‘Don’t Dump the Infiltrators on Us’

An interview with community activist Eli Mizrahi, organizer of a demonstration against African refugees in south Tel Aviv.

Kiryat Shalom Activist Committee 521 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Kiryat Shalom Activist Committee 521
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
EVEN THE QUESTION MAKES him angry. “Don’t use that word! How can you ask me if I’m a racist?” Eli Mizrahi demands. “We don’t call them names, we don’t care where they are from or what the color of their skin is. They just shouldn’t be here.”
Mizrahi, 70, is short and strong, with a dark complexion, even darker eyes and still-full silver white hair. His thick hands grab the steering wheel tightly as he drives through south Tel Aviv, gesturing to demonstrate how the African infiltrators have, he accuses, taken over the poor and working class neighborhoods.
Aretired bank clerk, Mizrahi is chair of the “Kiryat Shalom Activists’ Committee,” an adhoc group nurtured by the municipality. He heads the local Scouts chapter, he volunteers with the Magen David Adom ambulance service, collects used clothing to hand out to the poor, provides free financial advice to the elderly, and puts in several weekly shifts at the local soup kitchen. And he was the organizer of the December 21 demonstration against the Africans.
The neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv are filled with low-rise houses built hastily and cheaply in the 1950s and 1960s for the mainly Sephardi immigrants. The residents today are still largely Sephardi, traditionally religious, socially conservative and economically vulnerable. Although no hard data is available, officials estimate that as many as 10,000 Africans have settled in these gritty neighborhoods, drawn by the relatively cheap rents and low-wage, under-the-table jobs.
He points to a group of young men standing listlessly on a street corner. “Look at that.
Just look,” he repeats. “These infiltrators will steal anything that isn’t bolted down – and I don’t blame them. They have to steal – it’s the only way they can survive. They’ll steal a bicycle and sell it for a few pennies, just to have something to eat.”
He refers to all of the Africans as infiltrators, although many are probably asylum seekers or refugees.
“It doesn’t matter what they’re called,” he says. “They’re here illegally, so they are infiltrators.
And we aren’t the ones to take care of them. We have our own problems here – unemployment, crime, poverty. God almighty! Let the government take care of them, let the UN take care of them. Let the Arab countries take care of them. But we can’t.
“Why don’t they build a fence that would keep them out – we should put soldiers there and not let them infiltrate into our country. Are we such a rich and independent country that we can just keep taking them in?” He drives along the congested divided roadway that runs through the area. “Look, do you see over there, in that park? They have nowhere to live, no money, so they sleep outside in the public gardens. Over the past two years, the municipality has made beautiful gardens for us. But instead of beautiful green lawns, we see piles of black men and women. “They use our hallways as latrines – what choice do they have?”
MIZRAHI CONTINUES INTENSELY, “Parents are afraid to let their children out after dark. Women are afraid to walk alone. The elderly are afraid to go outside.”
What are they afraid of? “They’re afraid that they will be mugged.
That someone will steal their money or the packages they are carrying, the food they just bought at the grocery. Last week, a few of them attacked an 11-year-old girl – what do you think they were doing – after all, there’s nothing to steal from a young child. Luckily, some of the residents saved her.”
As Mizrahi continues his loosely-guided tour, the pleasant evening turns into a cold, dark and very damp night. Pointing to a group of men hanging out around a greasy-looking food stand, he says, “I understand them. Who would want to sleep outside on a night like tonight? I feel for their pain, I don’t hate them. I would probably do the same thing if I were in their position.”
Another group of men is hanging out, listlessly, on the grassy median that divides the central road through the neighborhoods.
They’ve lit a small fire and are rubbing their hands in its heat. “Dear God, is that how we’re supposed to live?” he moans.
Further on is a neighborhood filled with stores selling cheap furniture, gaudy clothing, secondhand refrigerators and foreign foods. “This area is full of whorehouses and drugs now.” He passes a synagogue, established, according to a sign, in 1924. “That’s a beautiful synagogue,” he says. “But who wants to go there now? You won’t even find a minyan (prayer quorum). These neighborhoods don’t belong to us anymore, and we want them back.”
The Tel Aviv municipality provides public schooling, infant care and other medical services to the foreign workers and the refugees. “That’s nice,” Mizrahi says.
“They should have that. Every human being should have that. But what about us? Over the past year, tens of thousands of families have dropped below the poverty line – and most of them live in neighborhoods like ours. The government doesn’t take care of us – so how does anyone expect us to take care of these infiltrators? They are dumping the weakest people on the already-weak.
“If we are supposed to be such a welcoming and compassionate country – what are we doing? What kind of a reception are we giving these people – dumping them in poor neighborhoods with no work and no money? “They’ll take any job they can,” he continues.
“They work for pennies, so they’re taking jobs away from our people. When there’s no bread at home, there’s more violence in the family. Everywhere you look, there’s pain and sorrow.”
He refers to Israel’s Declaration of Independence. ‘It says that the State of Israel was founded for the Jewish people. I don’t want a lot of foreigners living here, no matter what their skin color is or where they come from. I don’t want my daughter to marry someone who isn’t Jewish. Do we need to invite assimilation into the State of Israel? If they live in the same area, they will get to know each other and, after all, love has no color. And then what? Will we have a Jewish state in 10 years?” “These are not racist thoughts,” he concludes.
“We’re speaking from our hearts, out of pain. Maybe some people said some stupid things at the demonstration, but our message is: Don’t dump the infiltrators on us.”