As a general rule in Tel Aviv, if your taxi driver is still gabbing about a national news event — more often than not, with a conservative slant — you can bet the topic is also trending citywide.
And of five taxi drivers this reporter has flagged down over the past week, four have complained about the ongoing nuisance that is the African migrant population of South Tel Aviv.
In a way, this enduring buzz is a sign of success for Israel’s 55,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers and the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that back them. The majority of the African asylum seekers are Christians and Muslims who fled to Israel by way of Egypt and the Sinai Desert over the last eight years, clustering mainly in South Tel Aviv. Their historic six-day strike, which lasted through Jan. 10 and allowed for daytime protests with turnouts over 20,000, may be finished for now, but the Africans’ fight to be recognized as refugees can still be felt throughout the city — most recently through a cultural appreciation event on Jan. 19.
On that Sunday, more than 50 restaurants and bars across Tel Aviv and neighboring Jaffa served traditional Eritrean and Sudanese dishes in place of their usual fare. Some also used the opportunity to throw a goodbye party for the African members of their kitchen staffs who have been summoned to the Holot detention facility in the Negev, Israel’s newest desert prison for illegal migrants.
At Ha’Tarnegol (“The Rooster”), an art cafe in Jaffa, well-known Darfuri chef Hassan Shakur — set to be imprisoned at Holot — whipped up platters of traditional porridge and sauces for a roomful of supporters.
The restaurant’s co-owner, Roee Avraham, said of Shakur: “For us, it’s a great honor to host him here, to learn from him and to help him as much as we can.”
Adil Adam, 28, another Sudanese volunteer lending a hand in the kitchen, said that, like Shakur, he must report to Holot by mid-February. Adam explained that he originally fled Darfur because he belonged to a group of activists at his university who opposed the government. Although some of his colleagues were murdered, Adam managed to escape. “What I expected to find in Israel was at least education,” he said. Instead, after three years working as a day laborer, he’s bracing himself for an indefinite term at Holot.
The night’s feel-good activities culminated at Levontin 7, a well-known hipster bar situated on the border of central and southern Tel Aviv. Three bands with members from various African countries took the stage — and the venue reached capacity within 15 minutes.
But the events seemed to attract a like-minded bunch. Members of local media outlets — the majority of which now openly side with the asylum seekers — squeezed into Ha’Tarnegol alongside NGO workers and other familiar faces from the protests. (“I think I will make a lot of friends tonight!” Adam said.) At one point, the kitchen was filled with more news cameras — from outlets like i24 News and the Jerusalem Post — than African cooks.
International media coverage has, likewise, taken a cleanly pro-refugee approach. The New Yorker magazine, for instance, ran a lengthy piece after the Africans’ weeklong strike that argued strongly against Israeli policies.
These sympathies, though, are a world apart from the fear and resentment that still lingers in the more religious nooks of South Tel Aviv and in the hearts of conservatives across the city.
“The Israeli media will not mention this demonstration,” said Itai Sen, a resident of Tel Aviv’s tech suburb Ramat Gan, at a recent counter-protest to the African rallies. (And for the most part, he was correct.)
One handmade sign at the midcity protest read, in Hebrew: “Approximately every seven minutes, an Israeli is assaulted by an African!!!”
Although this demonstration was maybe one-fifth the size and intensity of the South Tel Aviv race riots of May 2012, it put a few hundred faces to anti-African sentiment that still smolders — mostly behind closed doors — and has largely driven government action.
“As a woman, I will tell you: I will never set foot in South Tel Aviv,” said Lizi Hameiri, a petite young brunette from North Tel Aviv who stopped by the protest. She said she had heard from a friend that “this week, [African migrants] raped a woman, and after they raped her, they smashed in her teeth.”
Another Israeli man who runs a fresh-juice bar along Menachem Begin Street — marking the upper border of South Tel Aviv — described an incident “about three or four months ago” in which he stabbed two African asylum seekers trying to rape a woman in an alley behind his house (located next to the juice bar). The man said he didn’t want his name published for fear that Tel Aviv cops would punish him for implying they weren’t doing their jobs. The tip of his thumb had apparently been sliced off — an injury he said he sustained in the stabbing.
