Poverty, unemployment, drugs and a gang culture were the background to the murder of three teenagers by other teens in an Ethiopian neighborhood of Rehovot. Without radical changes, frightened residents fear that the next killing is just a matter of time.
It is afternoon on a cloudy late- summer day. Itai Oshato, 34, a tour guide specializing in Ethiopia, takes a business card out of his wallet. It carries a photograph of a plane against the background of an Ethiopian desert landscape. In the meantime, though, Oshato is here, outside the community center in Rehovot's Kiryat Moshe neighborhood, where an improvised market is being held. The merchandise, mostly used white clothing, lies on the ground. People, many wearing small straw hats, mill around, chatting quietly in Amharic. No one is buying.
"The past few years were very bad for the Ethiopian community in Rehovot," says Oshato - who worked as a youth leader in the community for a decade - as he watches the crowd. "On the surface, everything is fine, but you don't see what is simmering below. The street is calm, and then suddenly a murder and another murder." He closes his eyes for a moment. "It's hard for me to cope with the murders. Sometimes we think things are getting better, that change is starting, but these murders raise the question of whether things will ever get better. It is a truly extreme situation." A note of despair creeps into his voice.
The community has produced three adolescent murderers. Two of them killed their neighbors, members of the community. In 2004, David Masfin, 16, was murdered, and this year, Adameh Tarikan, 17, was slain. Both were stabbed to death. In 2005, Maayan Sapir, a 15-year-old girl - not an Ethiopian - from a different neighborhood, was raped and strangled.
Michal Haim, a spokeswoman for National Police Headquarters, speaks of an exceptional coincidence - "even more exceptional because they took place in the same city and were committed by teenagers. It's also an exceptional level of crime - there is no doubt about it."
"It is inconceivable," Oshato says. "It is brutal. Just imagine, the families of the murderers and their victims live close to each other, just a few hundred meters apart. Yes, the parents of the murderers left the neighborhood and the city, but the blow also affected the relatives, who remained in Rehovot and sometimes suffer from threats. I know an elderly woman who simply cannot go where she wants to, because she gets threats. She went to the police, but it didn't help. After every murder there is fear of revenge. Everything goes haywire.
"There is also a ripple effect," he continues. "I feel that we did not treat the problems in depth, that we messed up. The children grew up with their parents' frustrations. We did not find a solution. To this day there is no communication, no common language between children and parents. I came to Israel at the age of 13. My generation fuses the two cultures, so it's easier for us. But it's harder for the Ethiopian children who were born here. The parents don't know Hebrew, the children don't know Amharic. Communication between them is so skimpy. The best community center in the world cannot bridge problems like that. But I am optimistic."
"I am optimistic, because things could be a lot worse. There could be far worse things. Believe me."
The neighborhood of Kiryat Moshe is the heart of the Ethiopian immigrant community in Rehovot. In the 1950s, it was populated mainly by Holocaust survivors and North African immigrants; today, more than half the residents are Ethiopians who arrived in the 1990s. The neighborhood soon became a distressed area. According to the municipality, about 10,000 Ethiopians live in Kiryat Moshe. There are many large families, with seven children or more, and the unemployment rate exceeds 50 percent.
Police statistics show that in 2006, 225 criminal files were opened for adolescents in Rehovot, more than half of them (118) for youths of Ethiopian origin. By comparison, in Netanya, where the Ethiopian community is about the same size as in Rehovot, about 160 criminal files were opened for adolescents in 2006, only about 50 of them, less than 30 percent, for Ethiopians.
The bloodstained chronology dates from July 2004, when David Masfin, 16, was murdered by a 15-year-old boy (whose name cannot be published because he is a minor). The two teenagers, both Ethiopians, chanced to meet on Herzl Street and reprised an old dispute over a bicycle. The argument became heated. The younger boy pulled out a knife and plunged it twice into Masfin's chest, eight centimeters deep. All the way to the heart. Other boys who happened to be at the scene called an ambulance - the time was a little after midnight - and fled. Masfin was pronounced dead at Kaplan Hospital, and it was the hospital that informed police about the murder.
In March 2005, a 25-year-old man who worked with street youth was beaten savagely by two youngsters aged 15 and 17 after leaving the Kiryat Moshe community center. One of the youths went up to him on the street and started to attack him for no reason, pulling his shirt and kicking him. The second youth then joined in the assault. The man fell to the ground and the two kicked him all over his body and pounded him with stones. At the time, they were supposed to be under house arrest for drug abuse.
