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Jewish Journal

African asylum seekers battle fear in South Tel Aviv

by Simone Wilson

January 16, 2014 | 2:22 pm

More than 20,000 asylum seekers and their supporters gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Jan. 5 to ask the Israeli government to grant them refugee status. Photo by Simone Wilson

More than 20,000 asylum seekers and their supporters gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Jan. 5 to ask the Israeli government to grant them refugee status. Photo by Simone Wilson

Over the past two weeks, Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers have staged the largest uprising in their eight-year history in Israel.

On Jan. 5, the first day of the protests, police estimate that more than 20,000 African asylum seekers — of the approximately 55,000 who have crossed Israel’s southern border since 2006 — refused to report for work and congregated on the Levinsky Park green, their main hangout and meeting spot in South Tel Aviv. They intended to stage a labor strike that would last until Israel agreed either to review their requests for asylum or turn the task over to the United Nations.

A few of the community’s emerging leaders took to the megaphone and rallied the crowd. Although the protesters come from different African nations and circumstances, they have lived through common hardships — years of compulsory, indefinite military service in Eritrea, ethnic cleansing and genocide in Sudan, rocky travel and torture by Bedouin gangs in the Sinai desert. Now, all of them face poverty and uncertainty in Tel Aviv, or in Israel’s desert prison camp for “illegal infiltrators” down south.

Protesters were warned they would be under intense scrutiny in the coming days. “Nobody do violence,” one speaker said. “If you meet racist people … respect them. It is very important to get our rights in a peaceful way.”

Ignited by unprecedented unity and hope, the group marched 20 minutes to the more upscale north side of Tel Aviv, filling Rabin Square to its brim and forcing cafe-goers to witness their fight. “We have been treated as criminals,” Sumaya Nedey, the movement’s head female activist, told protesters at the square. But with the strike, she said, “We will show the people of Israel that we are a strong part of the economy and the community in Tel Aviv.”

Yet, by the third day of protests, as the crowd’s energy peaked outside the front gates of the Knesset building in Jerusalem — and as Israeli employers began to hurt from the workers’ absence in the country’s hotels and kitchens — government officials shut down the historic protests with the ease of flipping a switch.

Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein denied eight leaders of the refugee movement the opportunity to speak with Israeli politicians. He did not allow them even to enter the building, citing “the backdrop of the tension and general public atmosphere, as well the fear that granting the infiltrators access will cause provocations in the parliament.”

Israel’s conservative Channel 7 painted the protests in a similar light, saying they raised “fears of violence, especially as the infiltrators have brought rampant crime to Israel and, in particular, to southern Tel Aviv.”

Mutasim Ali, a 26-year-old asylum seeker from Darfur whose strong, gentle speaking voice and excellent Hebrew have propelled him to the front of the movement, later wrote in an op-ed for left-wing daily Haaretz: “They want to portray us as violent and dangerous, but we explained to them and to the whole world that we’re non-violent people, that we respect law and order.”

Police confirmed that the week’s demonstrations had been extraordinarily low-key. “There were no injuries, no disturbances, no incidents whatsoever” over three days of mass protest, said Micky Rosenfeld, foreign press spokesman for the Israel Police. (At one point during the Jerusalem rally, this reporter witnessed one protester chide another for climbing into a tree.)

Many of the strikers had no choice but to return to work this week, no longer able to pay for their basic needs. And as a consequence of the strike, some have been turned away by their former employers.

Still, small yet undeniable shifts in the public consciousness may prove the efforts were not entirely in vain.

Over days of protest, Israelis in central and northern Tel Aviv who normally avoid the south part of the city like a toxic waste dump have now glimpsed Israel’s mysterious “infiltrators” up close, as something more than a shadow people waiting to mug them and dilute the Jewish state.

And while during the marches, some onlookers yelled, “Go home!” and “Back to Africa!” as asylum seekers flooded city streets and sidewalks, others, non-Africans, jeered back at the hecklers. Still others yelled or whistled in support of the protesters, or honked their car horns longer and louder than usual. 

On Jan. 10, after a roller-coaster week of protests, Channel 2 aired a topical skit set in South Tel Aviv.

In it, Dr. Yogev Shafir, a fictional host for the Israeli comedy show “Eretz Nehederet,” ventures into Tel Aviv’s low-income Levinsky Park neighborhood, dressed in dorky cargo khakis and a safari hat, to meet some real live Africans on the mean streets of South Tel Aviv.

Before helping serve lunch to asylum seekers at the Levinsky Soup Kitchen, Shafir takes care to tether his bike to a lamppost with a mess of chains, barbed wire and a “Beware of Tiger” sign. He then tries to spruce up the refugees’ diet by serving them some organic alfalfa salad.

And for the show’s awkward finale, Shafir visits three Sudanese men in their cramped Levinsky-area apartment, mosquito net in tow. After some small talk, he halts the meet-and-greet to point out that his iPhone is missing; one dramatic storm of accusations later, the audience sees the phone light up in his own cargo pocket.

