Backlash in South Tel Aviv

The voices of fear and loathing over the influx of Africans are growing more vociferous by the day. Is violence just a matter of time?

Asylum seekers south Tel Aviv 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Asylum seekers south Tel Aviv 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
‘Pretty soon there’s going to be more of them than of us.” “In another five years one of them will be mayor of Tel Aviv.” “People are afraid of them. They’re a threat to our lives. They’ve taken over.
We’ve lost the State of Israel.”
“They” are the asylum-seekers from Sudan and Eritrea who crossed clandestinely from Egypt and settled in the poor neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv. The voices of fear, of near-hysteria over these Africans, belong to some 20 residents, mostly late middle-aged, in the Hatikva Quarter of South Tel Aviv.
Leading them is Shlomo Maslawi, a Tel Aviv city councilman with Likud and Hatikva’s long-time political leader. Gathered in a meeting room in the neighborhood cultural center during the evening hours before the recent World Cup final, Maslawi and the residents never refer to the Sudanese and Eritreans as “refugees” or “asylum- seekers,” but as “infiltrators” – the term also used by Israeli officials – or, most often, as “kushim,” which can mean anything from “blacks” to “niggers.”
Hatikva is lower-middle-class, mainly Sephardi, rightwing, traditionally religious and socially conservative, and residents at the meeting also use the term “they” to mean the people who try to help the asylum-seekers.
“They,” in this case, include well-to-do, liberal, Ashkenazim of North Tel Aviv such as Mayor Ron Huldai and councilwoman Yael Dayan, “bleeding hearts” who demonstrate against expelling the foreigners, and liberal NGOs such as the New Israel Fund.
“They tell us they’re poor, they’re refugees – but they’re not refugees, they’re infiltrators, they’re in this country illegally,” says Maslawi, a tall, quietly imposing presence. “They compare them to the Jews of the Holocaust, but where’s the comparison? These people are murderers!”
THE SUDANESE AND ERITREANS are described during the meeting as murderers, thugs, thieves, drunks, drug dealers, gangsters, job-stealers, Christian interlopers and Muslim subversives bent on marrying South Tel Aviv’s Jewish girls. The men sitting in the rectangle of chairs are wearing polo shirts, the younger women wear pedal pushers, the older women are in conservative dresses and kerchiefs. Everyone is talking over everyone else, loudly, and the mood moves back and forth between anger and laughter.
This is Hatikva’s bimonthly gathering where residents come to discuss neighborhood issues, and a community organizer employed by the municipality is fighting a losing battle to structure the discussion.
“Remember, what we’re trying to do is look at a given situation, determine how it is in reality, then determine how we want that reality to be,” the organizer admonishes one fired-up resident.
So the resident replies in kind: “The reality is that they’re here, and the reality we want is for them to be gone.”
The Africans, some call them “refugees,” others “migrant workers,” have been here for four years. After fleeing the dangers and destitution of their countries to Cairo, then facing brutal racism and repression that culminated in a police massacre there in December 2005, they began making their life-threatening way from Cairo through the Sinai and across the Israeli border.
After a year there were only a few hundred of them in Israel. With time they became a few thousand, and now their number has grown to about 25,000, according to the UN, with more continually on their way over the border.
Some 90 percent are from Sudan and Eritrea, the great majority of them men who are here on their own. About one-third, or some 8,000, have settled in the gritty neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv, mainly in Hatikva, Shapira and Kiryat Shalom.
They join the roughly 40,000 foreign workers, most of whom are here illegally, who’ve come to South Tel Aviv in the last two decades from all over Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.
The backlash from their Israeli neighbors has been building for a long time, and now it’s come fully to the surface. It’s aimed less at the illegal foreign workers, who are usually employed, law-abiding, and who are being hunted for deportation by the Interior Ministry’s “Oz Unit.” The focus of resentment is on the African asylumseekers.
The problem of growing numbers of impoverished migrants rubbing up against the local citizenry isn’t unique to this country, of course. It’s been a major sore point in the US, Western Europe and other wealthy countries for decades.
In South Africa, the democratic “rainbow nation” and economic leader of its continent, local enmity toward migrants, who are mainly destitute Zimbabweans, is a million times worse than anything dreamed of here. In 2008, South Africans killed at least 62 migrants whom they accused of usurping jobs and committing crimes; another 100,000 were run out of their homes, according to a post-World Cup issue of Foreign Policy magazine. Reporting from a township near Johannesburg, Susana Ferreira wrote: “If [migrant] suspects in a crime are identified – by items reported stolen or by telltale bloodstains on their clothes – the perpetrators are dragged out into the open and stoned to death by a crowd.”