A spokesman for the Israel Police said he had no “specific data” on African crime rates in the area. However, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants reported that police data from 2010 and 2011, presented at a government meeting, showed crime rates among Israelis to be more than double those of foreigners.
Nevertheless, mistrust of the asylum seekers runs deep, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration has aligned itself with those advocating expulsion.
Rather than arrest individual African asylum seekers who have committed street crimes and try them in court, the government is sending them to Holot en masse for the crime of infiltrating Israel’s border fence. (At press time, the Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration had not responded to repeated requests for the number of migrants summoned to Holot. However, local NGOs are estimating that between 500 and 1,000 Africans have been summoned.)
In a Facebook statement on Jan. 5, Netanyahu made his end goal clear. “We completely stopped the infiltration into Israel,” he wrote of the country’s new fence with Egypt, “and now we are determined to send away the illegal migrant workers who [already] entered Israel.”
Danny, 46, an Indian-Israeli tile vendor who works a couple blocks from the Central Bus Station — and who did not wish to give his last name for fear of retribution — agreed with this approach. “The government has to worry about its own people first,” he said.
Another Jewish woman working at a furniture store nearby, who would not give her first or last name, said that although she has never been robbed by an African in the neighborhood, “People are afraid to come to my business. And sometimes in the night, I am afraid, too.” She recommended that instead of sending African migrants to prison, the government should just “put them back in their own country.”
Israel has refrained from sending any Eritrean or Sudanese asylum seekers home against their will, in accordance with United Nations “non-refoulement” guidelines. But because Israeli officials have either denied or have yet to approve all requests for asylum filed by Eritrean and Sudanese nationals, the foreigners are stuck in limbo.
Mutasim Ali, 27, a Darfuri leader of the current refugee rights movement, said that his NGO, the African Refugee Development Center, has been distributing asylum request forms within the community — but that they’re not even sure where to turn them in.
Anyway, he said, “I’m not optimistic” that they’ll make any difference.
Due to the confusion surrounding the process, and its low success rate so far, the majority of Tel Aviv’s asylum seekers have not filled out the forms. Instead, they’re spending hours in long lines outside the Ministry of Interior, trying to renew their visas.
When they do finally reach the window, though, many are instead being handed mandatory invitations to report to Holot within 30 days.
One of the hundreds summoned to prison so far is Muhamad Musa, a 35-year-old asylum seeker from Darfur who came to Israel six years ago and now owns a watch and jewelry shop in the city’s half-abandoned Central Bus Station. On a recent Monday, Musa helped a steady stream of customers pick out pieces that suited them — including a young Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier in a kippah and an elderly Jewish woman, both of whom greeted him by name.
“Everybody knows me here,” said Musa — including Tel Aviv police, who he said would know where to find him if he didn’t show up to Holot on Feb. 5.
A friend of Musa, who called himself only Khalifa, also stopped by the watch shop on Monday. Khalifa keeps his Holot letter inside a plastic sleeve tucked in his jacket pocket but pulled it out to show a visiting journalist. The form — printed in Hebrew, Arabic and the Eritrean language of Tigrinya — stated that Khalifa also had the option of accepting $3,500 to return to Darfur.
But Musa and Khalifa both said they would rather do anything than return to Darfur, where they fear the worst.
Ali, head of the African Refugee Development Center, also has been summoned to Holot. “I’m not thinking about it yet, because I still have one long month,” Ali said over the phone, his normally calm voice on edge. “Right now, I’m thinking about those who go before me, in the next few days. We have a lot of work to do.”
As the countdown to Holot begins, Israeli authorities have shown no sign of slowing their plan to rid Tel Aviv of its African residents.
For some in the community, that’s a shame. “I live with them here, and I don’t think they’re dangerous,” Israeli real-estate agent Meir Landis said of the asylum seekers. After the strike, he said, “Now people understand — and the business owners know — how much we need them.”
A Jewish-Ethiopian liquor-store owner working across from the Central Bus Station, who has lived in Israel for almost 30 years — and who wished to remain anonymous, due to racial tension in the area — argued that racism is fueling government policies on Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers.
“There is crime here [in South Tel Aviv], but no different than the rest of Israel,” he said. “I think many people are scared of them just because they’re black. If they were French, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”