TEL AVIV—Sitting in a dingy café in the crime-ridden, run-down neighborhood of Neve Sha’anan, a 38-year-old Eritrean named Abraham Hailemicheal said he was “devastated” by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s flip-flopping plans to deport thousands of African asylum seekers like himself out of the country.
Last Monday, Netanyahu announced a deal with the United Nations to resettle half of the African migrants in Israel to western countries. But that was followed by an abrupt and embarrassing reversal a few hours later. The move was widely seen as Netanyahu caving in to the hardline members of his Likud party who call the African migrants “infiltrators.”
Netanyahu’s “zigzagging,” as Israeli media termed it, came after he also decided against an earlier plan to ship the Africans to Uganda and Rwanda. Now, no one knows what will happen to them. The cancellation of the UN deal means they’ve been left undocumented with no clear solution. They face bias and racism here where they’ve been branded as criminals and rapists.
“If Netanyahu only knew, we’d rather be in our own country,” Hailemicheal said. “It’s unbearable for us here and we’ll never be accepted. But we have no choice. We love our country but we have a very bad government and we’ll be killed if we go back. Now we have to worry about what they’ll do to us here.”
Tessfay Grmatsion, 26, a migrant from Chamboko, Eritrea, sat near the sprawling Central Bus Station in Neve Sha’anan drinking a Carlsberg beer with some other Eritrean men, many whom do odd jobs like janitor work and gardening when they can. The imposing skyline of Tel Aviv and the city’s hipster cafes and sandy beaches are just blocks away, but they might as well be on another planet.
“We’re all suffering,” Grmatsion said. “There’s a lot of stress and depression and Netanyahu is making it worse changing his mind all the time. I have no problem with the Israeli people but I do have a problem with the Israeli government. They treat us badly because we’re black.”
Hailemicheal and Grmatsion are two of an estimated 60,000 Eritreans and Sudanese who slipped into southern Israel from the Sinai Desert in Egypt between 2006 and 2012, before the border was sealed.
The majority of them settled in the already crowded, South-Bronx-like ghettos of southern Tel Aviv. Like many other young men from Eritrea, Hailemicheal and Grmatsion fled a brutal dictatorship that requires everyone to join the military at age 18 in what amounts to indefinite forced labor. They hoped to find work and a better life in Israel.
“Everything north of here is the White City, everything to the south is the Black City.”
— Refugee supporter Yoram Blumenkrantz
Instead they have found themselves pawns in a complicated battle between Israel’s right and left wing political parties and long-simmering caste tensions between different Jewish groups.
Demonstrations against Netanyahu’s deportation plans have been taking place all across Israel on and off since at least 2013 although, according to polls, two-thirds of Israelis support the deportations.
Some of the loudest and most unusual support for the African migrants has come from what some activists here term Jewish “people of color,” meaning to them the Mizrahi, many of whom live in south Tel Aviv and feel a certain kinship with the refugees.
What’s complicated is that these activists are pitted against many of their Mizrahi neighbors who are longtime Netanyahu supporters and are, according to local American-Israeli blogger Matt Adler, “somewhere to the right of Archie Bunker.”
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But the pro-migrant Mizrahi voices are well-organized and media savvy.
“We call Tel Aviv the White and Black City,” said local artist and refugee supporter Yoram Blumenkrantz, 50, while sipping a cappuccino Wednesday on Rothschild Boulevard, the booming main drag. “Rothschild Boulevard is the dividing line. Everything north of here is the White City, everything to the south is the Black City. The white Jews live in the White City with all privileges and Jews of color live in the south with much less.”
Though the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are most often portrayed as the victims of Israeli aggression on the world stage, some Mizrahi Jews in south Tel Aviv say they are in fact “the other” in a country founded on the idea that no Jew would ever be an “other” here.
The Mizrahi is a catch-all name assigned to non-European Jews who emigrated to Israel in the 1950s and ’60s from Northern Africa and the Middle East. They came well after the Ashkenazi, or European Jews, the founding elites of the state of Israel, who were the primary immigrants here from 1919 to 1948 and retain much of the establishment power.
