Down and Out in South Tel Aviv

Overwhelmingly it is Israelis, not African migrants, who are responsible for the crime and drugs that permeate already dilapidated south Tel Aviv neighbourhoods. Some of those migrants would make better Israelis than the legally Israeli criminals hanging out there.

Crime, violence and overcrowding in south Tel may not like the living conditions of the African refugees here, even less if you live among them, but they are not responsible for most of the crime-oriented degradation of these neighbourhoods. Certain marginal Israelis are responsible, but Minister Eli Yishai would be very uncomfortable with that information. It is easier to blame the Africans for everything going wrong in south Tel Aviv and perhaps all over Israel.

People from Eritrea, South Sudan, Darfur, Ghana, Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire are not only refugees, they are often illegal, they are black, and best of all, they are not Jewish. For Yishai and other religious right-wingers, this is a no-brainer.

I spent some time in Neve Sha’anan embarking on various misadventures in the area between the old decrepit abandoned bus station and the frenetically busy new one, a center of Third World activity.

This is what I saw. The Africans and Asians have food and clothing stores, and work in central and north Tel Aviv restaurants. In Neve Sha’anan they have small table and chair-filled spaces where they drink beer and smoke nargilahs and listen to twangy East African guitar and percussion music, what we call “bouis-bouis” in French. This music should be an opportunity for Israeli musicians and world music lovers because it is so cool, and it is the real thing, like the North and West African music in Paris and world music in London. But there’s little chance it will be the music of people from Eritrea, South Sudan, Darfur, Ghana, Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire that will connect them if ever with Israeli culture.

The Eritreans and Ghanaians, and the Filipinos and Thais, have small Pentecostal and Evangelist church spaces, while the Sudanese men walk arm in arm, kissing each other’s cheeks and bumping their foreheads in earnest greetings. It is another world. Many work in the fruit and vegetable markets.

Some Africans smoke hash, some sell it, and a few steal bicycles. Occasionally, there are high-profile crimes such as the recent rape in a south Tel Aviv parking garage, for which three Eritreans were arrested. But on the edges of this African world, almost all the crime throughout Tel Aviv, from bicycle thefts to apartment break-ins to muggings on the street, is being committed by other people, all Israelis and legal, involved in the consumption of crack-cocaine and poor quality heroin. The expression on the street for the two drugs is leh-malah and leh-matah respectively, or in New York street English, uptown and downtown.

Take a walk from 4pm onwards through the old bus station cement field, with its small, somber cave-like enclosures at the north end and the shadowy corners all around filled with dozens of shabbily-dressed people who all seem to be in a hurry and threatening someone. Many go in and out of prison and hospitals for drug-related thefts and violence. Crime is the main component of their lives, after using narcotics. And 99.5% of them are Israelis, either Russian, Arab or Jewish or some mysterious mix there-of. The remaining 1% at most are African.

There are indeed a small number of Eritrean girls, staggering on high heels, running to catch a hit on a crack pipe in between turning tricks in sordid rooms nearby. But mostly you see highly aggressive people sniffing and shooting heroin and smoking crack in the garbage-filled, broken-up enclosures, yelling in Hebrew, Arabic and Russian and hitting each other, or pounding the sidewalks looking for ways to get other people’s money. They are all Israelis, and are mostly unemployable.

In a horribly dirty and dilapidated third-floor apartment near the end of the Neve Sha’anan walkway, off the corner of Rosh Pina street, members of all three Israeli tribes gathered to smoke crack and buy heroin from a guy who lived there for years with his wife. A visitor spoke with Nissim in French, as he had lived 20 years in France, mostly in jail for heroin trafficking and armed robbery.

He grew up in nearby Jaffa in an Egyptian-Jewish family, he is not stupid at all, but he was always involved in petty crime and today has permanently swollen legs and walks with crutches. His Israeli wife is deformed, her backbone twisted sideways, all from years of crack and heroin abuse. The talk is of crime, the drug products and the neighbourhood. No African men have ever entered this apartment, says Nissim, because they don’t use hard drugs. Their son, currently in the IDF, visits occasionally. He is a nice, clean, shy kid. He is also courageous. The whole scene is frightening.

Nissim speaks good Arabic, but not Russian. He does not like too many Russians there. They are violent and dangerous, he says. Outside, there is a loud argument going on between two Russians in the hallway. An African couple passes delicately to get into their apartment, apparently home after work. The looks on their faces at the crack pipes and drug refuse are of disgust and fear, but they say nothing.

The Africans work or want to work but if you approach the groups of men sitting in Levinsky Park, they will not talk to you about any of this. They are suspicious and afraid of the police.
Underneath the stern, tired faces, perhaps many of them are good people, though there are certainly exceptions. Some have been tortured and held as slaves by Bedouin in the Sinai, with women raped regularly.

And now they understand that their situation does not move right wing Israeli lawmakers, especially not the Interior Minister, because they are not Jews, so for religious Israelis, they can only be a threat. They are no good simply because they are here. On the other hand, the legal Israelis in the criminal world of leh-malah and leh-matah are a real problem because of what they do, even with police patrols all over the neighbourhood.

Police statistics as reported in Haaretz show that the crime figures of the African subgroup are in fact a good deal lower than those of the general population. Do Israeli law-makers and local residents know that? Do they care?

Should the demonstrations not be against the insecurity brought on by violent crime and the small groups of addicts, and not by the Africans? Do the Israelis leaving work and waiting for buses on Salomon Eliasberg and Yesod Ha'amala streets feel more threatened by the groups of Africans strolling through the night to the noisy music spots or all the drug activity, which in fact they might not see at all?

Maybe there is a way to find the best and brightest among the Africans, and to integrate them into Israeli society. Some of them would make better Israelis than the criminals hanging out in Neve Sha’anan. But that would take a re-think of Israeli identity at the highest levels.

So far, certain Likud MKs are running the "Deportation Now" movement and getting all the good press. Maybe the comfortable Ashkenazi center-left crowd in Tel Aviv, the "smolanim b'misada", what we would call “café latte Democrats” in the States, could come up with a counter movement, to find the best and brightest among African refugees. Maybe that twangy African guitar vibrating in the “bouis-bouis” in Neve Sha’anan could be a real Israeli hit. It would sound so much better than the crack-pipes being crushed in dirty hallways nearby.

Brett Kline is a journalist based in Paris who visits Israel frequently

African migrants with car windows shattered by demonstrators in South Tel Aviv, May 23, 2012.
Moti Milrod