Downtown Tel Aviv Is Nearing a Racial Boiling Point

We like migrants only if they are Jewish, white or from Southeast Asia and if they'll make our lives easier.

Sami Peretz
Sami Peretz
Sami Peretz
Sami Peretz

For some people, it's all very simple: The Africans in Israel are refugees; they must be recognized as such and must be given their rights and the opportunity to live and work here. We are human beings, they are human beings, we have experienced the Holocaust, we are Jews, and so on and so forth.

For others, the picture is also simple, but different: These people are migrant workers and everything must be done to get them out of this country. They are robbing jobs from poor Israelis, are concentrated in south Tel Aviv which has turned into a furiously bubbling pressure-cooker, and have brought diseases and violence into this country.

For me, the picture is not so clear.

I have been working in southern Tel Aviv since the 1990s and every morning I see them in their hundreds. I see them standing quietly on street corners, with their hands in the pockets of their sweatshirts, waiting for someone to offer them a day’s or a week’s work. I see their children as they go to school and at the end of another school day: They are sweet and full of joy. The girls wear African-style braids and the parents of all these children are very restrained. I have never felt threatened by their presence here. They have not come here looking for trouble. That point is clear. For a moment I feel as if I am in downtown Manhattan when I pass by the Bialik-Rogozin High School on Ha’aliyah Street and see the students on a basketball court separated from the street by a high fence. It is a pleasant feeling, and blends with the overall sense that Tel Aviv is a cosmopolitan city, like New York, Paris or London − a metropolis with a myriad tones, colors and aromas.

These romantic feelings are somewhat dissipated by more rational thoughts of an economic, analytical nature. Is Israel built to absorb a never-ending flow of refugees/migrant workers? Can heterogeneous Israel with all its internal disputes and conflicts absorb yet another community into its midst? Can Israel, which does not treat its own citizens equally, receive refugees/migrant workers as equals? Can it see to their every need?

It is hard to dwell on such rational thoughts when you are walking along the sidewalk and see before you a group of African children with huge backpacks on their way to school, all smiles and chuckles. We were all created in God’s image. How can we possibly think that our place is here and their place is somewhere else far away, where conditions are harsh and where the dangers are far greater? Of course, one can always add the element of the Holocaust; however, the problem is sufficiently complex without any need for such an additional element.

Here in Israel we are used to dealing with problems only when they are large-scale and very threatening, for example in the way we deal with issues involving the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) community, the Bedouin or Israeli Arabs and when we talk about the rights and privileges of such communities. Apparently, Israel managed to put a stop to the problem of the African infiltrators before it snowballed into a massive issue; nonetheless, this is no small-scale dilemma. It is a medium-sized problem that could easily become a large or even extra-large one. The Interior Ministry’s nightmare is the picture of 20 million Africans journeying from the African continent and searching for whatever country will give them asylum and provide them with the opportunity to be socially integrated and earn a living. Israel’s aggressive manner of dealing with the problem is intended to eliminate Israel from the list of possible asylum options for these people.

Since 2006, more than 50,000 Eritreans and Sudanese have arrived in Israel and live primarily in south Tel Aviv and Eilat; some of them live in other cities such as Petah Tikva and Hadera. At some stages in the past eight years, the pace of Africans' entry into Israel was high, with more than 1,000 people arriving monthly, and there was the distinct danger that Israel could become a place of asylum for masses of African migrants. No one can dispute the fact that this would be a dangerous and very unwelcome scenario.

The construction of the fence along Israel’s border with Egypt blocked the entry of African refugees/migrant workers; however, they are still trying to get in. Only last Tuesday, the Israel Defense Forces caught 10 Sudanese who had crossed the border and were subsequently sent to the Saharonim detention/incarceration center for a period of one year. They will then be transferred to the somewhat more humane Holot detention center. Interior Ministry officials who spoke with them got the impression that these Sudanese had been carefully taught what to say to the Israeli authorities so that they would not be deported immediately from Israel. They were told to say that they were refugees and that they were fleeing for their lives. From this moment they have joined a long queue, which today numbers some 1,800 persons, who are applying for refugee status in a verification process conducted by the Refugee Status Determination unit.