In the same month the community center was set ablaze several times. Staff of the Rehovot welfare services went back to work in the neighborhood only after the municipality agreed ot their demand that guards be posted at the building. A month later, Maayan Sapir was murdered.
It happened on a Friday, May 27, 2005. The boy who became her killer was on leave from a facility for juvenile delinquents. That evening, Sapir met a friend, and on her way home, she was assaulted next to the old ORT vocational school. She was raped and sodomized and then strangled to death. At about 10 P.M., some girls who happened to pass by the site noticed a human leg sticking out of bushes and alerted police. Sapir's naked body lay under a tree in the schoolyard.
Three months ago, there was another murder in Kiryat Moshe, on a night between Friday and Saturday on the city's main street. Adameh Tarikan was murdered in the course of a fight between two gangs. The killer, at 16 a year younger than his victim, had a police record for property crimes, violence and possession of a dangerous weapon. Tarikan was taken to hospital, where he died of his wounds on Saturday morning. His family is still keeping to itself, refusing to talk to anyone. One of the community leaders notes, "It took a long time to resolve the feud between the family of the victim and the family of the murderer, and as part of the effort to keep things calm, the community has no desire to reopen the case."
Murder on a furlough
David Masfin's killer, who was sentenced to seven years in prison, came to Israel from Ethiopia when he was two and a half years old. His mother was referred to a hostel for battered women, and he himself was in the care of the welfare services since the age of 8. At age 11 he was sent for observation to a hostel outside Rehovot, and while he was there, criminal files were opened against him for theft, extortion under threat and aggravated assault (against another youngster in the hostel).
At the age of 12 he was transferred, at his request, to the Mitzpe Yam Hostel in Herzliya. There he was accused of putting out cigarettes on the bodies of other boys. At 14 he was sent for a psychiatric examination; on the way home he escaped from the vehicle that was transporting him. A year later he was arrested again, this time on suspicion of being in possession of stolen property. He returned to the Herzliya hostel, but was evicted for endangering other youths. After committing another act of assault, he was held in detention in Ofek prison for three months. A month before the murder he was tried and sentenced to 10 months in prison. It was during a furlough that he murdered David Masfin.
Investigators from the Rehovot police juvenile unit located Maayan Sapir's killer hours after the crime. Testimonies led them to the boy's house. When their pounding on the door went unanswered, they forced their way in and found the boy watching a pornographic film. "I ran into the girl and suddenly I found myself strangling her," he told his interrogators. "I strangled her and then I went home to sniff glue. I thought it was a hallucination. I was scared and I ran home. After that I called a girl and took her to the place where I left the girl. I asked her if she was really dead. When I heard her say yes I got out of there fast."
A culture of gangs
Maayan Sapir's mother, Sarah, sits in her home, worn out by the relentless burden of her grief. "I am very familiar with the Ethiopian community; I know their distress," she says, almost in a whisper. "I worked as a secretary in a nursing company in Gedera. More than half the caregivers we employed were women from that community. After the murder, all the girls came to me at home. I know they live from hand to mouth, but still, they arrived in taxis. I don't blame the whole community, but there is obviously a serious crisis there, and for that I blame our leadership. Do people have any idea what is going on there? The boy who murdered Maayan is from a dysfunctional family - his mother has five children from different fathers. The mother begged that he should not be let out of the hostel: she herself was afraid of him. But they let him out. And they are not the only family living like that, on the edge."
Sapir remembers how thrilled she was when the new immigrants from Ethiopia, dressed in white, emerged from the plane that brought them to Israel. "They looked so tranquil, so polite; I don't know what happened to them. Where the madness comes from. Things will not work out by themselves. The men there have lost their status, they are simply ground down. In the best case, they drink most of the day, and in other cases they vent their anger by beating the women and the children.
"We had a case at work when a caregiver did not show up because she had been viciously beaten by her son. He went crazy and simply battered his mother. My ex-husband does a lot of wedding photography in their neighborhood. One day they threw stones and beer bottles at his car. That was after Maayan's murder.
"A Harlem culture of street gangs has developed there," she continues. "They pulled my ex out of there by the skin of his teeth. We have a bus driver friend who says he is afraid to drive in the neighborhood. I hardly leave the house now. Not long ago I went to visit friends on a Friday evening. I got back at 4 A.M. and walked along the main street of Rehovot. I was shocked. Piles of young people are sitting there. I was amazed that there were many from the Ethiopian community. There wasn't a kid without a bottle of liquor, and I don't mean beer. I don't know, the youngsters there are consumed with anger, and it will explode again."