So the joke is on him — this armchair liberal who politely pitied the asylum seekers from afar, but, in the end, knew nothing about them, stereotypes aside. 

The skit aired a very real prejudice and fear inside many Israelis who find themselves traveling (briskly) through South Tel Aviv at night: They cling more tightly to their purses, burrow their wallets deeper into their pockets and keep their heads down.

But the skit also indicated the mainstreaming of this self-awareness. “Eretz Nehederet“ was once labeled by CNN “the country‘s single most popular and influential television comedy,” and it is viewed by millions each season. If the funnymen of Channel 2 think Tel Aviv’s asylum seekers deserve a second chance, the Israeli public may not be far behind.

In the wake of the uprising, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, too, has changed his tone, seeking in an official statement to be more inclusive. Huldai, part of the center-left Labor Party, said: “The protests of the migrant workers that we have seen are just the beginning of a process. … The Israeli government must determine a governmental policy and a professional work plan while allocating budgets and resources to take care of the latitude of problems including immigration policy, education, welfare, personal security and employment.”

The South Tel Aviv neighborhood in which the asylum seekers live has earned a nationwide reputation as an African crime pot. Anecdotes about theft and assault in the area, while very real and unshakable for their victims, often become larger than life. Two rapes by African migrants in early 2012 — of thousands in the country each year — riled such fury within the Jewish community that fiery race riots broke out on the streets of South Tel Aviv that May. Dozens of Africans were reportedly injured by the rioters.

Just this month, Bat-El Asher, a young Israeli woman, described on her Facebook page being violently mugged by a Sudanese man. “Until yesterday, I was their No. 1 defense attorney,” she wrote of the migrants. “The romantic view I lived with until yesterday ... [that] everyone deserves a chance for a stable and better life ... even refugees ... died yesterday at 20:30.”

Asher’s story was shared more than 500 times on Facebook. “A liberal is simply a conservative who has yet to be mugged,” one commenter wrote.

But asylum seekers have grown equally afraid of being attacked in Tel Aviv’s neglected south. Two days after Asher was mugged, an Israeli man stabbed an Eritrean baby in the head with a pair of scissors as the baby’s mother walked out of the Central Bus Station. The infant reportedly suffered brain damage from the attack; her 50-year-old assailant has since been arrested and hospitalized at Israel’s central mental institution. 

A MarketWatch poll from last summer found that 60 percent of Israelis believed the asylum seekers posed a danger to Israeli society.

Crime statistics from 2010, however — presented at a Knesset meeting and reported by the Hotline for Migrant Workers — showed that, overall, the crime rate among Israel’s general population was more than double the crime rate among foreigners. “The level of security, or the level of crime, in the southern part of Tel Aviv is not higher on a national level than other places in the country,” police spokesman Rosenfeld told the Journal.

Further turning the Israeli public against asylum seekers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other politicians on the right have declared the Africans — almost a quarter of whom are Muslim and speak Arabic — a major threat to the state’s Jewishness. 

To date, no Eritrean or Sudanese nationals have been granted asylum by the Israeli government. Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, in charge of approving asylum requests, recently told Israel Hayom: “As far as Jewish identity and the desire to blur it are concerned, whether or not that is the intention of those who support the foreigners, that will be the result. The state will change its character if it gives up and allows illegal entry into its territory. This is not a passing wave. If we allow those who are already here to stay and work, that will be a clear statement to anyone who is looking for a destination, and it will have immediate repercussions.”

A new, nearly $400 million border fence has cut off the influx of Africans almost entirely, yet the fear that more will come has pushed many locals into the “Go home!” camp — especially those who have never met any of their Eritrean or Sudanese neighbors.

“The government continues to lie to the public and tell them we are not refugees and we are making trouble,” Mulgeta Tumuzgi, an Eritrean who has lived in Israel for six years, said at a press conference at the height of the strike. “The Israeli government wants the people to fear us. If you are afraid of someone, you want them to get away. We want to say to the Israeli people: ‘Don’t be afraid of us. We are not coming here to harm you. We are not your enemy. We only ask that you can give us shelter until we can go back to our home.’ ”

For better or worse, Eritrean and Sudanese families today are an inextricable part of the city’s culture. The scent of their traditional stews and flatbreads mix with shawarma grease in the air; high-energy African songs and dialects stream from dozens of migrant-run businesses clustered around Tel Aviv’s hulking Central Bus Station; African children run to school in braids and backpacks to learn Hebrew alongside the locals. So, in addition to protests, local NGOs have been organizing events, such as African cooking workshops and concerts, to show Tel Aviv that — just like in the rest of the world’s great cities — diversity can be a blessing.

As Haaretz financial editor Sami Peretz recently wrote of his own personal, yet very universal dilemma: “We Israelis always love to see ourselves dealing with a disaster that has taken place in some distant land (for example, in Haiti or the Philippines). … 

“It is much harder,” he wrote, “to see ourselves as cruel racists when we deal with the African migrants who are filling Tel Aviv’s streets or are sent to prison in southern Israel, and who bring out all the poison and fears inside us.”

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