No ‘peaceful abode’

Veteran Naveh Sha’anan residents complain that nothing is being done to prevent the deterioration of their neighborhood.

South Tel Aviv 521 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
South Tel Aviv 521
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Bronze-skinned, sure-footed, and scarcely a meter and a half tall, 68-year-old Sophie Menashe stands amid the courtyard rubble of 138 Levinsky Street, a place she has called home for over three decades. She heaves a defeated sigh.
“I’ve lived here for 31 years. There were once many legal tenants here, but they’ve all gone. But now, they’ve subdivided all the apartments, and I don’t even know who lives here. Many, many Sudanese – I don’t know how many come and go. You saw all the garbage they’ve thrown on the roof, in the stairwell. We have no life here. There were recently two rapes in our stairwell.
“Thank God, nothing has happened to me, because I always go up at 5 p.m. before nightfall,” she tells Metro.
To its veteran residents, Naveh Sha’anan is no longer recognizable. In less than a decade, the bustling south Tel Aviv neighborhood, home to bus stations and bazaars, has lost its predominantly Mizrahi character in a large wave of East African refugees and economic migrants who number in the tens of thousands.
A peripheral neighborhood built on bootstraps and small family businesses, Naveh Sha’anan is home to a community that is the picture of Israel’s traditional working class: no-frills, patriotic, and modestly devout. Despite the name given it by its planners, “Peaceful Abode,” locals in this longstanding transportation hub are no strangers to tumult. Egyptian bombs killed dozens on sorties over the neighborhood in 1948; in the following decades, stirrings of ethnic consciousness boiled over at the colorful, since-demolished old central bus station. During the second intifada, idling buses and bustling markets put Naveh Sha’anan on the map as a center of terrorist carnage.
But for the first time, established residents of the area fear dissolution. In what might appear to the liberal outsider’s eye as just the latest phase in a neighborhood’s perpetual remaking, Sudanese and Eritrean migrants have occupied storefronts and street corners across Naveh Sha’anan, leaving veterans concerned for the neighborhood’s Israeli identity and for their very livelihoods.
Tiran Nahum, the eagle-eyed owner of a local Asian-themed international grocery, speaks in the first person plural – a knowing echo of local business-owners’ alarm at the radical changes ushered in by the neighborhood’s demographic shakeup.
“The situation really degrades us as Israelis. They brought total foreigners here, and nobody looks after them. They give them nothing. And they bring them here, and rather than fighting them, they fight us. Everything is forbidden to us – even to throw a match on the ground. But they’re allowed to do whatever. They can have signs in languages other than Hebrew, but for us, only Hebrew! I had a sign for Pillsbury in English here, but they wrote me up, and I had to change it to Hebrew. They throw their garbage in front of our stores, and we’re written up for it,” he says.
“In the last four years, they’ve uprooted everything we’ve planted. Here, I’ve built a business for the long run, which provides revenue for the State of Israel. Taxes, healthcare payments, profit for the Tel Aviv Municipality. And it seems they want us to get up and go,” he continues.
Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld emphatically denies claims of neighborhood neglect, describing police activities in Naveh Sha’anan as consistent with a broader policy of maintaining the peace through community engagement.
“We’ve set up a police unit in Levinsky Park to strengthen the community and respond to incidents that take place, whoever is responsible. But in reality, these are the same kinds of crimes that take place in downtown Tel Aviv,” he says.
But beyond concerns about livelihood and neighborhood continuity, Nahum speaks a language of sanctity – of a Jewish presence violated by the anarchic tide of newcomers, oblivious to old Naveh Sha’anan’s customs and sacred ways.
Crossing the street, he gestures at a large, wellanchored tent abutting the fading remains of a permanent structure. Sudanese men in tracksuit jackets and T-shirts converse under the din of upbeat African pop, watching real-life and video game soccer matches side-by-side on a neat row of flat television screens.
“Take a look at this synagogue.... You’ll see on the sign – Beit Yisrael. Over the years, we took care of this synagogue. We had a minyan, three prayers a day, holidays, sweets on Simhat Torah. It was pleasant and calm. And then slowly, they took over the open area, opened up shops around it, and turned the yard into a Sudanese bar. They threw the Torah scrolls out onto the street – a truck came from the rabbinate to recover them. This was two weeks before last Rosh Hashana. It will soon be a full year, and nothing has been done. Everyone came – army officers, police officials. They spoke, and nothing,” says Nahum.