Dr. Gadi Ben Ezer, a senior lecturer in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at the College of Management in Rishon Letzion, has been studying the Ethiopian community in Israel for more than 25 years. "I think the violent events that occurred there in the past few years are above all due to the failure of the integrating society to create a feeling of belonging among the immigrants from Ethiopia. That is the origin of the problems," Ben Ezer says. "A feeling of belonging within a community, and in particular among youth, generates a desire to cope with difficulties and immunizes people against the hardships they encounter. This community is hurt every day because it is different, because of its skin color - racist remarks are part of its everyday experience. In most cases of serious violence, those involved are young people who have lost hope, who see no future. They feel that the future will be even worse.
"The conflict with the rabbinate concerning their Jewish identity remains unresolved," Ben Ezer continues. "Ethiopian couples who want to marry still have to undergo a check of their Jewishness and sometimes even ritual immersion, which is a form of conversion to Judaism. That is, again, part of the crisis of belonging. They are told, 'You are not sufficiently Jewish,' and that affects every boy and girl. It's amazing how much of an effect it has.
"The authorities' discarding the blood they donated in 1996 [for fear it might be contaminated by the HIV virus] is also part of their narrative. For the young people, such events are a permanent point of reference, which only compounds their everyday difficulties - the poverty, the alienation, their feeling that their parents don't belong, either, and can't back them. They are cut off from the education system: it skips over them and leaves them behind. It's a process in which they simply slide to the margins of society."
One of those on the margins is Meir, 18. It's 4 P.M. He is in front of the Kiryat Moshe community center, waiting for someone. He has a rap group, for which he writes the texts.
What do you write about?
"About my life, about what I go through every day, about what I see around me, about the shit I swallow. About the sadness and the happiness. I write about the condition of the neighborhood, about my friends, it's all bad news. About racism. I am trying to start a revolution. I want to make a revolution in the whole country. I want to stop the racism. I want people to see me as a Jew, not as an Ethiopian. I came here as a Jew, but as I wrote in a song, 'It all changed fast.'"
When did you arrive?
"At the age of 4."
Did you finish high school?
"No. I didn't go to school for a long time. I had problems. I tangled with kids."
Are you going to do army service?
"I want to, but I don't think they will take me."
What do you say about the violence in the neighborhood?
"There were a lot of murders here, but I don't know the people. The bottom line is that I think it bothers people, but sometimes there is nothing you can do. How to explain it to you? 'If someone wants to kill you, kill him first.' There are good kids, too, who murder without meaning to, and there are some who murder on purpose. It's the fault of the state that threw us all into one place. I see it. All I want is for people to see us as Jews. One time I threw a stone at a cat, it was a mistake, and an Israeli neighbor, a woman, saw it and shouted at me, 'Go back to where you came from. Why are you here? This isn't your country. Your country is Ethiopia.' People won't hire me, either. Forget it, it doesn't matter."
Meir takes a long breath. He is tired of talking. He calls a friend over. "Talk with Yisrael a little," he suggests. Yisrael is 19, a member of the rap group. He, too, has been evicted from every institution he tried. "People are given help in the neighborhood, but not the right people," he says. "It's easy to help people who accept help easily, the good kids. But when it comes to the others, the kids who are called 'hooligans,' they don't get help, and it's hard for them to be part of the activities here in the community center."
Are you one of the hooligans?
Do you have buddies in jail?
"Sure, what else? My pals, they all did time. And not just once. But that's nothing. The police look for us, hunt us. They search you six times a day and rough you up."
Did that happen to you?
"Sure, in front of everyone. They provoke us. They provoke you over every little thing and then they screw you and there is no one to help you. The IIU [police Internal Investigations Unit] tells you to give them proof, and you don't have proof. Our police are the shittiest there is."
Where is your family?
"I only have a mother, my father died in Ethiopia, I don't know, I don't know him. Mom works, as a cleaner, I think. I have six brothers and sisters."
Neighborhood of mud
Avi Masfin, spokesman of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, feels that despite the series of murders, the establishment does not realize how serious the situation is. "You don't see this anywhere, a chain of events like this, in which teenagers murder teenagers, anywhere else in the country. But in my opinion it's a miracle it hasn't happened in other places. The authorities don't have a clue about the scale of the problem. I hope the Rehovot case will not be repeated in other places, but I think it's just a matter of time, because the same problem of the Ethiopian community in Rehovot exists in other communities, too."