SO WHEN LOOKING at the Israeli backlash against refugees and foreign workers, a little perspective is in order.
At Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said the “flood of illegal workers infiltrating from Africa... [represents] a concrete threat to the Jewish and democratic character of the country.” Some ministers, notably Danny Ayalon and Yitzhak Aharonovitch of the rightist Israel Beiteinu, depicted the Africans the way Maslawi does – as “economic migrants” who aren’t fleeing persecution but are only out to snatch some of Israel’s quality of life.
This claim is half-true. The asylum-seekers are indeed tempted by the freedom and economic possibilities here – especially since the Supreme Court barred the state from imprisoning them indefinitely, which was the policy in 2006.
But it’s also true that these Sudanese and Eritreans fit the classic profile of refugees. They suffer psychological trauma not only from the savage fighting and government repression they fled in their homelands, but also from the journey through Egypt to the Israeli border, says Tamar Schwartz, director of Mesila, the Tel Aviv Municipality’s aid agency for foreigners near the Central Bus Station.
On their way to the border, these Africans are exposed to violence and sexual abuse by their Beduin guides and are hunted by Egyptian border guards. Many of their countrymen, women and children, get killed or captured along the way. To make that trek, they have to be desperate.
Once here they find that their life isn’t remotely as hard as it was in Egypt, Sudan or Eritrea – but it’s still extremely hard. In South Tel Aviv, many of them are jobless and idle, hanging around the streets, living 10 or so to a small apartment. A number of the men are hard cases.
“The police tell us there’s been a rise in crime among this population. We’re now seeing a lot of cases of alcoholism and drug addiction. There are also cases of domestic violence, and of men beating up prostitutes,” says Schwartz.
Unlike foreign workers who’ve overstayed their work visas or violated their tourist visas, African asylum-seekers cannot be deported as long as their applications for UN refugee status, which they file immediately upon reaching Tel Aviv, are under consideration. With few exceptions, the applications remain under consideration indefinitely – international treaties bar Israel from sending them back to Egypt, where they would face harsh imprisonment and/or deportation to Sudan and Eritrea, where, in turn, their lives would be in danger. Meanwhile, other countries, which have their own refugee and migrant worker problems, refuse to take them in.
Says Schwartz: “While illegal foreign workers do not as a rule commit crimes, if for no other reason than they’re afraid of getting caught and deported, the asylum-seekers from Sudan and Eritrea have no such worry. They can’t be deported, and if the police put them in jail, they’re released in a few days.”
Maslawi says police tell him that asylum-seekers have committed five murders in South Tel Aviv over the last year; he names local resident Esther Galili as one victim.
Tel Aviv police confirm three such murders having taken place since the beginning of this year, all by stabbing: Galili, killed by a Sudanese man; a Sudanese man killed by an Eritrean; and a Sudanese man killed by another Sudanese. Schwartz says the Galili murder was the exception, and that refugee violence is usually aimed at other refugees. “It starts with drinking that turns into fights,” she says.
IN THE OLD, crowded streets and alleys of Hatikva, the black Africans are very visible. Outside the cultural center, an African boy is kicking a soccer ball and an African woman is sitting on a bench with a pair of toddlers; a few steps away, elderly Israeli women sit talking in a circle of lawn chairs and people pass up and down the alley.
Maslawi and the others at the meeting - except for the two younger women who express sympathy for the refugees - are exaggerating the African threat wildly, turning the asylum-seekers into a kind of black peril.
"The join up with the Muslims in this country, with the Arabs in Jaffa, Lod and Ramle, with the Beduin in the Negev. This is like dynamite," Says Maslawi. In fact, no asylum-seekers have been tied to a security offense, while only about 2,000 - fewer that 10% - are Muslims, the others being mainly Christians, according to the UN.
"They make noise at night, I can't sleep. I smell the smoke from their nargilas; I don't know what they're smoking. It's all kushim outside my window; they've turned the place into Harlem," says one man. Yet people all over the country are kept awake on summer nights and weekend nights year-round, and not by noisy Africans, but by noisy natives.
"Once i was driving near the bus station and this kushi runs into the street and i had to slam on the brakes, and i yelled at him, 'son of a bitch' - and he gives me the finger!", says one particularly angry woman. what she's describing is the kind of traffic scene that Israelis have been playing out since long before the Sudanese and Eritreans arrived.
