Too many refugees, too few answers

As more Sudanese and Eritreans seek asylum here, Israel is hard put to handle their needs, control the numbers and contend with the backlash from local citizens.

refugee rally Tel Aviv 521 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
refugee rally Tel Aviv 521
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
The tightly packed crowd in Tel Aviv’s Hatikva Quarter was volubly fed up with African refugees “taking over the neighborhood.”
“We’re not in Tel Aviv, we’re in Africa! We’re not in Tel Aviv, we’re in Harlem!” roared one of the southside activists speaking at Hatikva’s busiest corner, and many in the crowd of several hundred roared back.
It was early evening in the middle of the week, and lots of African men in their 20s and 30s were walking or riding by the crowd, oblivious to the Hebrew messages in the speeches and on the placards. From time to time, African individuals and groups of twos and threes would pass slowly between the bunched-up protesters to get where they were going.
The interesting thing was that none of them was harassed physically or verbally in the slightest. Surrounded by a worked-up crowd of enemies, the Africans weren’t touched, talked to or hardly even looked at.
It was symbolic. In the month since the cabinet decided to try to reverse the flow of refugees coming over the Egyptian-Israeli border, most notably with plans for construction of a border fence and a detention camp, there has been a lot of talk and media hype about a “backlash,” “crackdown” and “wave of xenophobia” aimed at those the government – and much of the media – calls “infiltrators.”
There have been a few incidents, including at least one outburst of violence – an attack on some African girls in South Tel Aviv by a group of Israeli girls, one waving a knife and shouting “Dirty niggers!” Also, an Ashdod apartment building where many Africans lived was torched, but it isn’t known if this was a xenophobic attack; the arsonists have not been identified or found.
Still, at any rate, the assault on the girls in South Tel Aviv, and possibly the fire in Ashdod, are the first acts of violence recorded against the refugees since they began arriving in 2005. Recently there has been a rising backlash, but it’s been mainly verbal, expressed by the refugees’ neighbors, far-right politicians and rabbis in South Tel Aviv and Bnei Brak.
“Overall, I wouldn’t call the public reaction in Israel ‘xenophobic,’ I’d describe it as ‘unwelcoming,’” says William Tall, the Maryland-born representative in Israel for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He adds that compared to many other countries, Israel’s reaction to the influx of refugees – who now number close to 35,000, with 1,000 new arrivals a month – has been temperate.
But it’s been conflated with the high-profile call by 300 rabbis not to rent apartments to Arabs and other gentiles, as well as the demonstration in Bat Yam – which took place the night before the one in Hatikva – against Arab “defilement” of Jewish girls. The Kahanists who led the Bat Yam protest – National Union MK Michael Ben-Ari and activists Baruch Marzel and Itamar Ben-Gvir – were prowling the edges of the Hatikva crowd. The rhetoric used against the Africans has certainly gotten uglier in the last month, and the basic conditions of their lives may change radically for the worse within the next year, but little in the way of concrete change has occurred.
While the Immigration and Population Authority has begun refusing to renew work permits of refugees, Tall says only 1,000 to 2,000 have them in the first place. “A majority of the refugees do not have work permits and, nevertheless, their work is tolerated,” he notes.
One of the government’s decisions was to impose heavy fines on employers of refugees. A young Sudanese man told me that the Tel Aviv hotel where he worked had fired him after his work permit was not renewed. Says Tall, “At first there was a bit of nervousness on the part of employers, an attitude of ‘don’t come to work today, we want to sort this out.’ But now the Interior Ministry has clearly said that it’s not going to enforce the prohibition on employers until the detention camp is built.”
And that’s up to a year away, according to government officials, who have been known to underestimate the time needed to complete major, bureaucracy-laden national projects.
In Bnei Brak, where local rabbis urged Jews not to rent to refugees or foreign workers, some 15 Eritrean refugees gathered in a park at the edge of town and told me they were being pressured by the city and their landlords to vacate their rented apartments. The lone woman among them, Tsegeret Gebrehinet, a 30-year-old house cleaner, said, “Today the city cut off my electricity. How can I live?”
