Opinion |

The Asylum Seekers and South Tel Aviv: Whose Silence Is It?

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Protesters against the deportation of asylum seekers, Herzliya, Feb 7, 2018
Protesters against the deportation of asylum seekers, Herzliya, Feb 7, 2018Credit: \ Moti Milrod

The last column by my good friend and colleague Yair Assulin (“The Expulsion Continues – and the Mizrahim Are Silent,” Haaretz, February 1) saddened me greatly. First, because his assertion that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin) have been silent about “the absurdity of the refugees’ expulsion, the racism it entails and Israeli society’s disregard for the weak” simply isn’t true.

Many Mizrahim, including Assulin and myself, have spoken out vehemently on this issue more than once; even a Black Panther like Reuven Abergel got behind this struggle and spoke out strongly against the deportation of African asylum seekers.

Assulin unnecessarily points a finger of blame at a large group that contains a multitude of voices, even though it unites to some degree behind a “Mizrahi discourse” on issues directly related to institutionalized oppression and manifestations of ethnic discrimination and humiliation.

On the issue of the deportees, this group finds itself between the hammer and the anvil, and its very silence actually attests more than anything to the depth of its solidarity with them.

Portraying the battle between Mizrahi identity and the asylum seekers as a kind of covert racism is another way for the government to take control of the story and shape it. Assulin surely doesn’t believe the tension between these two groups came about by itself – a kind of bad blood due to arguments over parking or the use of public spaces? After all, the refugees didn’t get lost on their way from Eritrea and Sudan and decide that south Tel Aviv’s Neveh Sha’anan neighborhood and Har-Zion Boulevard were their “location, location, location.”

For what are we talking about when we talk about Mizrahi identity if not power and money (or weakness and want)? The people who wanted to settle the refugees in these neighborhoods are the very same people who created the yawning gulf between these neighborhoods and the affluent ones in north Tel Aviv, between them and education, and then maintained and nurtured it.

To urge residents of these southern neighborhoods to seize the current moment to escape their labels and invite them to join the wave of wealthy liberal opposition is to insult them. Even worse, it’s to close your eyes to the ugly reality: What exists in Tel Aviv is part of a policy of segregation at the municipal level – the creation of a Mizrahi identity for the sake of construing an Eastern European diaspora as Western, in line with the unspoken ethos of Israeliness.

Directing the refugees to these neighborhoods was and remains part of a plan to weaken them even further.

A resounding silence, Assulin, my brother? Our ears are still ringing with the silence of the liberal, educated and enlightened – and, against my wishes, I must add Ashkenazi – camp when they evicted elderly people from homes in Tel Aviv’s Ha’argazim, Givat Amal and Abu Kabir neighborhoods. Each of these cases offered an opportunity to ponder the moral character of this group, to urge disrupting the established order and deviating from expected roles. But, of course, this didn’t happen.

The burden of proof of values like solidarity, humanity and morality is always on the group that has been oppressed, that has suffered the most scorn, that has been banished to neighborhoods that will be cultivated only as part of a gentrification process – but never to let its residents continue living their lives or have the privilege of enjoying nice gardens, good schools, pleasant parks and playgrounds where bottles of methadone and improvised bongs don’t roll around in their sandboxes.

The people to whom you speak, these residents of south Tel Aviv neighborhoods, aren’t racist or hard-hearted – and neither you nor I have the right to treat them as such. If we have a role, it’s certainly not to embarrass them. Unfortunately, your article not only does that; it also plays into the hands of all the good, decent people who are fighting with all their might against the despicable deportations but can’t see our brothers and sisters from a meter away.

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