The verification process is very slow: So far only 300 people have been checked, although since Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar assumed his post, the number of staff in this unit has been doubled from 30 to 60. On the other hand, 50,000 refugees/migrants have not submitted an application to be granted refugee status. They asked for such status in last week's protest demonstrations but have not attempted to do so through official channels with the Israeli bureaucracy. They are afraid. For the moment, no one is banishing them from Israel; if they begin the verification process, it could end in their being denied refugee status, in which case it would be far easier to deport them. In the absence of a comprehensive, rapid process for identifying the refugees among the African migrants here, the issue remains unsolved and tensions can be expected to increase in south Tel Aviv.

Israel’s harsh treatment of African infiltrators through the new Prevention of Infiltration Law infuriates human rights groups and the infiltrators themselves, who last week held protest demonstrations and strikes in a remarkably organized fashion, quite unlike anything that has been seen in this country. The fence along the border with Egypt is only a physical barrier; incarceration in a detention facility is intended to serve as a mental one. Unless illegal infiltrators are given some form of punitive treatment, the border fence is meaningless because some way can always be found to circumvent, or even jump over, it. This is the cruel and apparently effective logic of the new Prevention of Infiltration Law, and it enrages both aid groups and the Africans.

The socioeconomic logic behind the prevention of infiltration is easier to digest. The entry of migrant workers in very large numbers seriously distorts the local job market and pushes poorly paid and semi-skilled Israelis out of that market. It forces their low wages to shrink even further because migrant workers from third-world countries will always be willing to work longer hours for less pay. The African migrants naturally are concentrated in low-rent areas and thus they find themselves living in the same neighborhoods as Israelis who are in the socioeconomically weak strata of society. Here we have, of course, the perfect recipe for a major social explosion − and we have already received hints of such a scenario.

Who benefits from the presence in Israel of the African refugees/migrant workers? Naturally, those who are the mediators in bringing them here and sell them services and products (for instance, owners of apartments and shops in south Tel Aviv); and those whose work is not threatened by migrant workers; those who eat in restaurants, vacation in hotels, etc., because foreign labor lowers the prices of such services. Some professions are not at all affected by the entry of African migrant workers and thus the members of those professions conceivably have a different attitude toward them. I do not know how I would react if a hundred financial editors were to infiltrate each month.

How does one deal with this Gordian Knot? The impressive organization of the protest demonstrations by the African refugees/migrant workers last week could actually provide the opportunity for finding a solution to their problematic status. If they are so well organized, perhaps it is possible to talk to them and the aid organizations, and find a formula that would be based on an acceleration of the verification process used to determine whether a given individual is a refugee or not, on the granting of refugee status to those who are recognized as such and on the creation of incentives to leave Israel for those who are not refugees. The Interior Ministry already provides such an incentive in the form of a payment of $3,500 to any person who voluntarily leaves the country. The amount was recently increased, and as a result some 330 migrants returned to their countries in December. An additional idea that might be worthwhile considering is to enable the migrants who are here to be recognized as migrant workers and be allowed to work here legally, in return for their commitment to return to their home country after a certain period of time.

P.S. We Israelis always love to see ourselves dealing with a disaster that has taken place in some distant land (for example, in Haiti or the Philippines), to see the loading of transport planes with medical supplies and other equipment and to see our compatriots journeying thousands of kilometers to help populations that have become victims of a natural catastrophe. It is much harder to see ourselves as cruel racists when we deal with the African migrants who are filling Tel Aviv’s streets or are sent to prison in southern Israel, and who bring out all the poison and fears inside us. The hypocrisy of Israeli society was exposed by members of the Shas party and the right-wing camp who made guest appearances on television and radio stations last week and expressed such an inhumane attitude toward such a painfully human problem of people fleeing a cruel fate and seeking hope. We want migrants only if they are Jewish, white or from Southeast Asia and if they are prepared to change the diapers of our grandparents or if they can lower the price of agricultural produce or apartments. If they are black, they must know how to win points on the basketball court or score goals on the soccer field. All the rest should just pack up their things and head back home.

African migrants protesting in Tel Aviv, January 7, 2014.Credit: AFP

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