A few months after the murder of Maayan Sapir, a community police station was established in Kiryat Moshe to deal with the community's young people. The station, located in the heart of the neighborhood, is like a huge monument that reminds everyone about the murders and about how bad things are.
Shaul Sagahon, 30, who has worked for ELEM (Association for Youth in Distress) for more than four years, is proud of the police station. "Listen," he says, "when it comes to the Ethiopian aspect, Rehovot is not the same place it was three years ago. I remember that as a young employee who came here, I observed things and told myself that there were so many things the community was lacking - frameworks for youth, attentiveness, budgets and a huge community center to provide activities. There were a lot of gaps. Today there is a community center, there is a community police station and there is a new leadership. Changes have been made here. Tragedies happen, that can't be helped, but we can make things a little better. Nothing will change overnight. I believe that things have changed for the better, and there are also results - a 33 percent decrease in crime in the neighborhood."
Sagahon arrived in Israel from Ethiopia at the age of 9. "We went straight to the absorption center in Kiryat Gat, where we lived for five years," he relates, skipping over a mound of sand in front of the neighborhood youth club he manages. "From there we moved to Ramle. When you look at us, you see that we look alike. That is legitimate, and I do not get upset at the stigmas, but I will not generalize about the community. We are in neighborhoods where all the people [from the community] live together; sometimes that's good, a lot of the time it's bad.
"These crises are like a mirror: they reflect what is happening and there is no way to evade it. You can't go around pretending there are no problems. I know that this is not an easy place for kids to grow up in. Poverty is a messy producer of huge frustration, and it does its work silently. But I believe that after 25 years the people here have woken up. They understood that there are no alternatives, that if they don't help themselves, no one will help them. We always let others deal with the problems here. We said, 'They will take care of it, they will do it.' Now people are starting to take responsibility for their children, for their neighborhood, they are struggling for their little corner. They needed this shock to wake up."
But a walk through the neighborhood is not encouraging. Piles of garbage lie between the buildings. Every mailbox has been savaged, not even the names left on them. One of these shabby tenements is home to Yael Afriat, 22, coordinator of the Kiryat Moshe branch of the left-wing Hashomer Hatza'ir youth movement.
"When you look at a map of Rehovot," she says, "you see how cut off this neighborhood is from the city. It is a triangle that is isolated from everything. On one side are dunes, and on the other the Yavneh road. There are also class divisions inside the neighborhood: people who live close to the community center have a different status from those who live in the Chika projects. The projects are a square of self-enclosed tenements, and the children there do not avail themselves of the activities in the community center, even though it is only a 10-minute walk away.
"When we invited kids to our activities, the Chika kids didn't show up. It's a different world. The people in Chika are seriously stigmatized. Chika means 'mud' in Amharic. When they arrived, there was no proper infrastructure and the whole area was covered in mud. And that became its nickname."
The Hashomer Hatza'ir branch is in Chika, on Yom Kippur Street. Adameh Tarikan's family lived in Chika, too. "After Adameh's murder, 60 children came to the branch. They did not go to the social workers at the community center. In the end, the social workers came to us. We had whole days of total silence here. It was a nightmare," Afriat says. "He was a very good boy; his family is one of the good families. The murderer's father came to the shiva [the week of mourning] and was thrown out. I was there. At the funeral people fell apart, screamed, collapsed, cried. Busloads of people came to the neighborhood. After the funeral they put a lid on everything, bottled it all up inside and didn't talk about it anymore.
"During the shiva, the children were in a state of shock - the Ethiopian shiva is not just for adults - and there was no place for them to be. They sat around reading the newspaper articles about the murder. We opened the branch every day. The children asked us a great many questions: Does paradise exist? What will happen to Adameh's soul? What is the difference between manslaughter and murder?"
A marginal death
Zaouda Abai, a member of the Rehovot city council who holds the city's sports and immigrant absorption portfolios and is chairman of the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood, finds it difficult to speak. He stands by the window in one of the rooms of the community center, lost in contemplation. Asked how the small community is coping with the spate of disasters, he is evasive. "An average Ethiopian family in the neighborhood consists of between seven and fourteen souls," he says. "The average salary here is below the minimum wage, something like NIS 3,000 a month. Usually it's only the wife who works. No one wants to hire the men. That is the starting point. In this state of affairs, the residents face a dire economic situation. When they were offered mortgages to buy homes, they were allocated only a small amount, enough to buy only three-room apartments in distressed neighborhoods. Now they can't get out."
