At 70 years old, Sophie Menashe says the State of Israel has abandoned her.
A member of the Bnei Israel, a historic group of Indian Jews who hail primarily from Mumbai, Menashe immigrated to Israel with her family in 1953. In the 1970s, she and her husband purchased an apartment on the top floor of a building in south Tel Aviv, just steps from where the new Central Bus Station now stands. She still lives there, in a crumbling, rat-infested building, one of three remaining Jewish residents sharing space with nearly 100 African migrants.
Israel is now home to some 60,000 migrants from Africa, most of them Eritrean and Sudanese. The vast majority of them live in south Tel Aviv, specifically in a several-block radius around Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station and Levinsky Park. As this group has come to south Tel Aviv, however, crime has spiked, with Israel Police reporting earlier this year that in 2012 there was a 53 percent increase in felonies by migrants in the area.
Menashe is bothered by the poverty around her, and by the crime and lawlessness that are poverty’s offspring. But like many Jewish residents of south Tel Aviv, she paints the decline of her neighborhood in broad, racially-tinged strokes, casually injecting terms into the conversation that to an average listener might sound like hate speech.
“South Tel Aviv is South Sudan now. It’s no longer Tel Aviv,” she says. “And I’m scared all the time.”
Menashe insists she is not racist, and says that one reason she loves her neighborhood is that it has always been one of Tel Aviv’s most diverse and welcoming. What she cannot stand, she says, is the crime, the ugliness it creates, and the lurking fear that has sprung up in its midst. After nightfall, she says, she now refuses to leave the house, and during the day she carries pepper spray.
“There have been foreigners for years in the area, and it never bothered me,” Menashe says. “Turks, foreign workers, other Africans. What’s happening here is different. It wasn’t like this.”
There have been two rapes in the darkened stairwell of her building, she says. Her gas and water is often illegally siphoned off, and sometimes she is awakened by drunken neighbors pounding on her door.
Menashe says the government has done very little to address the lawlessness in her neighborhood. So a few years ago she turned to the Israeli Immigration Policy Center, an organization pushing for a coherent government strategy to handle the flood of African migrants who have crossed the Israeli border in recent years and made south Tel Aviv their home.
Members of the group pay Menashe regular visits and have helped cover the costs of some repairs to her decaying apartment. They also take a clear political line, insisting that the vast majority of African migrants are not asylum seekers, but rather have come to the country for economic gain, working minimum wage jobs that pay drastically more than they could make at home.
“The issue in this area is not about race,” says Yonatan Jakubowicz of the Immigration Policy Center, citing a UNHCR statistic that says 77 percent of the Africans crossing into Israel are men between the ages of 18 and 35. “It’s that it’s all men … That’s a classic economic migrant phenomenon. We’re talking about young men who leave their children behind, and their wives, and come here to work.”
Jakubowicz’s statistics notwithstanding, there are women and children from Africa living in south Tel Aviv, and many tell harrowing stories of oppression and war. The Eritrean government has a known history of violating its people’s human rights, and Eritreans have been flooding east Sudan in search of asylum for years. From there, thousands have opted to navigate a perilous smuggling route through Egypt and into Israel, facing the threat of beatings, rape and death in order to sneak across the Sinai and into the Jewish state.
But of the thousands of African migrants in Israel, only about 150 have been granted official status as refugees through the United Nations High Commission of Refugees. According to the UNHCR, the vast majority of Eritreans trekking through Sudan and Egypt toward Israel are doing so in a form of “mixed migration,” meaning they are doing so both to avoid political repression and also for economic gain.
Early in 2013, Israel completed construction on the main section of a fence along its border with Egypt, a move that stemmed the flow of migrants to a mere trickle. The move came a few months after the passing of an anti-infiltration law, which was later overturned but then recently amended, and currently allows the government to detain infiltrators for up to one year.
Migrants who entered Israel before the construction of the wall, however, have told stories of being picked up by the military, held in detention centers for a handful of days, and then tossed into vans and dropped outside the Tel Aviv bus station.
“The police come, they catch these people, and what do they do? They bring them to south Tel Aviv,” says a man named Tiran, a shop owner in the neighborhood who asked that his last name not be used.
Tiran describes a pattern of governmental double standards, in which he often finds himself fined for transgressions like operating his shop on the Sabbath or unloading merchandise on the sidewalk, while migrants who break housing regulations or operate businesses without licenses are ignored.
Oscar Olivier, a Congolese refugee who has been living in Israel for 20 years and is now an advocate for asylum seekers in the country, says that while south Tel Aviv residents do face crime and crowding, the deeper issues are being ignored.
“The government of Israel has been not been very brilliant in dealing with social inequality in the neighborhood, so they’ve given a scapegoat, and the scapegoat is African,” he says. “So now the Israelis are opposed to Africans, instead of being upset about the lack of creativity in finding solutions to the very real social and economic problems in south Tel Aviv. That is the heart of the problem.”
Hate speech, Olivier says, is nothing but a distraction.
“Israeli residents’ claims are legitimate — the neighborhood is overcrowded,” he says. “But they are turning to the wrong address. Rather than realizing they are a victim of the system, they end up describing the problems with xenophobia and violence.”
The Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality is tight-lipped on the matter. A spokesperson, who insisted on speaking anonymously, would not directly answer questions about law enforcement or willful placing of migrants in the neighborhood, but did insist that the needs of Jewish residents take precedence.
“The southern residents of the city are of top priority and there is a clear policy of preference toward these residents,” the spokesperson said in an email. “Yet the mayor believes we are obligated to care for the basic needs of the refugees and work immigrants in the fields of social welfare, education and health.”
The city is well aware of the crime in the area, he added, and has poured millions of shekels into security cameras, better lighting and a localized police force that includes 30 patrol cars.
Down the street from Tiran’s shop, an Arab fishmonger named Muhammed scoffs at such a statement, insisting that the government has all but surrendered south Tel Aviv. Muhammed, an Egyptian, was granted asylum in Israel and now has Israeli citizenship, has lived in the neighborhood for 10 years and is married to a Filipina foreign worker.
“The government puts them here and forgets about them,” he says of the migrants. “They gave them this area to live. And eventually, everyone will flee from here. Even the foreign workers are leaving.”
For Menashe, however, leaving isn’t an easy option.
“Isn’t this the Jewish state?” she asks. “Why, in my own state, should I be asked to leave somewhere?”
Olivier, who works as a spokesperson and community organizer for the African Refugee Development Center in Israel, insists the issue isn’t about leaving or staying. It’s about Jews and Africans in the neighborhood learning to put aside their differences and work together to solve their shared poverty. He describes his 10-year-old daughter, who goes to the Bialik-Rogozin school in the neighborhood and learns alongside kids from 40 other countries.
“There is harmony and discipline there, and there is no violence,” he says. “If more places like that would be built in the neighborhood, we could change things. There’s hope here. What is missing is the will to fulfill that hope.”