But while Hatikva residents distort and exaggerate the situation, they're not making the whole thing up by any means. there is a real problem in south Tel Aviv.
Says Maslawi: "This was a neighborhood crowded with poor, needy people before, then the foreign workers came who are even poorer and made it even more crowded, and now the infiltrators have come and made it intolerable. The whole character of the community has changed.”
Says one resident: “The foreigners work as servants in the rich homes in North Tel Aviv, but they live here with us. I’d like to see what they’d say in North Tel Aviv if their kids had to go to school with their servants’ kids.”
Because of its relatively cheap rents, access to low-wage jobs and large, long-standing foreign community, South Tel Aviv is absorbing African asylum-seekers to a degree that is simply inconceivable, impossible, in any middleclass area of the country. And while the foreign workers are busy at their jobs and law-abiding, the asylum-seekers include a considerable number of psychologically damaged idlers who get into drinking, drugs and violence.
Plainly, a closely-knit, conservative, economically struggling community like Hatikva is about the last place in the country that should have to take in thousands of African refugees.
Says Schwartz: “I understand the residents here, I know it isn’t easy for them, but I’m sorry, the government and the Tel Aviv Municipality can’t tell people where to live. And the asylum-seekers can’t afford to live in Afeka [an expensive northside community].”
A sharp-tongued Hatikva resident at the meeting offers a solution: “Let them all start moving to North Tel Aviv – that’ll bring the property values over there straight down, and then it won’t be so expensive anymore.”
Maslawi suggests that the government “give them money so they’ll go back to their countries, and if not, build housing for them in the Negev, just so they’re not in our community.”
Another resident, citing the “aggressive” example set by the Sephardi Black Panthers of the 1970s, says the locals should threaten to sell their apartments to Arabs if the asylum-seekers and illegal foreign workers aren’t removed from their midst.
“We can find buyers in Umm el-Fahm. We don’t want to sell to Arabs, but if we have no choice, we will,” says the man. “First we’ll leave, then Yad Eliahu [the adjacent, “better” neighborhood]. Maybe it’ll spread all the way to North Tel Aviv. Then they’ll listen to us.”
Three weeks ago, 25 South Tel Aviv rabbis signed a letter calling on residents to refuse to rent apartments to asylum-seekers and illegal foreign workers. The letter warned of the “halachic prohibition and inevitable danger of renting houses to these people!!!” Quoting the Talmud, it stressed: “Do not have mercy on them.”
Maslawi says he and Tel Aviv city councilman Binyamin Babayov, a Shas representative from Kiryat Shalom, approached the rabbis to write the letter. “We saw that the municipality and government weren’t helping us, so we decided to help ourselves,” Maslawi says.
A week before that, Yediot Aharonot ran a cover story in its Friday magazine titled “Eilat is burning,” describing how the resort city, which in 2006 offered hundreds of asylum-seekers jobs in its hotels, is now home to several thousand of them. Eilat residents voice the same sort of fury heard in South Tel Aviv. A flyer put out by a newly formed residents’ “action committee” reads: “Residents of Eilat, wake up!!!... The Sudanese have taken over Eilat... soon they’ll be the majority... a nightmare on the streets!!! We have to fight for our home, Eilat for the Eilatis – Sudan for the Sudanese.”
The Tel Aviv Municipality has opened its public schools, infant care clinics and other services to foreign workers and refugees. However, Huldai also insists that the government “close the border with Egypt to prevent asylum-seekers from entering freely,” and finally decide what to do with these people.
Yet to his constituents at the Hatikva meeting, Huldai is a bourgeois liberal tzfoni, a North Tel Avivian who cares more about the Africans than about them.
“He spends NIS 400,000 to build a library near the bus station for the infiltrators and illegals – why doesn’t he build a library for my kids? The money he spends on the foreigners could be spent on more after-school activities right here,” one of the men argues.
“He should think about us, too, not just the North,” a woman says.
They resent the tzfonim and fear the kushim. “First of all these infiltrators are big, and when they’re drunk, they get violent. It takes a half-dozen police to control one of them. The police are afraid to confront them,” says Maslawi.
“I get on the bus at four in the afternoon and I’m afraid for my life. It’s 99% kushim on the bus,” says a woman.
“People are afraid to send their children to school, the old people are afraid when they see them in the alleys.” “The police don’t worry them at all.”
