'We Never Had Democracy'

If given the right, and the chance, some of the foreign workers encountered this week in south Tel Aviv would have been happy to cast their vote - for Tzipi Livni.

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
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Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

Benjamin Netanyahu peers down from the enormous billboard with a half-smile. "I don't know who that is, but I imagine he is one of your politicians - he looks like a politician at any rate," sayid Shiraz Bahadur, 31.

"I watch very little news. I arrived in Israel just three months ago. Everything is still new to me. I don't know the names of the leaders and parties, but I know there are elections, and they do speak to me. It is important that the parties that are good for me win," he added, settling down on a blue bench at the corner of Levinsky and Rosh Pina Streets in south Tel Aviv.

With his girlfriend beside him, wrapped in a purple shawl and listening intently, Bahadur spoke last week about coming here from Nepal, around the time when radio reports were saying the gap between Likud and Kadima had shrunk.

"I lived in Sukra, the second-largest city in the country, I worked there as a travel agent," he said. "I came because many of my friends work here. Now I take care of old people on Kibbutz Hama'apil near Hadera."

On the kibbutz he heard of Ehud Barak. "I think he belongs to a good party," Bahadur said, looking around for the Labor chairman's picture on the billboards around him. "I don't know the name of the party he heads. The truth is that I don't know most of the people who are running and what they think exactly. Since I don't have the right to vote, it's less of a practical matter for me. Maybe after another few years in Israel I will know more. Right now it's already too late for me."

Like Bahadur, many people in this part of the city are not concerned about the future of West Bank settlements, or about the growing strength of the right-wing bloc in the roiling political arena. In the early afternoon hours, the community of foreign workers and illegal migrants here is preoccupied with other issues.

Beneath Netanyahu's campaign slogan, "A big Likud, a stable government," an Indian woman is selling lettuce, drawing a cluster of people from among the crowd that fills Levinsky Park with a medley of colors and languages.

The big moments of the election campaign were never experienced here. Nobody had heard of "Bibi's stars" or journalists-turned-politicians. This was not the target audience for media spins about the future of the education portfolio, for coverage of Gil Kopatsch smoking grass at David Ben-Gurion's grave or of Tzipi Livni downing a shot of vodka at a Tel Aviv nightclub.

On the lawn, Sudanese men were sitting in big circles, dressed in shabby clothes, while a Chinese woman desperately tried to sell international calling cards. A short distance away, four male friends of hers sat at a simple restaurant, dressed in their paint-spattered work clothes. Dozens of empty beer bottles littered their table; conversation was at a minimum. As a bus went by bearing a campaign poster for Shas declaring, "A pension for every worker," they refilled their empty glasses. In silence.

On Friday, Eduard Tenderoso, editor of the monthly Manila-Tel Aviv magazine, was working at his office on the third floor of the central bus station, under a ceiling of exposed concrete. Each month he prints about 3,000 copies, which are distributed to Filipino workers throughout the country; on Fridays he gives computer lessons at the office.

"In the previous issue we focused on the war in Gaza, because there were about 120 Filipinos in the Strip," he explained. "We did not address the national elections at that time. We wrote about the local elections in Tel Aviv. For example, I interviewed Dov Khenin, one of the candidates for mayor. Some Filipinos were eligible to vote. As a temporary resident, you can vote in municipal elections, but not in Knesset elections."

Tenderoso, who lives in the Tel Aviv Port area with his wife and their three children, takes an interest in the political scene as part of his job.

"The national elections matter to us a lot," he said. "As foreign workers, government policy is important to us. Obviously, different prime ministers have different agendas with regard to us. I think Tzipi Livni is better for us, because she is more liberal. We don't really know her, but we like her. I sense that it is time for another kind of democracy. Like Barack Obama in America, maybe Tzipi Livni will bring change, because she goes against the flow."

In Tenderoso's opinion, the average migrant worker is not particularly aware of the goings-on around him: "Because he does not have ready access to sources of information, he simply does not know much. The average foreign worker has trouble watching Israeli television, because he does not understand Hebrew. At best, he can rely on CNN or other international news outlets, but he gets very little information in comparison to a Hebrew-speaking Israeli citizen. I think that what interests a foreign worker is mainly understanding what is going on in Gaza, for example, because he is directly affected by the security situation.