However, in Nahum’s words, the worst of the Naveh Sha’anan situation is by no means limited to the economic or cultural threats to its community. Leaning forward, he intones an ominous street rumor.
“The worst thing is that they’ve brought al-Qaida organizations here. Al- Qaida is in the heart of Tel Aviv. The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) knows this, and is here following them,” he says.
The smallish, enthusiastic grocer marches in the direction of a nearby restaurant festooned with faded Amharic signs promising homecooked food and live entertainment. He nudges a young Sudanese man who declines to be named, urging him to recall what they’d discussed about al- Qaida. For what it’s worth, the young man shakes his head vigorously.
“There’s some crime here, but I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he offers in fluent Hebrew. Nahum nudges and nudges again, once with a smile and once with a forceful pinch.
“Next time,” he smiles.
Yonaton Jakubowicz, a founder of the Israeli Immigration Policy Center, shrugs. “Maybe there is no al-Qaida here, but this city is quickly losing its Jewish majority. Up to 20 percent in Tel Aviv are migrant workers, more than half of those African. So much for the first Hebrew city.”
Despite a wide gap in ideological concerns, disaffected residents and migration control advocates share with liberal activists a deep mistrust of policymakers, whose ambivalent approach to the migrant issue strikes them as utterly confusing. Whispers of secret government intrigue abound.
“Have you seen The Wire [the television crime drama about Baltimore]? That’s what the government is trying to do here. Turn south Tel Aviv into a ghetto, at least that’s what it looks like,” Jakubowicz speculates.
Nahum, convinced that the law in the neighborhood favors migrants, is unambiguous.
“I asked, ‘Why is the burden on us and not them?’ And I was told, because you have an ID card. Yes, I have an ID card, I pay taxes, I’m a General Staff Reconnaissance Unit graduate, and I’ve done everything for the state. When I speak to the mayor’s office, I’m told that it’s a temporary problem, and that things will soon improve. They’re wonderful in words, but in actions, nada. Nothing. The situation is only getting worse for us. [The politicians] have fallen on their heads. There’s a government policy to cleanse south Tel Aviv of Israelis, of the established business-owners. I don’t know why,” he says.
“We need to fight for a solution to this, once and for all. Take the refugees and send them to camps, like in Turkey. Build bases for them, provide food, and house them until a solution can be reached,” he opines.
Though his speech is peppered with comments about African immigrants’ criminality and unassimilability, Jakubowicz agrees with Nahum – assigning chief blame to an indecisive government and drawing distinctions within the illegal African migrant population.
“It would be possible to find an orderly process for political refugees while figuring a way to send the infiltrators, or ‘economic refugees,’ back to their home countries, or to a third country. But as of now, Israel receives more refugees than any country in Europe, including Germany, which is 10 times as large,” he explains.
Despite differences over language and the shape of a formal government policy, activists on the Left agree that government inaction has taken a toll not only on migrant workers, but also on established Israeli residents of Naveh Sha’anan.
“The veteran population is a consistent victim in the government’s failure to have a consistent policy. It leads to a situation in which asylum seekers are forced and encouraged by the government to be in the weakest neighborhoods of Tel Aviv and areas of Israel. To pit veteran residents against asylum seekers misses the point and plays into the hands of the government, which has failed both,” a spokesman from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel tells Metro.
In her dilapidated, block-like building down the street, Menashe offers less politic words, indicting the government and demanding drastic action to prevent a local meltdown.
“I never imagined that in 50 or 60 years, things like this would happen here. That Muslims would come here – it’s not enough that we have a war with our neighbors? That we have enemies – do we need enemies within? The government is guilty, because they brought them here, straight to south Tel Aviv! I definitely didn’t bring them. What more can I ask from the government? This is my country, and they need to take them back to their countries.”
But Zaki, a young Darfurian refugee in a pastel polo shirt, has other designs.
“Not only can’t I, but I don’t want to go back home. I’d like to remain here in Tel Aviv. I’ve been here for five years, and this is my neighborhood too,” he proclaims in crisp, well-worn Hebrew.