It’s a picture of fear and humiliation, a nation of plenty that boasts multiple Cinema Cities and Ikeas, but treats tens of thousands of people as less than human because of their race and the color of their skin. If you want to see for yourself that all the history classes we were taught aren’t worth a dime, you don’t even need to leave Tel Aviv. Get up, leave the cafes and the blue glow of your screens, and take yourselves to a spot six minutes away from the Azrieli towers in central Tel Aviv, an area rife with fancy restaurants and high-tech industry office buildings. There, at the corner of Tuval and HaUman streets, outside an ordinary building that used to house a municipal water company, you’ll find hundreds of Eritreans (I didn’t meet anyone from other countries) crowded into a huge, daily line.
During the peak hour at 7:30 A.M., there are anywhere between 800 and 3,000 people on line. The line begins to form at 4 A.M. and doesn’t dissipate until 8 P.M. These thousands of people are vying for visas that allow them to legally remain in Israel for another three months. Without this visa, they’re subject to expulsion, imprisonment and harassment, nor are they able to earn a living without it.
Brecht once wrote that the passport is man’s most important organ. Now the script has switched, and it’s the Israelis’ turn to be the officials stamping the documents.
When I arrived, I saw an Eritrean woman in her 30s beg a security guard at a parking lot to let her use the bathroom. He explained politely that the parking lot didn’t have a bathroom, or even a sink, but it seemed that she either didn’t understand his Hebrew or simply didn’t believe him.
After waiting on the long line – some waited for as long as 11 hours – the Eritreans then must wait on another line, and sit in plastic chairs in the sun until they are called. They sit quietly, surrounded by fences and bored security guards. There are two portable bathrooms, but apparently no one thought to put up any kind of shade. They sit there for long hours in the sun, with no water. If it rains, they sit in the rain.
About a month ago, these lines formed outside the government complex across from the Azrieli towers. There as well they stood in line for hours, but there was shade, as well as public toilets and water. But then, everyone saw them. Maybe they were a bother. Now, they’re completely transparent, relegated to a side street, waiting outside a facility that no one sees, wedged between a Peugot dealership and “Haumanim” car wash.
I arrive at three in the afternoon and meet Gabriel Masmarah, with a pierced ear and bright blue clothing, hugging a friend while his wife hugs him as well. He arrived at 6:30 A.M. His six-month-old son sat in a stroller, also waiting.
Salome, also from Eritrea, misses the days when they would wait outside the government complex, but apparently forgets that the office hours there were shorter. “It was much better there. Here there’s no restaurants, no water, no bathrooms, nothing.” The line moves slowly and the guards are angry. “It’s because we’re black. If we were from anywhere else in the world, they wouldn’t do this to us,” says Salome.
Many come here a few times before they succeed in renewing their permits. Adano arrived at 4 A.M. He says that he had been here a week earlier, waited all day but didn’t manage to renew his visa. “They said to wait, so I left and came back,” he says. “How long can I wait, without working? The police can stop me on the street and ask to see my visa. If I don’t show it to them, they’ll deport me.”
Adano introduces me to his friend Adasa, and recounts that he was asked to sign a form in Hebrew but refused, thinking that it might be a deportation form. He didn’t sign, so he didn’t get a visa. Now he’s waiting in line again.
Vladimir, the security guard at the parking lot across the street, tells me that “it’s been like this for a month. There are 1,000 people here every morning, and they close off the parking lot and the whole street.”
He shows me barriers that the Peugot dealership put up, he says, so that the Eritreans don’t take up the sidewalk adjacent to their showcase windows. Neighbors have started a petition to get the government to ensure that there be proper services for so many people that show up every day.
Doron, from the nearby car wash, complains that his business has gone down by 50 percent since the Eritreans were moved here, and they are forced to relieve themselves in nearby lots because there are no bathrooms. “I have no work,” he says. “There were 3,000 people here this morning from 7:30, and they blocked the street. I’ve called everyone I can. I even got to Miri Regev’s assistant and asked her to take care of it. What goes on here doesn’t really interest anyone. I feel sorry for the Eritreans, but imagine that a hundred cushim (niggers) show up outside your business, blocking it off. The government needs to take care of this. Give them public bathrooms − they’re people. But why is this at the expense of my livelihood?”
The owner of a nearby café, who employs Eritreans that have become her friends, says that the way to get them a new visa quickly is to go with them. “The worker needs to come with a white person early in the morning, and then they’re let through, instead of forced to wait for eight hours. I was there, and they let me pass hundreds of Eritreans on line, otherwise it wouldn’t happen. I saw another white woman with an African, and they went right in.”
One of the security guards, a young man wearing sunglasses, looks like someone I could wait next to on line to get into a nightclub. I ask him how he feels about the situation. He fidgets with the key to the gate, and talks to me as if I’m crazy. “What’s with you? Everything okay?” he asks.
Later, two guards ask me and some Eritreans to move away from the sidewalk next to the gate. I told him that it was a public sidewalk, meant for standing, but they keep yelling at us, full of themselves and the power to determine peoples’ fates that has suddenly fallen into their laps. “You see, this is our life,” says Adano. “They think we aren’t people.”
The Population and Immigration Authority described this as quality treatment, better than the reception hours offered to Israelis. “The facility was opened as part of a plan to improve services given to those seeking visas, and as you see, hundreds are given visas in a day,” it was explained to me. “Numerous steps were taken as part of the plan to improve service, including moving to a specific facility and extending reception hours to last all day, every day (reception hours that the rest of the public does not receive). Inside the facility, there is a fully equipped waiting area. The area holds hundreds of people, with acceptable conditions. It’s unfortunate that even when steps are taken to improve service and benefit those in need, that uninformed people manage to find negative aspects. The perception is that the visa seekers were moved to another facility in order to hide them is false, and disconnected from reality.”
With regards to claims that Africans accompanied by white Israelis are given preferential treatment, the authority responded: “Service representatives are not involved with the order of entry for the visa seekers, and the only people who receive preferential treatment are those who arrive with court orders to receive service without delay.”