TEL AVIV DISTRICT police spokesman Moshe Katz denies all these complaints, offering no comment about the crime profile of South Tel Aviv’s community of asylum- seekers. “The police relate to all individuals in thesame fashion without regard to race, creed, religion or nationality,” says Katz. “When anyone is in violation of the law, the police respond appropriately.”
What he will say, though, is that Tel Aviv’s crime rate is decreasing – “in the city overall, and specifically in the police’s Yiftah region, which includes the southside.”
But not everyone in Hatikva is against the Africans. On Friday night, Dror Krispi, who runs the all-night candy store in the middle of Rehov Ha’etzel, says the refugees don’t give him “any trouble at all, except to argue over my prices all the time. They come in, they’re nice.Miskenim [sad cases]. They work for NIS 10 an hour, NIS 15 an hour, cleaning for people, or hard physical work, whatever they can get. The kind of jobs for the kind of money no Israeli, no normal person, would do.”
Do they drink? “Sometimes.” Asked if they scare him, Krispi, a thickly-built man with a shaved head, smiles. “I’m not scared of anybody,” he says. “I grew up in Hatikva.”
Along Rehov Ha’etzel, a number of Africans are sitting on benches or going places. A group of them are walking along with cases of beer on their shoulders.
Two Ghanaian women in blindingly colorful dresses and head scarves are buying popsicles for their kids at one of the kiosks. Yet these Africans are still in the minority on Ha’etzel, easily outnumbered by the Israelis sitting on the sidewalk, playing cards or walking around. The loudest voices on the street are in Hebrew. A few police cars drive up and down. At least on this Friday night, there is no sense of fear or danger on the street in Hatikva.
The residents are also disturbed by the non-Jewish influence the foreigners brought with them, especially in the kindergartens and schools. “I don’t want my granddaughter going to a kindergarten filled with foreigners.
What sort of culture is she going to learn?” a woman demands.
“The New Testament,” someone calls out.
“Once I saw they had a Santa Claus on their lawn.”
“They’re going to build more mosques.”
“We’re afraid to go to synagogue on Shabbat morning, the streets are filled with drunken kushim.”
“They barbecue on Yom Kippur while we’re fasting.
The only thing that stopped them was once, some of the neighbors trashed the barbecue.”
Toward the end of the meeting, two younger women try to bring some balance to the discussion, saying that while the situation isn’t easy for the residents, the asylum-seekers don’t have it easy, either.
“They have serious problems, too, and they also need help,” says one woman.
“Where do you live?” Maslawi asks her.
“Now, Yad Eliahu,” she replies, and as the others start shouting that this cancels out her opinion, the woman protests, “But I grew up in Hatikva, my mother still lives here, I do all my shopping here...”
The other young woman, referring to Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s plan to expel hundreds of children of illegal foreign workers, says, “I don’t want to expel children. They were born here, they have no other culture, you can’t just throw them out...”
The shouting starts again, someone asks if she has school-age children, and when she says no, her opinion is thrown out, too, and she tries to placate the others, saying, “I agree there are too many of these people here for the neighborhood to absorb, especially the schools.”
MASLAWI AND THE RESIDENTS stress that they don’t want to move all the foreign workers out of Hatikva, just the illegal ones. Some note that the foreign workers who take care of the frail and elderly do “holy work.”
After the meeting, one man tells me, “I have nothing against the foreigners, they’re beautiful people, I work with them. When I see them doing jobs in the neighborhood, I say hello to them, I bring them coffee. I’m not a bad guy. But the numbers have just gotten out of hand.”
It may not seem that way elsewhere, but in South Tel Aviv, capital of the country’s
foreign population, it does.
At Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said what government officials have been saying for years: that the country needs a coherent policy toward migrants, that the border with Egypt has to be closed and that he means to tackle the challenge. “[M]y aim is to have orderly, responsible legislation on this matter by the end of the year,” he said.
In the meantime, Maslawi says he and his allies are going to ask Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Shas, to champion their cause by telling Netanyahu that if the asylum-seekers and illegal foreign workers aren’t removed from the South Tel Aviv, Shas will leave the government. “Maybe Rabbi Ovadia will be our salvation,” the councilman says.
In the Yediot story, Eilat Mayor Yitzhak Halevi warned: “Beneath the surface, I sense that we’re headed for an explosion.” You get that same sense listening to the people in Hatikva – that of a bomb ticking.