He has a burning ambition for the members of his community to experience a different feeling. In the meantime, he knows that everything is passing them by, that no one is taking an interest in them. Reluctant to express his despair, he lists the problems laconically. "Between 10 and 14 family members live in three-room apartments. Most of the families have relatives who are waiting in Addis Ababa and are not being brought to Israel. I estimate that more than 25 percent of the families in the neighborhood have to provide for the families waiting in Ethiopia. This whole state of affairs generates difficulty and frustration. All the people who had status in Ethiopia - here no one even looks at them, they won't even hire them to do cleaning work. What humiliation that is, how embittering. And they have nothing to do."
One problem of the leaders of the Ethiopian community in Rehovot would appear to be their unwillingness to cry out for help. Abai, an elected official whose task it is to articulate the problems clearly and sharply, ultimately sends a message of "business as usual." He prefers to talk at length about a sports team consisting of Ethiopian youth, about immigrants who were integrated quickly, compared to other groups of newcomers, about generous donors "from the Toronto [Zionist] Federation and the New York Federation, who are putting a lot of money into the neighborhood." But he will not talk about the violence. Instead, he says, surprisingly, "It's a good neighborhood, quiet. People live here tranquilly."
"Yes. The murder could have happened anywhere. Our problem is that whenever something happens in the Ethiopian community, it gets blown up in the media and painted in garish colors. It is a lie to describe us as a crime neighborhood. The Ethiopian community is portrayed as problematic; a murder in the Ethiopian community is covered by the press disproportionately. It is frustrating and destructive."
Would you rather have the papers ignore such events?
"Let them write about them, but not in a humiliating way."
Do you feel that the community is being humiliated?
"All the time. I feel that the media coverage changes in relation to the victim's skin color. When Adameh was murdered I thought the media coverage was meager. Everyone knows who Maayan Sapir is, but no one has ever heard of Adameh. As though his murder was marginal. Of no interest. We suffer from all sides: on the one hand the murderers are given big play, but at the same time the victims are disdained. That is the illogic of this whole story."
Canceled budgets, parental crisis
Carmela Cooper, media adviser of the Rehovot municipality: "The mayor, Shuki Forer, is working on behalf of the neighborhood's residents and for the members of the Ethiopian community in the city in a way that constitutes a learning and role model throughout the country.
"The budget for the neighborhood stands at NIS 11 million a year (thanks to the generosity of the local authority, government ministries and the New York Federation), of which NIS 10 million is allocated for dealing with children and youth. Seventy percent of the neighborhood's budget, NIS 7.8 million, is invested in closing learning gaps, including parental guidance for early-childhood care, bridging between kindergarten staff and the community, integration in Jewish holidays, learning reinforcement, subsidizing day camps, installing computers, health guidance for youth, preparation for matriculation, paid employment for youth and more.
"Following the shocking murder of Maayan Sapir, of blessed memory, the municipality launched the 'Safe Summer for Youth' project, which offers activities for young people throughout the summer vacation, until late at night, including weekends. In addition, this summer the municipality began to operate patrol vans on Friday nights at places frequented by young people.
"At the same time, much work remains to be done, and to that end we have recruited the government of Israel, recognizing the national need to find answers for the neighborhood's integration problems. Two years ago, the Sharon government established an interministerial committee of directors general to find solutions for the neighborhood. The committee, which was under the chairmanship of the Housing Ministry, met for a year and formulated its recommendations, which will cost NIS 170 million to implement. Regrettably, the present government canceled implementation of the recommendations, and since then the mayor has been fighting to get that decision revoked."
Yifrah Duchovny, chief of the Shfela subdistrict of the police, which includes Rehovot, was born and raised in the city. Four years ago, he says, the police began to bolster the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood, where four policemen now work, two of them Ethiopians. "In Kiryat Moshe we enforce the law in the classic way," he says, "but we also do community work. We are connected to the community center and have created a large infrastructure of activity groups. The police itself runs a soccer group in the neighborhood. We have more than 30 Civil Guard volunteers from the community. The offenses committed by Ethiopian youth in Rehovot are minor. Three years ago the situation was far more difficult. Youngsters ran wild in the streets and it was dangerous to walk outside. Today, things are completely different, but still, we were unable to prevent the last murder.
"I think the murder was a tragic and sad chance event. The concentration of the Ethiopian community here is one of the largest in the country, but I am hard-pressed to pinpoint a specific reason for the chain of murders, for the crime levels in the neighborhood. I find economic reasons, national reasons, including a huge crisis in the community, children who cannot find their place, a parental crisis, a situation in which parents have barely any influence on their children, and a lack of integration between Ethiopian youth and sabra youth."