Opinion

Down With Israel's Ghettos

What childhood in a crumbling but diverse Haifa neighborhood taught me about the relationships between immigrants

People sitting at a Tel Aviv cafe.
David Bachar

The building in which I grew up, in a lower-class Haifa neighborhood built on the ruins of a migrant transit camp, was populated by a motley group of men and women, families and children, crammed into tiny tenement apartments. The creaking elevator, yellow and reeking of piss, that connected the building’s eight floors got stuck nearly every day. I preferred the stairs.

One of the tenants was a Bedouin who’d been released from a life term in prison for committing an “honor killing.” He’d married a tough Jewish woman who knew how to maintain her honor: If he dared to raise his voice at her, she threw him down the stairs. On the second floor was an ultra-Orthodox family. Their children lent me videos of the “Star Wars” trilogy and episodes of “The Time Tunnel” that they taped from Channel 1. There was a time when even Haredim liked science-fiction. God permitted it.

In the yard, which was boxed in by high-rises whose shabby facades were covered with crumbling asbestos panels, I would meet the Moroccan and Russian children, whose parents hated one another and made no secret of that fact. There were also Ethiopian families who had arrived in Operation Solomon, a few Argentines, and years later the children of members of the South Lebanon Army, who had found shelter after Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon.

We exchanged punches, attacked each other with sticks and stones, and there was the occasional stabbing. Junkies would shoot up in building entrances. Some of them jumped off the roof in despair. That happened more than once or twice. A bleeding body on the sidewalk, children around it, frightened and amused.

It wasn’t a regular war zone, but it was no great pleasure, either. It was clear that everyone who lived in the neighborhood was doomed to remain there. We’d been sent there by the lords of the land. They moved around immigrants and the children of immigrants like pawns on a chessboard. Like puppets on a string. There were no Ashkenazim among us. We didn’t know any of those.

Our parents spoke with an accent. They were the objects of mutual derision. They ridiculed one another over customs, the smell of their foods and hygienic habits. They eyed each other suspiciously. And they tried to keep their children away from the children of others. That didn’t really work, because children tend to band together. Even when they hit you on the back with a stick and leave you with scars and other marks, there’s still a feeling of an interpersonal connection.

Today we would define some of the things that went on in that neighborhood as “racism” and its residents as “racists.” Which they were. But the people who do the defining are usually not called upon to be racists, because they spend their lives in the company of people like themselves. In “racist” places of the kind in which I grew up, people lived with one another. They were forced to. It wasn’t their choice. They coped with the Otherness bravely but also with dreadful ignorance; they were tolerant and intolerant. They had a different culture and language. Liquified and squashed by a political and socioeconomic steamroller, they managed to preserve their humanity. Even when they hated, they still had to get up in the morning, door facing door. Even when they ignored the Other, they knew his face.

There was nothing “authentic” or romantic about their racism. This was no moving ingathering of exiles, some sort of piquant exoticism or a humorous skit in an all-Israeli comedy. If they could have eaten one another alive, they would have done so. But that was impossible. So they didn’t.

When I moved to Tel Aviv, I breathed a sigh of relief. The conflicts were done with. No need to fight anymore. Everyone was white like me, with similar opinions and even similar eyeglasses and bike models. It was a much simpler life. But it’s almost superfluous to say what the simplicity and “normality” conceal: On the whole, the neighborhoods of Tel Aviv are among the most racist places in Israel. Try to rent an apartment on Melchett Street if you have an Arab name. You’re not likely to succeed. Mizrahi Jews, too, aren’t welcomed with open arms. Nevertheless, the racists of central Tel Aviv tend to turn up their noses at the racists of Afula, say, who demonstrated recently against the sale of a house in the city to an Arab family. It’s easy to turn up one’s nose at such demonstrative racism, without understanding the complexity of the situation.

People in the Israeli hinterland – the “periphery,” as it’s known – are groaning under a burden of intimidation politics and their hardscrabble existence. They’re incited to racism. They’re taught that coexistence has no chance. Everything is done to purge the public space, so that Jews will live with Jews, whites with whites, blacks with blacks. Bibi and his buddies are longtime masters at the system of divide and rule.

Actually, it’s perfectly fine if people want to live among others who resemble them. Maybe it’s even natural. Still, it’s not a cause for pride; certainly it mustn’t become an ideology. It can be a secret wish. Something you don’t admit to, something you should be ashamed of.

But we live in a period that has no shame, in which those who should be ashamed walk around with their heads held high. A case in point is MK Amir Ohana (Likud), the chairman of the Knesset special committee to advance the Jewish nation-state bill, which was passed this week and contains a clause, albeit softened, according to which Jews-only communities are permissible. Ohana is another example of the new Likud wackos: a wealthy, gay man who lives in Tel Aviv. Of course Tel Aviv. Where else would he live – Afula? He can disseminate his racist, nationalist, isolationist doctrine comfortably in Tel Aviv, while he goes on frequenting neighborhood cafes. He can even back the surrogate-parent legislation – sure, why not?

In the United States, Republican gays of the Ohana type are considered a bizarre joke. In Israel, left-wing gays forge indecent alliances with them. What difference does it make if Ohana has his picture taken against the background of the Temple Mount, aka the Third Temple, and promotes despicable legislation? The main thing is that gays can go on having children, and Ohana can go on hanging out in Tel Aviv cafés.

The covert racism of Tel Aviv is embodied in its overt racism. Ohana is a right-wing fanatic and an ordinary member of the bourgeoisie who wants to live among bourgeois types like himself. For him, working toward achievement of racial purity is an everyday act and a general aspiration for a way of life. Ohana’s Israel is a horrible place. He takes no interest in the justified anxieties of the citizens of Israel, even as the country deteriorates apace. He exploits those feelings to spread his apartheid ideology. For him, they are “human material.”

Jews will be squeezed into well-protected suburban ghettos made of concrete, with a balcony and an American kitchen. Above them will hang a sign reading, “No entry.” Homogeneity will poison the soul. Ohana will be delighted. After all, he’s a permanent resident of the supposedly pluralistic Tel Aviv ghetto. He doesn’t have to be frightened of Arabs. He will just frighten others.

In the end, people need to be forced to live with total strangers and enemies. Mixed communities should be mandated by law. In Afula as in Metula. So that in every apartment building in the center of Tel Aviv there will be at least two Arab families and also a few Russians who barely speak Hebrew, and Mizrahim who look like arsim [roughly, greaseballs]. Let them eat one another and be racist and fight, and figure out how to get along together, in spite of themselves. It’s the only way they’ll learn.