Miriam Berger is a Middle East based journalist with a focus on international news. She conducted research on the Cairo metro for a master's degree in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford University.
Right wing populists like Benjamin Netanyahu blame south Tel Aviv’s bad reputation on its African community. But the urban fabric of the area tells a more complicated story about the city’s character.
Taj Haroun didn’t know anything about Tel Aviv before he came to Israel. It was 2008 and the then 19-year-old had crossed into Israel from Egypt, on the run from war in his native Darfur in Sudan. Authorities soon put the young asylum seeker on a bus to Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv, a debilitated part of Israel’s sun-kissed economic center that outsiders don’t often see.
Haroun’s trajectory is fairly typical of the estimated 60,000 African asylum seekers—mainly from Eritrea and Sudan—who crossed illegally into Israel between 2006 and 2012. Migration has effectively halted since. In late 2013, migrants began to be rounded up and put in Holot, an open-air detention center made with the government’s hope that it would encourage illegal migrants to leave Israel. It was finally shut down last March as Israel amped up a now scratched plan to deport Africans to Rwanda and Uganda. Israel’s construction of a fence along its border with Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has also discouraged further migration during the same period. Like other populist politicians in the U.S. and parts of Europe, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been trying to carry out his own pledge to deport the asylum seekers, who are classified under Israeli law as illegal “infiltrators,” while human rights groups argue that they are simply refugees.
Politicians like Netanyahu blame south Tel Aviv’s reputation for drugs, crime, and poverty on the African community. But the urban fabric of the area tells a more complicated story about the character of Tel Aviv and the mechanisms of migration, gentrification, and who gets to stay or leave.
Tel Aviv is known as the “White City” because its 1930s Bauhaus style buildings, mostly designed by Jewish architects from Germany who escaped Nazi rule for what was then the British Mandate of Palestine. But architect and city historian Sharon Rotbard argues in his book, White City, Black City, that this narrative only tells half the story. Before Israel’s founding in 1948, south Tel Aviv was part of Jaffa, a neighboring majority-Palestinian municipality. Rothbard characterizes areas like it as the “Black City” because of their long history of institutional neglect and marginalization. “From the very definition of the White City, all the other places to do not make it into the story and the definition of Tel Aviv,” Rotbard tells CityLab.
The epicenter of south Tel Aviv and the current African asylum seeker community is an area called Neve Sha'anan, which translates as “tranquil abode.” Jewish immigrants founded the neighborhood in the 1920s and designed it to be shaped like a menorah, notes Rotbard.
Since its inception, Neve Sha'anan, and south Tel Aviv more generally, has always been a gathering place of new immigrants. Waves of Jews from Arab countries, called Mizrachim, settled in the area in the 1950s and ‘60s. In the 1980’s, Iranian Jews came, followed by Russian and Ethiopian Jews in the 1990s and 2000s. Over the years, Mizrachi, Russian, and other Jewish immigrants who made enough money moved out to North Tel Aviv or elsewhere in Israel; those who stayed watched as the neglected neighborhoods continued to deteriorate.
But the groups who came next—Eritreans and Sudanese, as well as Chinese and Filipino workers—weren’t Jewish or eligible for citizenship and therefore weren’t accepted into the city and Israeli society in the same way. By the time Taj Haroun arrived a decade ago, parts of south Tel Aviv were like “the red light districts of Amsterdam,” he says, describing the area as a widely known zone for drug use and prostitution. He rejects the accusation of politicians like Netanyahu that the Africans were the cause of the problems in the area.
“[Because] we are the vulnerable people with no one to protect us, we became the scapegoat,” Haroun said. “You can understand from the beginning that the plan of the government was to send everyone to south Tel Aviv because south Tel Aviv is considered the backend. There they have no responsibility, they don’t have to take care of anyone.”
Life-long resident of Neve Sha'anan and community leader Shula Keshet sees the African community’s struggle as connected to her own as a Mizrachi Israeli.
“The Mizrachi families in Israel are pretty much oppressed in all areas of life,” Keshet says. While the founders of Israel were largely Ashkenazi, or white Jews from Europe, the Mizrachim who came from Middle Eastern countries in the decades after faced considerable institutional discrimination, Keshet says. She adds that the enduring tension has played out in the neglected streets of south Tel Aviv.
“All of this is to deport people from here. Not only the asylum seekers, but also the Mizrachi families,” she says. “The real estate here is worth billions, but [only] for the ones waiting for the deportation of the asylum seekers and the Mizrachi families… It’s a real process of very cruel gentrification combined with racism against black people and racism against Mizrachi families,” Keshet adds.
Her key opponent in this debate is Shafi Paz, a resident of the nearby Shapiro neighborhood who has been the leader of a small but well-funded and vocal campaign in support of deporting the Africans from south Tel Aviv, and the rest of Israel.
Paz, who is of Ashkanzi descent and moved to south Tel Aviv several decades ago, has argued that Israel needs to take care of south Tel Aviv’s own struggling Jewish residents before any outsiders. She has organized rallies and led campaigns targeting the Eritrean and Sudanese communities, insisting that they’re dangerous and the cause of south Tel Aviv’s troubles.
Paz’s fiery rhetoric has gained traction nationwide, riding on a wave of rising religious, nationalist populism in Israel. Netanyahu, meanwhile, heads Israel’s mostly right-wing government and remains popular among his base despite several corruption cases against him. This summer, he toured south Tel Aviv, promising its Israeli residents that the government would “give back” the area. While some Mizrachi Israelis like Keshet see the neighborhood’s issues as ones of intersecting interests, a core part of Netanyahu’s base are Mizrachi Jews who want the government to now prioritize them.
One thing that all sides agree on, however, is that the central bus station in Neve Sha'anan is a big part of the problem that the government has thus far failed to address. Slated to be among the biggest bus stations in the world when construction started in the 1960s, the large and confusingly organized station didn’t open until the 1990s. Today, its many dark corners make it a hub for crime; it also hosts clinics for asylum seekers and drug users, another reason the two communities stay nearby.
“Good planning is the solution for every city,” says Ivry Baumgarten, 39, who moved to south Tel Aviv from Jerusalem and is now active in trying to redevelop Neve Sha'anan. Baumgarten argued that the central bus station should be dispersed among several smaller stations across Tel Aviv so that the traffic isn’t centered in the south.
In the meantime, African asylum seekers are seeing more of their spaces come under scrutiny as government policies, including attempts to forcibly jail or deport them, try to squeeze them out. Streets full of Eritrean and Sudanese stores and restaurants serve the community but aren’t frequented by many Israelis.
Keshet has a vision for improving Neve Sha'anan for the community now and however it develops in the future. “Build Mizrachi and multicultural centers, stop the gentrification, close the central bus station,” she says. “Instead of spending billions in Holot, put the money to rehabilitate south Tel Aviv for the residents of south Tel Aviv and the people who are homeless, “ she says.