In southern Tel Aviv, some 50,000 refugees amass on the margins of society. Too many in Israel, once the refuge for European Jews, have turned their back on these migrants.
TEL AVIV — Tel Aviv doesn't sleep. Whatever the season, tourists converge here to make the most of its beaches and night life. But do they pay attention to who serves them? To these dark hands that sort the dirty cutlery, wash the salad and clean the tables? No, they don't.
But don't be mad at them for it. Israelis themselves treat these workers with the same indifference. They don't know what's going on, just a few minutes' drive away, south of the city. A different world emerges there, a tougher, more dangerous one where you can read life's tragedies if you look the people in the eyes. It is a world where, over the last 10 years, Israeli authorities have allowed some 50,000 African asylum seekers to amass.
The southern neighborhoods are spread around the largely dilapidated central bus station, which until the 1990s was an important entryway into the city. Ambitious projects for the site are currently being reviewed, but they would require huge investments. The urban landscape around it is comprised of garages, storage facilities, old buildings with facades blackened by time, hair salons run by Filipino women and modest canteens from which the smell of spices emanates.
Most of the white people here are Israeli soldiers, traveling either to their base or home. To live here is to be poor and without a choice. And yet, for these immigrants, to live here will always be better than to live in their homelands.
"If we had distributed these tens of thousands of refugees through the whole Israeli territory, you would need a microscope to see them," says 46-year-old, Congo-born Oscar Olivier. "Instead, we parked them in Tel Aviv, adding them to a Jewish population that was already economically weak."
A former spokesman for his university's student union, Olivier entered Israel legally in 1994 and decided to remain after his visa expired. "At the time, there was nothing for foreigners, no NGOs were taking care of the issue," he says.
For 18 years, Oliver has been living in southern Tel Aviv, where his daughter was born. Today he volunteers for the African Refugee Development Center, an association that favors exchanges between the Jewish population and Africans. Drugs, violence and poverty are at the heart of this laborious dialogue. But Oliver has faith. He even converted to Judaism with a liberal orientation. "There was a magnetism," he says.
Starting in 2007, he saw the mass arrival of refugees from Eritrea and Sudan, countries that represent 95% of Israel's asylum seekers. The Sudanese, coming mostly from Darfur, can't be deported because of the lack of diplomatic relations between the two countries. As for Eritreans, they come from a country where basic rights are flouted. All crossed the border between Egypt and Israel by foot, before Israel erected a barrier in late 2012.
Since then, the influx has stopped. But what about the people who entered the country before then? The authorities persist in presenting them as economic migrants and keep quiet about the persecutions they endure. Since 2009, a staggeringly small 0.15% of asylum applications have been accepted, a rigor without equal in Western countries.
The group protection these populations have been granted means that they can't be deported. But nothing more. Technically, as asylum seekers, "They're not allowed to work, but the government has accepted not going after their employers," explains Ayala Panievsky of the Assaf association, which helps refugees in Tel Aviv.
A general hypocrisy prevails. A semantic abuse has taken root: They are characterized as "infiltrators," the same word used to describe Palestinians who entered Israel to execute attacks.
After the creation of the Israeli state in 1948, the socialist ideal prevailed. The Jewish labor force was praised. Then, in 1967, war and the beginning of the West Bank occupation provided a cheap Palestinian work force that arrived early in the morning and left late in the evening.
The 1990s saw new waves of migrants coming from Ethiopia and, most importantly, from the former Soviet Union. Then came thousands of Asian workers, from Thailand or the Philippines, who had five-year visas but ended up staying on illegally. Despite these influxes, successive governments never defined a clear migration policy. Israel, the shelter for European Jews after the Holocaust, doesn't want to become a land of asylum for others.
In January, NGOs launched an online information campaign to raise awareness about the tragic fates of asylum seekers. But with the election campaign raging, Israeli society had other things on its mind.
The elephant in the room
For years, lawyer Jean-Marc Liling has been throwing himself into the issue of African migrants. "Israel has an Aliyah, or right-to-return policy, for Jews but no immigration policy, though this issue affects all Jewish identity-related questions: democracy, human rights, our responsibilities towards ourselves and others," he says.
"Showing concern towards a foreigner under threat is not at all contrary to what the writings on Jewish identity say," Liling adds. "Is a Jewish state only for demographic reasons, or also in the name of certain principles? Are we capable of creating a united society sharing the same values or will we be tribes scattered across the land who hate one another?"
Such humanist thoughts aren't shared by Israel's political class. The Right has even linked rising criminality, like in Tel Aviv, to the presence of illegal immigrants. In May 2012, an Israeli woman was raped by an Eritrean at the central train station. Danny Danon, one of the leading figures of the hard-right fringe in the Likud, the party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then demanded the deportation of "80% of illegal workers," whom he described as "calamities." At the time, Netanyahu said these illegal immigrants were a "threat to national security and identity."
In January 2014, thousands of immigrants came out of their neighborhoods to demand dignified treatment. There were 30,000 in Tel Aviv and 8,000 in Jerusalem. "It was incredible," recalls Miri Barbero-Elkayam, who leads the association Mesila, created by Tel Aviv city hall to help refugees. "But some lost their jobs. And there was a boomerang effect. Many Israelis got scared when they discovered their numbers."
A few weeks before, the Knesset, Israel's parliament, passed an amendment to the so-called Prevention of Infiltration Law of 1954, which originally targeted Palestinians. The text said that illegal immigrants could be detained in a center called Holot, located in the Negev desert and created specifically for that purpose. It's not a prison, and yet the center's supervision was handed to the penitentiary authorities.
This looked very much like a firm invitation to leave the country and, indeed, in 2014, many Africans did just that. But after their "voluntary departure" from Israel, many of them endured bullying or violence, either in the homelands or in other countries, such as Rwanda and Uganda. After the text was again censored by Israel's Supreme Court, the government introduced a 20-month limit for detaining people without a trial. There was no limit before then. But the fight between the Supreme Court and the government continues.
In the meantime, migrants meet, fall in love and have children, almost 1,000 every year in Tel Aviv. That's how a little miracle appeared in these neighborhoods of southern Tel Aviv. Walls covered with drawings, children running, shouting in the playground, joyful singing coming from the classrooms. The Bialik-Rogozin school is by no means ordinary. You just need to enter any classroom and look at the pupils. Faces of all colors are sitting together. Slanting eyes, dark skins, braided hair. A hymn to diversity.
"We are Tel Aviv's golden egg," says a smiling Eli Nachama, the school's principal. "Everybody comes to see us to discover the radiant face of Israel."
Close to 1,000 children from 51 countries attend this globally acclaimed school, which relies on a vast network of volunteers, including dozens of soldiers. Children there test far better than the national average. And yet, only two in five have an Israeli ID card.
"Here, we're never sure the child will come back the next day," Nechama says.