Opponents of African Asylum Seekers Gather in South Tel Aviv to Express Anger - and Racism

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Opponents of the High Court ruling (left) in southern Tel Aviv, September 22, 2014. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

About an hour and a half after the High Court of Justice announced that the government must shut down its Holot detention facility for asylum seekers, the sidewalk in front of 6 Etzel Street in Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood was filled with reporters interviewing people who vehemently rejected the ruling: many neighborhood residents, including Arnon Giladi, a deputy mayor.

“We are not angry, we are infuriated,” said Giladi, a resident of south Tel Aviv and a Likud politician. “This is a black day. Residents of Rehavia [an upscale Jerusalem neighborhood] don’t live with our reality.”

Longtime resident Shahaf Harari said the influx of asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea has made her feel like a minority in her own neighborhood.

“I’ve been suffering here for 40 years, but since they’ve been here, I suffer more,” said Harari, a dishwasher in a local restaurant. “I feel like a minority here. I’m not against foreigners; I’m against assembling them here in one place. Since they’ve been here, we have less of a livelihood.”

Another native Israeli resident of the Hatikva neighborhood didn’t shy away from stereotypical labels.

“What we have here in south Tel Aviv now is nothing compared to what they’ll bring here,” said Doron Mizrahi. “They’ll get National Insurance benefits and they’ll invade the whole neighborhood. I don’t like them. They stink and even if they’re quiet, they have no culture.”

One resident stole all the focus when he began shouting hoarsely about how the newcomers have changed the nature of Shabbat in the neighborhood because of the African-owned stores that are open on the Jewish day of rest. “Come on Saturday and see the shops,” he said. “I don’t feel like this is a Jewish place.”

The presence of cameras appeared to be provoking anger — and racism — in a neighborhood that had calmed down considerably in recent months. One boy started yelling at African migrants waiting for a bus, calling them “monkeys.” Some of those gathered lashed out at “leftists,” with one insisting that Peace Now was responsible for the High Court ruling.

At one point a woman got annoyed when she caught sight of an African migrant who was standing near the crowd and smiling amid the commotion. “Why is he smiling?” the woman wondered out loud, and whacked him with a bag. A TV reporter attempted to separate them as the man fled.

The woman switched to hitting the reporters, until she burst into tears.

Several longtime residents went as far as comparing south Tel Aviv, post-migrant influx, to the iniquity of the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah. When pressed, some admitted that might be a bit of an exaggeration — prompted by the sight of darker skin tones, and fear. “At night you hardly see a white person around,” one of the residents said. “I feel safe, but you have no children. If you did, you wouldn’t let them on the streets at night.”

Not all native Israeli residents were upset by the High Court ruling.

“I feel safe here,” said a young religious woman named Sarit, who lives in the neighborhood and works as a child caregiver. “I’m on good terms with my Eritrean neighbors. They tell me that if Israel would help them depose the dictator in Eritrea, they’d be happy to leave and study in university there rather than do cleaning work here. It’s not their fault, it’s the government’s fault.”

A woman standing nearby disagreed, saying African migrants had stolen her necklace. “There are all kinds,” insisted Sarit.

But the other woman was not pacified. “The problem is that they’ll breed,” she said. “We should stand up and get rid of them.”

Asylum seekers in the streets, meanwhile, said they were happy about the ruling, but could not be seen celebrating. Sammy, a migrant from Eritrea, said he had learned of the court ruling on Facebook.

“I am happy,” he said. “Many people in Israel are helping us. In Eritrea they cut off people’s heads and put them in baskets. The whole world knows our dictator. It’s better to die here than to go back. Because we work hard, we have no time to celebrate.”

The knot of residents and reporters eventually broke up, but not before some people said they would organize to harm the migrants.

“We have to be like Islamic State, cutting off hands and feet,” said one.

Asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv, September 22, 2014.Credit: Eli Hershkovitz

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