Since then, the Eritreans in Bnei Brak told me the threats haven’t been realized. I ran into Gebrehinet last Friday at the Left’s pro-refugee march along Tel Aviv’s Sderot Rothschild, and she said her electricity was back and the eviction order was no longer in force.
This is not to say that the refugees have nothing to worry about. “There’s clearly a new determination on the part of the government to deal with the issue,” says Tall. The fence is being built; preparations for the detention camp are being made; as many as 2,000 work permits are not being renewed; a second group of 150 South Sudanese have been willingly sent back to their country, which is about to gain independence; and a new police station has been set up in the heart of the refugee and foreign worker community – Levinsky Park near the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station.
All this, however, does not add up to anything that can be called a “crackdown,” and the level of actual physical violence against refugees, especially when compared to what happens in many other countries, isn’t much of a “backlash.” What has happened, though, and what has the refugees legitimately worried, is the rising demagogic tone, the scare words that have entered the public debate.
The government – and much of the media – calls them “infiltrators” which, especially to Israelis, is like saying “terrorists” or “saboteurs,” a grossly unfair term to use for these people, who not only don’t hide from Israeli law enforcement but who give themselves up willingly to IDF soldiers as soon as they cross the border. To this day, none of the 35,000 has been linked to terrorism or any sort of security threat.
They come here not to subvert Israel but simply to find a better life than the one they left – a very modest, innocent ambition.
Yet with such demagoguery in the air, rumors about refugee crime and violence have been running wild. At the Hatikva protest, the middle- aged, veteran residents were moaning about African murders, rapes, assaults, thefts. “We’re lepers in our own community! We can’t go outside the house anymore!” cried one speaker – which is belied any day or night in the neighborhood.
I asked about a half-dozen people in the crowd if any of them had ever personally been the victim of a crime at the hands of an African refugee, if they’d ever been in any way harassed, verbally or physically, by a refugee, or if they knew anyone by name who’d fallen victim to them.
None of them had been victimized, none of them knew anyone who’d been victimized, but all had heard stories. A 12-year-old girl said an African man had called her on her cellphone – “I could tell by his accent,” she said, although she didn’t know how a refugee could have gotten her number. On her way home from school, an African man “started up” with her. “He told me, ‘I love you.’”
After the demonstration broke up, a couple of African men were lounging on a bench outside a kiosk. Inside, a few elderly men were watching news of the demonstration on TV. I asked the night clerk if he’d ever been robbed or given any trouble by the Africans in the neighborhood. “No,” he said, “but they robbed the store down the street.”
I went into the next store down and asked the night clerk if he’d ever been robbed or hassled by Africans, and he, too, said no, but that “the store after the traffic light had been robbed by them.”
I went into the store after the traffic light and asked the same question. “No,” said the proprietor, “but I got stabbed last month. Couple of Russians.” His wife, next to him behind the counter, reminded him of “that time they were fighting outside the door,” but the owner said, “Those were Ethiopians, immigrants.”
“But they cause trouble, the others, they started up with my daughter,” she said. I asked her teenage daughter what the others had done to her. “They followed me home once, they started talking to me, they said, ‘How are you?’ and when I told them I’d call the police, they went away.”
Heading back up the street, I saw the two Africans from the bench weaving down the sidewalk, extremely drunk, then turning down a side street. The refugees are not all Boy Scouts. Five have committed murders in Tel Aviv this year, their victims being a Hatikva woman and four other African refugees, police say. But Channel 2 recently reported that only one out of 90 refugees have had criminal files opened against them, compared to one out of 12 Israelis, while a Tel Aviv police spokesman says crime on the southside has actually been going down.
One of the most telling comments of the evening came from an elderly Hatikva resident named Hava Levy. She said that while she’d never been personally abused by an African nor knew anyone who had, she simply “can’t bear to see them anymore.”
