The strike by African migrants was meant to illustrate what life would be like in a white Israel, free of blacks. But in truth, customers barely noticed. Cups of coffee were served and the restaurants remained clean, as other workers were mobilized and owners washed dishes. Some of the African workers felt obligated to help out, and came after the demonstration to clean up, or sent relatives.
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“It’s their human and democratic right to strike,” said Itai Beit Halevy, from Hamiznon restaurant on Tel Aviv’s King George Street, as he was cleaning up. “We are covering for them and stand behind them.” On January 19, Hamiznon, together with other restaurants, will be part of a project in which the African employees work in the front part of the restaurant serving the public, while the whites will wash dishes in the back.
Moran Kronberg manages the Gedera 26 restaurant with her husband, and had washed dishes for the first time since they’d opened three years ago.
“Washing dishes was awful,” Kronberg admitted, “but we support the strike. They have been working for us since the day we opened, and we haven’t had any workers who are as dedicated, pleasant and responsible as the Eritreans.”
Asked how many Eritreans she had employed, she said, “Don’t say ‘had employed.’ They’re still employed; don’t talk about them in the past tense. We have three Eritreans and they’re the foundation of the business. Our customers didn’t suffer because we’ve been standing on our heads and the staff is supportive and backs them in their struggle, which I think is a lost cause.”
Kronberg is very worried about the workers’ fate. “They’re scared to death, it’s a primal fear. Their visas are extended every three months and each time they don’t know if it’ll be approved. … I want to see all these people who think these are work migrants sit one time with an Eritrean and hear what he has gone through – their parents getting murdered and other horrors. No one is more of a refugee than them. And I want to stress that they are good and honest workers.”
At Café Bialik they also identify with the workers. Owner Merav Ben Shlomo says that the dishwasher who has been working with her for four years joined the strike after he got a summons to report to the Holot facility. “But he’s very close to us, so he arranged for a relative to replace him,” she said.
“Yesterday I was stuck, though,” she adds. “I looked all over for a dishwasher; I even asked young people from the neighborhood, but no one is prepared to wash dishes nowadays. I’ve worked with him for years, his babies grew up in my house. I was totally supportive of his striking. He’s very sensitive. He got the summons to Holot the day before New Year’s but he didn’t tell me so as not to ruin the party here. He told me only afterward and burst into tears.
“I offered to try to pull strings, but he didn’t agree,” Ben Shlomo added. “He said he has to help everyone, not just himself. I ask you, honestly, what’s the solution to this thing?”
Outside the noise builds, as thousands of African demonstrators shout on Allenby Street, their hands raised and banging plastic bottles.
“Get control of them, oh my God!” says someone at the nearby kiosk.
“They’re going to be our bosses someday,” says a woman, sounding fearful. “In Russia they would shoot them.”
“You know what I would do,” says a third person. “I would put them just like that on buses and drive them down to the border.”
But beyond the hate, fear and racism, there’s one thing that unites those who want to shoot the migrants and those who support them – all whipped out their cell phones to take pictures. It was clear to all that what was going on in the street was a unique event, one that might end badly.
“Take a picture, Yossi, take a picture,” says a woman in a candy story, as the people in the street shout the original name of the current ruling party, which was Herut, only they’re shouting it in English: “Freedom.”