a business because their status has never been assessed or regularized.
The few that have obtained proper work permits (about 1 percent of Africans in Israel) and tried to build independent businesses are constantly harassed by the authorities or face administrative obstacles with no surmountable route out. And the paradox continues.
Despite finding themselves in a limbo of contradictions, most refugees do what they can to eke out a living while patiently putting up with the convolutions of Israeli bureaucracy. Impelled to live in survival mode by a country that refuses to understand who they are and where they have come from, they put off dealing with the traumas of war, displacement, loss, torture and rape that have been their lot before crossing the border into the promised land.
Contrary to the impression that is created in Caspit’s article, they are eager to live under the protection and within the framework of Israel’s laws. Even more so, they seek to interact with Israelis, to learn about Israeli culture, Israeli democracy, and frequently express respect for Israel as a country that was built by (Jewish) refugees for (Jewish) refugees.
Some are inspired by the resilience of the Jewish people and see Israel as the realization of a dream they themselves hold. As the only democracy in an ocean of authoritarian and arbitrary regimes, Israel is seen as a haven of freedom and protection from harassment by the rule of law. Only one who has lived without an accountable justice system – they say – can truly appreciate its value. In this light, their exclusion from the regulated legal system is all the more tragic.
The largest part of the population of asylum seekers are relatively young and capable, and many of them have skills and an education that could be an asset rather than a burden for south Tel Aviv. Many asylum seekers have learned Hebrew remarkably well with the aim of working and become self-sustaining while integrating as best they can during their time in this country. Others work on their English or learn other skills with a hope for a productive future back in their countries once safety and peace return there.
The few asylum seekers who have managed, primarily through partnership with Israelis, to open businesses – restaurants, Internet cafes, clothing stores, hairdressers, small grocery stores – act as forums for community dialogue and provide important services to the weakest members of their communities.
Even with their limited resources, there is a concern for community well-being that runs contrary to the harsh and negative picture painted by Caspit.
The saddest irony is that up until recently Israel’s attitude to refugees told a different story. Israel played a major role in the drafting of the UN refugee convention, ensuring that its beneficiaries would be guaranteed protection and dignity. Israel was among the first to sign the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol which extended the original Convention to respond to future conflicts around the world. Israel was a leader in refugee law in part because it knew that had the world reacted differently to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe, millions of lives could have been saved. Prime minister Menachem Begin put it succinctly: “We never have forgotten the boat with 900 Jews, the St. Louis, having left Germany in the last weeks before the Second World War... traveling from harbor to harbor, from country to country, crying out for refuge.
They were refused... Therefore it was natural... to give those people a haven in the Land of Israel.”
Begin was responding to the plight of Vietnamese refugees, and led the world in granting them safe haven and citizenship.
Over the years, similar responsibility was taken by the Jewish state for refugees hailing from Bosnia, Lebanon and a number of African countries.
YET TODAY, this same plight, met by a similar response by groups of concerned Israelis, brings accusations of post-Zionism or attempting to dismantle the Jewish state. Rather than recognize the suffering of African asylum seekers, Israeli authorities look the other way and hope that the problems produced by an absence of policy will just go away. With the fence through the Sinai inhibiting future arrivals, policies of “deterrence” enacted on refugees within Israel’s borders are unnecessary. It is time that Israel honor its commitments to ensure the safety and well-being of all those that live on its territory.
Little will change for African asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv and for their Israeli neighbors without government cooperation and middle-to-long-term intervention. Even if some of the announced government plans to “resettle” refugees in other African countries were to be practically and decently implemented, a significant proportion of those that are already here can expect to remain in Israel for a number of years to come.
The Israeli government, in coordination with municipalities concerned and international humanitarian organizations, needs to put forward constructive measures that will make the situation of refugees in Israel livable. Simply granting temporary but official status to asylum seekers would make a world of difference.
Having their right to work formally recognized would enable refugees to seek work across the country, reducing the pressure on south Tel Aviv. Having a stable, recognized income would lead to the payment of income tax, social security and health insurance, easing the burden on emergency services.
Able to legally open businesses, refugees would learn to comply with Israeli law. When the situation in their home country stabilizes and becomes safe, these people could return to their countries – a desire they readily and constantly express – and be Israel’s greatest ambassadors.
Until this happens, Israel’s commitments to human dignity as expressed in Jewish tradition are being honored by Israeli NGOs – almost all of which are headquartered in south Tel Aviv, and thereby have direct contact and experience with the field – and thousands of individual Israelis who volunteer their time and represent the best of Israeli society. By providing basic healthcare, social and psychological assistance, education, respectful work and learning opportunities and guidance to better understand the complexities of the society they find themselves in, these NGOs and the volunteers they depend on are giving refugees a glimpse of why the random choice of Israel as a place of refuge may ultimately turn out to have been a good one.
Were Israel to harness the potential for dialogue and understanding among veteran Israelis, migrant workers and refugees rather than suppress and prosecute it, the entirety of Israeli society, south Tel Aviv in particular, would benefit.
Already, moving beyond the increased tension that is tangible on the streets of south Tel Aviv, some gestures of goodwill have resulted in budding understanding and a measure of cooperation between Israeli old-timers residing in south Tel Aviv and their migrant neighbors, indicating that the situation can be managed for the benefit of all.
Jean-Marc Liling, an Israeli lawyer advising NGOs and non-profits, is a member of the board of directors of ASSAF (Aid organization Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel), that, among other things, provides psycho- social assistance to refugees in Israel.
Ilana Pinshaw is the coordinator of Microfy, an NGO based in south Tel Aviv that provides training, loans and consultancy to asylum-seeker entrepreneurs to enable them to become economically independent and support themselves and their families.