African influx to TA worries elderly Jewish holdout

As the state builds a fence on the Egyptian border, residents like Menashe are caught in the middle.

Sophia Menashe 370 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Sophia Menashe 370
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Sophie Menashe and her son are the last Jewish holdouts in her crumbling apartment building full of African migrants in south Tel Aviv’s Neveh Sha’anan neighborhood.
The 68-year-old grandmother said the decrepit, cramped apartment has become a concrete albatross hanging from her neck.
“I could sell it, but what would I get, NIS 300,000? I can’t buy anything for that and where would I go?” Menashe asked.
She said her only option would be to rent out the apartment at the end of Levinsky Street and next to the Ayalon Freeway and move elsewhere – as most of her former neighbors have done as the African migrant population of Tel Aviv has grown exponentially in the past few years.
The pint-sized grandmother said she spends almost all of her waking hours in the apartment, afraid of the young African men drinking in the building’s stairwell and courtyard.
Menashe shares the two-bedroom flat at the top of a seven-floor building with no elevator with her 30-something son and an irate Chihuahua named Buffy.
The apartment is piled high with old magazines, boxes and clothes, and appears to be bursting at the seams. The ceiling paint has peeled off in chunks, and some of the concrete is crumbling, because of leaks from the roof, which Menashe said she cannot fix because there is no residents’ committee and she cannot ask her neighbors for help.
In addition, this week she received a letter from the Tel Aviv Municipality that said she has seven days to clean up the building’s garbage- and furniture- strewn courtyard or the city will take legal steps against her.
Menashe said she received the letter because she is the only Israeli still in the building.
Israel’s rapidly growing African migrant population of around 50,000 has become a hot-button issue over the past two years, and particularly in recent weeks.
Three weeks ago, a series of buildings housing African migrants in south Tel Aviv, including a kindergarten, were hit by Molotov cocktails in attacks police say were carried out by a resident of the area’s Shapira neighborhood. Police have also made arrests in a series of sexual assaults in south Tel Aviv in recent weeks, which they say were carried out by African migrants.
On Wednesday, Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) called for the country to jail African migrants, most of whom he said are involved in criminal activities. At the same time, NGOs working with the African migrant community have reported receiving anonymous threats in recent weeks.
There appears to be the potential for havoc and widespread violence in south Tel Aviv, home to the majority of the African population in the country. Across the neighborhoods of Neveh Sha’anan, Shapira, Hatikva and Neveh Ofer live veteran Israelis like Menashe, who have seen their neighborhoods change dramatically and blame the government for not making the issue a priority.
Though the crime rate among African migrants is lower than among the general population, according to figures compiled by the Knesset in 2010, this fact is generally lost on the residents of these working class neighborhoods.
Despite the descriptions of a gilded past, these neighborhoods were never upscale and had a persistent reputation for being crime-infested. However, the influx of Africans has added racial conflict to the already troubled social dynamic and has left many veteran residents feeling foreign and outnumbered.
While dingy stairwells are not uncommon in Tel Aviv, the one in Menashe’s building is surely among the worst. Trash is scattered across the steps and an acrid smell of urine and onions wafts from the entryway to the top of the stairwell. On each floor, small subdivided apartments are crammed one after the other.
Menashe sits on her bed beneath photos of her family in Bombay, which she left at the age of nine in 1953, as well as faded posters of Bollywood stars Salman Khan and Bhagyashree.
At the foot of the bed is a small TV set, which Menashe leaves on until she falls asleep at the end of the day.
The apartment was once a source of pride for Menashe.
When her husband died 30 years ago, the former Ben-Gurion Airport food services employee left the family home in Givatayim for Neveh Sha’anan, and signed a 22-year mortgage for the small apartment.
Over the years, her neighbors grew older and died or moved out, and more and more foreigners moved in; first foreign workers, mainly from West Africa and East Asia, and over the past five or six years, East African migrants and asylum- seekers.
The sentiments that Menashe expressed toward the African migrants left little room for nuance: They carry AIDS and other diseases, are violent drunks and might be part of a plot hatched by the Jewish state’s enemies to flood Israel with African Muslims, creating a demographic threat to bring down the country from within.
Although such views would offend a wide swath of polite Israeli society, they come from a place of fear and frustration, and from long days spent cooped up in her apartment, afraid to step out into a world that has shifted beneath her feet – where Menashe now feels like a stranger.
She recoiled when asked if her fear or anger is driven by racism, saying, “Look at me, I’m black!” before describing the years she spent on the Ashkenazi kibbutz of Neveh Yam, south of Haifa, where she said her dark skin made her stick out among the Polish kibbutzniks.
The experience of being a newcomer to Israel is familiar to Menashe, though her own life story does not appear to have engendered sympathy toward the African migrants, who she said do not suffer the hardships she did as a new immigrant, and who do not respect the culture or laws of the country she loves.
“When we moved to Israel we used to kiss the ground, we loved this country so much; these people, they come here and they don’t care. They drink, they rob, they steal, they don’t care about this place.”
She also related how she, like many other Mizrahi and Sephardi newcomers, was subjected to chemical baths upon arrival in Israel, saying, “When we came here as children, they sprayed us with DDT, they gave us vaccinations. These people, they just come straight in with all their diseases and we’re the ones who have to take care of this?”
Menashe said she never had a problem with the earlier wave of migrants, who she said were merely foreign workers that kept to themselves, and were not coming to Israel to stay.
“The Filipinos were fine; I never heard anything from them. They would come to Israel and go work and leave, but these people came here to stay. What will be here in 10 years? A second Africa?” she asked.
In the meantime, while the state builds a fence on the Egyptian border and politicians scramble to capitalize on a loaded social issue, residents like Menashe find themselves caught in the middle.
“Ten years ago, I used to walk around at night, and today I am afraid to go down the stairs, I don’t know who [might] ambush me. How can I go to the beach, the boardwalk, the market?”