Turn on the Incitement Machine

How easy it is to depict the African migrants living in Tel Aviv as a cocktail of sex, crime, hatred and existential danger.

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“How do you manage with the Sudanese immigrants? What a plague they are, huh?” a relative who lives in northern Israel asked me, clearly worried, at one of the family holiday meals.

At first I tried to answer him as an ambassador of the State of Tel Aviv, to tell him that while I don’t live in the same neighborhood as the Sudanese immigrants, I often see them near my workplace. I wanted to say that some of them were actually from Eritrea, not Sudan, and that I couldn’t tell them or their languages apart out of ignorance. That I had never spoken to any of them, but often when I walk down Chlenov Street and see men waiting on the corner in the hope of being offered a day labor job, I think to myself that I wouldn’t want to be in their place and that no one chooses a life of poverty and nomadism.

But I didn’t manage to say all that. Very quickly I realized that my relative, who had never met anyone from Sudan or Eritrea or anywhere else in Africa, knew them better than I did. He had seen them — more precisely, he had seen, in newspaper and television reports, the threat they posed. He had heard about them from Knesset members and cabinet ministers.

And in light of what he’d read in the newspaper, seen on television and heard from people in high places, my answer was foolish and full of fluff, whereas he had a concrete vision of terror, replete with sounds and images.

Tel Aviv is an enormous pond into which a poisonous, even carcinogenic, substance is being poured. Flocks of black men hover in the sky above, waiting for the right time to attack and destroy the enterprises of the white man to whom it belongs. Consciousness has been raised and sentence passed.

Nine Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously that it is unconstitutional to imprison a person without trial. In response, the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth published an article by correspondent Danny Adino Ababa headed “We, the Sudanese, defeated you” (September 23).

“In five years, the inhabitants of south Tel Aviv and the Hatikva neighborhood will leave ... We will take them over,” he quoted one African migrant, who gave his name as Ibrahim, as saying.

Channel 2 news aired a piece by reporter Ohad Hemo who begins by saying, “Full disclosure: I took a bodyguard with me to film this report. In my own city. What I never needed in the territories, in places like Nablus or Jenin, I needed here, of all places.”

To the sound of suspenseful music, groups of black men poured out of makeshift bars in the alleys surrounding the old Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. A local prostitute who is dating one of the Sudanese men also appears in the segment. What does that have to do with the story? Maybe it’s the most fundamental fear: They’ll kill us and rape our women (first the prostitutes, then the regular ones). While some of the interviewees scaled back the balance of terror, and the voice-over mentioned the hardships of the refugees, a Filipina interviewee summed up the prevailing tone by saying, “I’m scared of black people.”

The situation in south Tel Aviv, which has been flooded with tens of thousands of African migrants in recent years, is terrible. The long-time residents, who suffered from years of neglect to begin with, were saddled with another disadvantaged population.

It is very difficult — and not as interesting — to show the complexity of the issue. It’s not the cocktail of sex, crime, hatred and existential danger depicted by politicians and media outlets. Rather, there is a complex mix of circumstances, problems and fears, together with hope, love and the life instinct, that is exhausting to encounter and to decode.

Enormous resources would be required to deal with each migrant on an individual basis, to ascertain whether he or she is seeking asylum or work and to respond according to the dictates of international law and human morality. Yet how easy it is to show my relative a slice of life that only resembles reality and in fact borders on caricature. How easy it is to turn on the incitement machine and let it run.

African migrants in Tel Aviv, August 2013. Credit: Nir Keidar

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