In South Tel Aviv, Israelis Anguished and Bitter Due to Influx of African Refugees

A day in Tel Aviv's Shapira neighborhood, where tensions between veteran Israelis and African asylum seekers have boiled up to the surface recently.

A few weeks ago, in a fit of hatred, someone, or some more than one, threw Molotov cocktails at a kindergarten and apartments used by foreign workers in south Tel Aviv's Shapira neighborhood, "causing significant property damage but no injuries or loss of life," in journalese.

This week I took a walk in Shapira. It was Wednesday, the day after the demonstrators returned - some protesting government policy on labor migrants, others against the migrants themselves and still others expressing solidarity with them and denouncing racism.

I myself participated in a few of the latter protests over the past few years. I took part out of a sense of duty as a human being, as a parent, as an Israeli citizen. I still believe it's right to go out and protest all acts of violence and racism, but I have come to understand that only those who live in Shapira or a similar neighborhood are aware of the heavy price paid by long-time residents, foreign refugees and work migrants themselves.

I am no stranger to Shapira, having visited it on a few occasions to walk around, to check out housing options, to visit friends, but this was the first time I came to see "the other." "The other" being D., a 25-year-old refugee from Eritrea who has a work permit. He, like most of the people I spoke to for this article, asked to remain anonymous.

D. is a success story, relatively, with a steady job, a very decent salary and a place to live. Compared to the people who live in parks, backyards or with a dozen roommates, D.'s accommodations are palatial. His palace is a 2-room, ground-floor apartment - dark but scrupulously clean, filled with crucifixes and images of the Virgin Mary - that he shares with a married cousin and the man's wife.

D. is a quiet guy and his relatives aren't big talkers either. But the neighbor across the hall - "a man from Russia who fights with his wife the whole day," D. says - often yells at them "to stop disturbing and go back to Africa."

"Do you feel that the Israelis in the neighborhood hate you?" I ask him.


I speak to D. in English. One exception to his very basic vocabulary is the word "segregation."

'Not because they're black'

N., one of the more caring and socially active residents of Shapira, says, "It's not because they're black," asking not not to be identified. "My romance with the media is over," he says. "Whatever happens, even in the most positive articles, we come out as racists."

"The problem isn't skin color, or religion, or even mentality - despite there being a problem of mentality," says N. "The problem is the numbers of people and the lack of infrastructure. It would be the same if they were blonds from Sweden - although it's hard for me to imagine Swedes shitting in public."

I hear N.'s pain and frustration. He wants to show a Scandinavian restraint, to refrain from words like "mentality," which, he says, "mark me as being condescending." He tells me go to the parks in the area to sniff around, literally, and tells me about the human waste, the used hypodermic needles, the filth on Sunday after the big weekend gatherings.

"We simply have no public space, no place to take our children," N. said.

The parks are clean. The main park, built after a battle by residents, on the site of a transformer station, is enviable - well-maintained lawns, a beautiful, shaded wood, the latest sports and playground equipment.

"Well, the city makes sure to keep it clean because of the situation, that's why it's clean," a second neighborhood activist says. We'll call him B.

The park is calm this afternoon, and no one is sleeping on the slide - "You come with your kid and oops, someone's sleeping there," says B. It happens in central Tel Aviv, too.

An African woman, smiling and nicely dressed, pushes three sweet, cared-for children. The baby, adorable in a white dress, laughs at her siblings.

When I ask the woman if she works, she replies, in decent Hebrew, with a typical full-time mom's answer: "It's hard with little ones." She then asks me if I know anything about "Bialik school."

I tell her that Bialik-Rogozin School is considered excellent, and has gotten lots of praise and awards.

"I don't know, they say the kids hit," she says.

Where's the evidence?

I continue to the exercise area, where five muscular black men are dribbling basketballs and doing slow, mechanical exercises. I'm not scared by them. They don't appear to be five of the "60,000 horny men who came here without women," in the words of B., who quickly added, "and that's natural and no one is accusing them."

I don't think of the four rapes in south Tel Aviv that were shoved to the back pages of the newspapers, or of the harassment by men that women have complained about in these neighborhoods.

Still, while I had no problem talking to the women, it's hard for me to approach the men. I'm afraid of coming off like a colonialist researcher. I'm embarrassed, and it has nothing to do with being a woman. I guess I'm not enough of a journalist. I get on my bike to look for the things that N. and B. mentioned: people living in the street, cooking in the street, urinating and defecating in the street and in parks; people gathering in large groups; people drinking.

I believe N. and B., but I can't find evidence of such behavior. The neighborhood seems empty, sleepy. Is it typical suburban sleepiness, or is it the calm of a predator before it strikes?

In my brief cruise around Shapira I saw at least five people in wheelchairs, and around seven synagogues. Two men wearing kippas put out piles of junk on the street: broken bits of furniture, old televisions, cartons.

"Has anything in the neighborhood changed recently?" I ask.

"Yes, this used to be a religious neighborhood, with lots of synagogues. Now there's lots of Sudanese, Ethiopians, Eritreans," one man said.

"To tell the truth, I don't distinguish between them," the other says. Neither do I, I admit to myself.

"Only those who live here understand," says the only person who allows me to give her name, Hagit Farber. Farber, who greeted me in the street, is a producer who fell in love with the neighborhood and its folksy qualities. She sold her apartment on tony Basel Street, bought a small house on Hakhmei Atuna Street and even brought a few friends from the media and entertainment industry with her.

As in my conversations with N. and with B., I follow Farber as she moves between enlightened thinking and uncontrollable, atavistic xenophobia. "Look," she continues, "In Israel, when you go into a parking garage, the mall, they check your trunk, your bag. And here there are tens of thousands of people coming from Muslim countries and no one knows anything about them and no one checks them. I worry that if another intifada breaks out and at the same time their situation continues to worsen, and they won't have anything to lose, they'll join the other side - after all, they're already living in sub-par conditions here," Farber says.

"You get how absurd this is?" she asks. "A one-room apartment here is more expensive than in central Tel Aviv!"

Everyone I spoke to told me that to understand the situation in Shapira I had to come at night. And so I did, armed with a male protector.

"You come at night, you go inside and lock yourself inside, with a lock," I was told.

"If I have to buy something I forgot at the minimarket, I do it quickly, I limit engagement, I don't talk to people," Farber says.

"Are you afraid?" I ask her.

"Not at the moment. I have a gate, the apartment is barred all around."

At around 9:45 P.M., on Hagdud Ha'ivri Street, near the old central bus station, a (white ) man is standing on the sidewalk, shooting up. I didn't see things like that in Shapira. Maybe I came too early, maybe it's one of those things that only begins at midnight.

Most of the people in the streets are men, and the later it gets the more there are of them. The women disappear, as if by magic. Teenage boys, young men, mature men. They don't look evil. Nicely dressed, like for a date. Downcast, talking into their cell phones. Nearly all of them are black, even more so in the darkness, which strips them of their facial characteristics and makes them all look the same.

And then, as soon as we cross Derekh Begin, the world is filled with women.

Tomer Appelbaum