The National, 17 August 2013
A little more than a year has passed since a violent race riot rocked south Tel Aviv, the heart of Israel’s African refugee community. The neighbourhood has not made international headlines since the incident in May last year, when Jewish Israelis attacked Africans on the streets, smashed windows of African-owned businesses and looted the stores. But the area is still simmering and the state is putting asylum seekers under increasing pressure.
Amine Zegata, an asylum seeker from Eritrea, owns a bar in the HaTikva neighbourhood in south Tel Aviv. The front window was shattered during that night of violence, as were the bottles of alcohol inside. Later, as he repaired the damage, Jewish Israelis came and cracked the new storefront. They also threatened to hurt him again. That was not the beginning. Several months before the riot, Mr Zegata was beaten to the point of hospitalisation in what he says was a racially motivated attack.
On a sunny summer afternoon in Shchuna HaTikva, which ironically translates to Hope neighbourhood, Mr Zegata explained to me in fluent Hebrew that locals still enter the bar on a regular basis and harass him. For that reason, he was initially hesitant to be interviewed for this story. “Every time a new article comes out, it creates more problems,” he says, adding that he fears for his safety.
Mr Zegata isn’t alone in this feeling. In the wake of the riot and continuing harassment, the African asylum seekers who were once Mr Zegata’s clients have stopped coming to the bar. “I don’t have enough business,” he says. “I’m in the red now.”
His slide into debt began when his business was vandalised last year. Not long after he’d repaired the bar, city inspectors came and told Mr Zegata that he needed to make further changes in order to bring his place in line with municipal ordinances and to get a business licence. He hired an engineer to make sure the renovations met the city’s requirements.
Despite his efforts, the municipality refused to issue him a licence. Their reasoning? Mr Zegata, like most of the 60,000 African asylum seekers who live in Israel, does not have a work visa.
For the most part, Israel does not process asylum seekers’ requests for refuge. Eritrean and Sudanese nationals do, however, currently get group protection from deportation – de facto acknowledgement of their refugee status. But a majority of asylum seekers receive visas that explicitly state that they are not allowed to work, forcing them to take whatever low-wage, off-the-books jobs they can find. Opening a business has provided a lifeline for a small number of refugees.
But not for Mr Zegata. When his request for a licence was refused, he “asked [officials at the municipality], ‘Who is responsible for all this debt?’ They replied, ‘We don’t care.'”
And Mr Zegata might not have the chance to get back on his feet. This week Israeli authorities began shutting down African-owned businesses in south Tel Aviv, according to the local newspaper Haaretz. While Israelis also run businesses without the appropriate licensing, officials emphasised that the operation targets Africans.
The state is making other moves to drive asylum seekers out of the country. In recent months, Israeli officials have pressured jailed Sudanese and Eritreans into deportation by presenting them with the “option” of staying in jail or “voluntarily” returning to their home countries. Last year’s amendments to the 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law – which was originally created to stop Palestinian refugees from entering the young state of Israel – mean that African refugees can be held for lengthy periods without trial.
Changes to the Prevention of Infiltration Law remind that, in the “Jewish and democratic” state, anyone who is a not Jewish is subject to discrimination and persecution. One cannot separate the experience of African refugees from the gross human-rights violations Israel visits upon Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line.
But it’s not just the government. From open violence on the streets of south Tel Aviv – where teenage African girls have been attacked at knifepoint by Jewish youths – to the 2010 religious edict forbidding Israelis from renting homes to asylum seekers, to anti-African marches through south Tel Aviv, citizens have taken part in the discrimination. According to the +972 website, “real-estate agencies in south Tel Aviv are advertising ‘clean apartments'” – that is, African-free buildings. One Ethiopian-Israeli told me that an Israeli Jewrecently mistook him for a refugee rather than a citizen and threw an empty beer bottle at him.
“I did army service like all Israelis,” the man, who asked to remain anonymous, reflects, “and I can’t go out to enjoy myself.”
Rather than creating sympathy for the asylum seekers, the incident hardened his view that the small community of Africans is trouble for the Jewish state. Like other Israeli residents, he complains that at night it’s impossible to wander around the neighbourhood because the Sudanese drink too much.
Some commentators, myself included, have said that area tensions are the result of deep-seated racism and that xenophobia is unsurprising in a country that defines itself along ethnic and religious lines.
While this explanation is true, it is also overly simplistic and whitewashes the Jewish-on-Jewish discrimination that characterises Israeli society. The Ethiopian man mentioned his time in the military because it is supposed to be his entry card to Israeli society. But Ethiopians continue to find themselves shut out of the mainstream. Last year the community held a number of protests against the racism they face in Israel; that same year the media reported that government doctors were giving Ethiopian women birth-control shots without their consent, sometimes without their knowledge.
Locals’ resentment of African asylum seekers also stems, in part, from decades of neglect. South Tel Aviv’s schools are poor and the area gets few services from the state. For example, residents’ requests for a library have been refused. And while the wealthy, predominately-Ashkenazi north of the city has plenty of sports facilities, a mostly Mizrachi south Tel Aviv neighbourhood that has 45,000 residents has only one gym and swimming pool – and the latter is open only in summer.
None of this is an excuse for Jewish-Israeli racism. It does, however, point to another issue that must be reckoned with – the country’s shabby treatment of the Jews it has deemed as “others”, namely those who are not part of the Ashkenazi elite. The Jews who were brought to Israel for demographic war and who then were tossed into the country’s periphery to secure the border. This is true of south Tel Aviv as well, which was actually Palestinian Jaffa before Israel was created in 1948. Mizrachim were thrown into these far-flung neighbourhoods as a way to prevent Palestinians returning.
By the 1970s, the state had begun evicting these same people from their homes to make way for development. Approximately 800 impoverished families currently face eviction from public housing. Many of these people are Mizrachim who live in south Tel Aviv. So, yes, the area is tense and the problems often express as racism. But the issues are deeper than that.
The impossible situation of Mr Zegata and other asylum seekers – as well as the residents of south Tel Aviv – serves as a reminder that the Israeli government continues to be remiss in its duties to respect the human rights of all who reside inside its borders. Can a country maintain a preferred religious and ethnic character and neoliberal economics without trampling on the rights of all “others” – whether those “others” are Palestinian, African, or impoverished Jews?
*Illustrative photo by Sasha Kimel, via Flickr