Some of the Mizrahi in southern Tel Aviv fear that if the migrants are deported, they could be pushed out next as property developers have already targeted the area for gentrification. Housing prices are astronomical in central Tel Aviv where a two-bedroom apartment in a high-rise can go for as much as $4 million.
“They’re already pushing in and trying to take over,” Blumenkrantz said. “Make no mistake. This is not just about racism. It’s about real estate and racism.”
One of the founders of south Tel Aviv’s campaign against the deportations is the fiery Mizrahi artist and feminist Shula Keshet, 54, who grew up in south Tel Aviv and still lives there. Her family originally comes from Iran. Keshet’s activism in south Tel Aviv dates back to 1989.
“We are like members of any other community of color in the West,” Keshet told The Daily Beast. “We’re at the mercy of the racist white male, in our case the Ashkenazi white male who has controlled the country since the beginning and sees us as primitive, uneducated and inferior. The racism I felt as a little Mizrahi girl growing up here is the same racism I feel today. The way they looked at us is how they look at the Africans they want to deport.”
Keshet and her group have faced off in the streets of south Tel Aviv with neighbors like Shaffi Paz, 65, an Ashkenazi lesbian and former left-winger who now leads the Central Bus Station Neighborhood Watch group in favor of shipping the African migrants out of Israel, and Anat Perez, 54, a longtime resident and key member of the group.
“They should go. The problem is, they’re not Jewish. It’s nothing personal. This is a Jewish state and it should stay that way.”
— Joseph Begna, 42, an Ethiopian Jew who came to Israel as a child
“We’re not violent or racist, it comes from a place of pain and distress,” Perez told the Times of Israel. “They call us Nazis and compare the deportations to the Holocaust but we just wanted to live our lives in quiet before the Eritreans came.”
Some Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews in south Tel Aviv see both sides of the issue—despite enduring such recent indignities as hearing one of the country’s chief rabbis, Yitzhak Yosef, refer to black people as “monkeys” in a sermon last month.
Avi Belete, 43, crossed over to Sudan from Ethiopia with his Jewish family when he was about nine. They were then airlifted to Israel as part of the risky and dramatic Operation Moses in 1984 which involved spiriting out the Falasha, the black-skinned Ethiopian Jews who were discovered by European explorers in the 19th century.
Belete told The Daily Beast he grew up being called “kushi,” a pejorative Hebrew word for a black person. As a child and teenager Belete said he went to segregated schools. He said he and other black Jews were severely bullied while serving in the Israeli army.
“Now they’re okay though,” he said Wednesday. “The country is a lot less racist. I’m happy that we were able to come here.”
Joseph Begna, 42, an Ethiopian Jew who came to Israel as a child said he did not feel much racism growing up. As a teenager he said he worked as a gardener for the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who, he said, took an interest in him and helped him.
Begna, who moved to Alberta, Canada years ago but returns often to lead tours of Israel, said he is in favor of deporting the African migrants.
“They should go,” he said. “The problem is, they’re not Jewish. It’s nothing personal. This is a Jewish state and it should stay that way.”
But David Sheen, an independent Canadian-Israeli journalist who specializes in writing about racial tension and religious extremism in Israel said it’s in “no one’s economic interest to kick the Africans out.”
“The hatred is government-sponsored and incited,” Sheen said. “It comes from a tiny minority of people.”
Yoram Blumenkrantz agreed. He said he grew up in south Tel Aviv when it was all “gardens and fruit trees,” the son of a Mizrahi mother from what is now Iran and Ashkenazi father from Poland. His “white” father, oddly enough, remains in the “black city” while Blumenkrantz has moved over to the “white city.”
“The story of Israel has become the story of the Holocaust and sometimes that gives us too much of a pass,” Blumenkrantz said. “That’s because Israel was started by European Jews. Some of us have a different story. My mother and her family grew up in Persia with a longing just to get back to Jerusalem. They managed it in 1933 and what a triumph. But those stories aren’t as well known. I understand why, but sometimes it’s good to remember we aren’t all just victims and we don’t have the right to victimize others. The Africans should be allowed to stay.”