They are a very visible minority in Hatikva and Tel Aviv’s other southside neighborhoods. Also in Eilat, Arad and Ashdod. They are largely young single men, they live several to a room, they’re poor, they don’t speak the language, many drink, many are unemployed. No community anywhere wants thousands of such people in its midst. They are conspicuously alien, especially the Sudanese, who tend to be very tall and dark-skinned. Like Israelis in general, folks in Hatikva are not used to living with black people, and passing these young African men on the streets, especially at night, seems to bring out a primal fear in them.
And all 35,000 of these Africans have landed on Israel’s poor. Again and again, speakers at the protest blamed the “rich northerners,” the “bleeding hearts,” the “hypocrites” who take the refugees’ side but don’t have to live with them. “The next protest will be outside Akirov Towers,” said Hatikva’s favorite son, city councilman Shlomo Maslawi, referring to the Tel Aviv luxury high rise where Defense Minister Ehud Barak lives.
In a country of 7.5 million, 35,000 refugees doesn’t sound like much, but because they are so concentrated in a few neighborhoods, they have brought about a serious social burden in the places that can least afford it.
Meanwhile, another 1,000 or more are crossing the border each month.
ANOTHER STEP the government announced a month ago was that it will try to persuade other countries, mainly in East Africa, to take at least some of them in, reportedly in return for money. “It was a nonstarter,” says the UN’s Tall, noting that African and Western countries already have hundreds of thousands or millions of Third World refugees of their own to deal with, without taking in Israel’s as well.
Of the 1,000-plus entering Israel each month, he says: “I personally think this influx is unsustainable, and the government has to address it in an asylum-friendly way.”
So far, though, no one has figured out a way to square this circle – how to reduce the flow of refugees to manageable proportions without turning away people who genuinely need asylum. Some 85 percent of them are from Eritrea and Sudan, but Israel has a signed commitment not to return refugees to countries where they would be endangered – such as Eritrea and Sudan – and it is standing by this commitment.
If the refugees can’t be sent back to Eritrea or Sudan and no other country, including Egypt, wants to take them in, what sort of “asylumfriendly way” is there to handle this “flood,” as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu calls it?
Last Friday’s march through the heart of Tel Aviv showed that the Left doesn’t have an answer, either. As about 2,000 Africans and Israelis marched up Sderot Rothschild to King George Street to Meir Park, I asked Hadash MK Dov Henin how he responded to the southside residents’ complaint that they’re being made to carry the full weight of the refugee population. “I agree with them,” he said. “I’m not against distributing the refugees to different communities. But the people of South Tel Aviv and the refugees have a common enemy – the government’s policy.”
Yet the only alternative community anyone’s suggested for the refugees is the detention camp, which Henin and the human rights organizations consider a cruel and inhuman response. And though Henin and other speakers in Meir Park declared their solidarity with the people of the southside, calling them “victims of neglect and discrimination alongside the refugees,” the people of the southside don’t return the sentiment.
I asked Alma Zohar, a young, articulate popular singer who has become a voice for the refugees, how she would deal with the issue. “There should be a nice Israeli clerk sitting at a desk at a crossing point on the border, and this clerk should check the documents of the people coming to the border, and those who are genuine refugees should receive protection, and those who aren’t should be sent along to other countries.”
When I suggested that this was exactly the problem – they can’t be sent back to Sudan and Eritrea, and no other country wants them – she replied, “You have to work something out. I’m not saying there’s a simple solution...” Her cellphone rang and the interview ended as the crowd continued chanting about “Netanyahu the racist” and “[Interior Minister Eli] Yishai the bigot” and “Asylum, yes! Deportation, no!” This was the first time the refugees had come to the wealthier side of Tel Aviv en masse. Being Friday afternoon, the sidewalks were packed with shoppers, many of whom were staring in wonder at the marchers. A cynical reading would be that they were scared stiff at seeing so many black Africans “invading” their neighborhood.
But the few people I talked to seemed torn, such as the man standing in front of the appliance shop on King George Street that he’s owned for nearly 40 years.
“I sympathize with them, definitely. All you have to do is look in their eyes. We were like them. The Jews – we went through this,” he said. “But it’s easier to identify with them when they’re not in your backyard. Neighborhoods are coming apart because so many of them are moving in. I don’t know what to think.”
He’s not alone.