"I think that foreign workers with families take a much greater interest in Israeli politics. It's more important for families, because if Bibi [Netanyahu] wins, that would drastically reduce their chances of staying in Israel. Our community has good reason to fear Bibi. When he was finance minister, he did not like the foreign workers and he led a policy against us. He sold people in Israel the idea that foreign workers are taking their jobs, that we are a burden on the economy."

'Time of change'

Des Levy, 49, a Filipina married to an Israeli, shares Tenderoso's views. Levy, who lives adjacent to the bus station, runs an organization named Kali which provides assistance to Filipino workers. She said she actually watches quite a bit of television.

"I watch tons of news, mainly on Channels 2 and 10, but sometimes also Channel 1," she said. "I can already understand a little of what they say there. I watch the news every day, after dinner usually, because I want to see what's happening in the country. The foreign workers I know are, like me, interested in who is going to win the elections, especially because they have a fear that the law concerning them will change. It is a real fear that grows following elections, which are always a time of change. Today it's easy to work here, but if the law changes, it might make life difficult for us, maybe we would even be kicked out of here suddenly. It's frightening. Because of that fear, I like Tzipi Livni more. I have a feeling she would be gentler toward us."

Bakir Suleiman, 30, has lived here for two years. For him the Knesset elections constitute a democratic celebration of an enlightened world - a bright point in the bleak saga of his life.

"I am happy to see democratic elections," he explained. "So long as there are elections, it means that the country is headed in the right direction. We never had democracy. I came to Israel from Darfur, through Egypt. My village in Darfur was burned. They murdered my mother and two brothers. All I have left there are my father and one brother. They have been living in a refugee camp for more than three years.

"When I crossed the border into Israel, I did not go to jail. They took me straight away to Eilat and I worked in maintenance at the Princess Hotel for about a year. Now I live in Tel Aviv, very close to here. I work at a textile-dyeing plant in the area, every day from 7 A.M. to 7 P.M. The Israelis gave me everything. I hope that the new Israeli government will continue hosting us as they have until now, that Israel will continue to give us refuge."

Suleiman is also an ardent Livni supporter, even though he has never heard of the Kadima party. "I don't know the leaders, but I do know that Tzipi Livni is the most intelligent - like most Israeli women," he said with a big smile. "I've heard that said about her in the street. But even if she does not win, I will be glad. I have great respect for the Israelis' elections, because I think that you know better than anyone what is good for you. The Israelis know where they are going."

Suleiman's friend, Adam Bashar, was also excited to be witnessing a democratic ritual, but was not so sure that Israelis know what's good for them. He arrived in the country at 17 and attended Yemin Orde, a boarding school near Haifa. Now 20, he works for the Tel Aviv municipality as a liaison between the city's education department and 300 Darfuri pupils and their parents. He appeared to be well-versed in the nuances of local politics.

"This is my first election in Israel and it's terribly exciting for me," he said in fluent Hebrew. "I'm familiar with most of the parties - Shas, Likud, Kadima, Labor, Meretz. My opinion is that it would be good to have as many women as possible in the government. That is why I support Tzipi Livni. We've had enough of men. Barak and Bibi already had their chance to lead Israel, and they failed. Barak didn't finish even half of his term. I think he does a better job as defense minister. In the last war he made correct decisions; I'm not sure he would have managed as well as prime minister.

"The Likud party symbolizes Israel. It is a veteran party, not like Kadima, which used to be part of Likud. I think that most Israelis like Likud, because Israelis are conservative in a way. Israel is the state of the Jews, it's written in the Declaration of Independence, and therefore Likud is less in favor of integrating the Arabs. Meretz, for example, is more in favor of integration. [Avigdor] Lieberman is definitely not. He's in favor of transferring the Israeli Palestinians to Gaza and pushing the Arabs in Gaza into the sea. I think that after the elections he will join forces with Likud to form a more stable government. Lieberman keeps advancing from one election to the next. [A sizable number of Yisrael Beiteinu] Knesset seats is another matter altogether, a substantial change. In my view it will show that Israel has fallen back several years. Another four years from now he will be a very big problem."

Surrounded by gray, crumbling buildings, Bashar admitted that he was waiting impatiently for Election Day. "The Darfuris follow everything that happens in Israel. We are all waiting for the next government because in our country we never had this opportunity, to participate in a democracy. Here we have a good time talking politics. Here there are live broadcasts, gatherings of people and big signs. It's fun to watch. The elections are a new and unique experience for us. Everyone is waiting for when they announce the winner. My dream is that it will be a 'winnerette.'"