Anti-immigrant riots in South Tel Aviv

May 24, 2012 by


A few years back I had a bad experience at my bank in Carmiel. There were about 9 people milling around the teller’s desk. No line. No queue. I was familiar with the requirement. You ask “Who’s last?” and then assume that you are the next in ‘line’. It’s a mad system. At some predictable point it disintegrated into chaos. Someone had asked “who’s last” and then gone out shopping. When she returned, she expected to be able to reclaim her place, but no one remembered who she was. Much shouting ensued.

Everyone in the crowd/line was annoyed with someone else in the crowd/line. But really we should all have been annoyed with the bank. For not laying on more tellers, and for not arranging a more efficient and transparent method of waiting. (Since then the bank had a face-lift, and you take a number…)

I was reminded of this incident last night, when I picked up news of the anti-immigrant riots in South Tel Aviv. I was horrified, but not entirely surprised.

I have friends and family living in the area of last night’s riots. They have been complaining about the refugee/immigrant situation for a while now. I confess it was almost funny to watch them squirm as they expressed their concerns, because they are not right-wingers. I’m not sure they would even call themselves Zionists. One of them refused to take part in Tel Aviv’s Gay Parade because it was too mainstream – he walked with the Radical Gay Parade… So to hear him and others talk about crime and fear in their neighborhood due to the influx of illegal immigrants, demanded some listening.

In the last year or two tens of thousands of Africans fleeing from poverty and persecution have arrived in South Tel Aviv. This is, not surprisingly, a poor area of Tel Aviv. Rent is low. It has traditionally been populated by low-income mizrachim. Imagine what happens to such a neighborhood when 60,000 people arrive who cannot speak the language, have little access to any social services, and cannot legally work?

As my friends would admit in a half-whisper, in a pained acknowledgment of the danger of being misunderstood, crime is rife in their neighborhood now. Yes, since the influx of the Africans. Violence, burglaries, and general upheaval. One friend told me of screaming next door to her house. She went round to find an illegal kindergarten in a room full of African babies strapped in car seats (no room or personnel to let them move around). She can’t think for the noise and for the fear of these children’s well-being. I myself visited a clandestine kindergarten with over ten kids in a small room whose entrance is shared with a brothel. The looks in the eyes of the latter’s patrons give me nightmares to this day.

And the authorities do not function.

This issue has been left to fester. And politics abhors a vacuum. Or conversely, some politicians love a policy vacuum that they may fill with their own particular definition of the problem.

Last night politicians and hooligans moved to paint the problem in a very particular shade of blue and white. They turned the local, national, and they turned the administrative, ideological. They came to say that Israel cannot survive as a Jewish State if she continues to allow such people into her midst. And they said so in the worst possible way. Calling for “Death to the Sudanese”, calling such immigrants/refugees a “cancer”, beating up people and smashing property, they blackened Israel’s name and – as my friends who looked on in horror and disgust pointed out – made it even more difficult to bring about an appropriate response to the issue at hand.

For even if the government now sets out on an mass deportation campaign of every Sudanese and Eritrean they may lay their hands on, until structural changes to immigration policy, refugee policy, border control and labor laws are put in place, this issue will swiftly return.

There is a deep pressing issue lying underneath the rhetoric of the “protesters” that ought to be addressed.

What is the purpose of the State of Israel?

Is the State first and foremost a mechanism to serve the Jewish people and advance its interests above all others?

Must the State of Israel see Liberal values of freedom and care, and Jewish values of loving the stranger as central to its raison d’etre even if these values extract a cost?

(I deliberately didn’t add a preposition between these two questions, because I don’t wish to assume that there is an either/or choice.)

These are questions at the heart of the relationship between Liberalism and Zionism that we intend the next Global Jewish Forum will tackle with appropriate seriousness.

And yet I am still left thinking about the line at the bank. Perhaps the riot last night – however it will be painted and judged by its demagoguery – was mainly the result of structural dysfunction? If swift and just processing of refugee claims had been in place, if social services were not already so stretched dealing with full citizens, if housing were not only left to the blind hand of the economy – perhaps these terrible events might have been avoided? Perhaps.


  1. Sorry for the shameless plug but if anyone is interested in helping the victims of last night’s attacks they can follow this link

  2. Elisheva says:

    Not too long ago, we were the assylum seekers…

    “You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the orphan; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn. You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord, your God, redeemed you from there; therefore, I command you to do this thing.” (Deuteronomy 24)

  3. Abe Lesnik says:


    In the last year or two about 70,000 illegal immigrant Africans mostly from the Sudan and Eritrea have arrived in South Tel Aviv, with the influx continuing at an estimated additional 2,000 more per month.


    Nearly all the discussion and commentary re this problem has focused on the increased crime and various other deplorable living conditions and suffering, including the warehousing of children in kindergartens in abusive situations, that grows worse as the influx of illegal immigrants continues. No one should be surprised by this – it is of course the residents and citizens of South Tel Aviv and all of Tel Aviv, actually, who are the ones experiencing the shock of the leading edge of the problem as it breaks in upon their lives.


    But in the emotionalism of this, what appears to be lost is the, I hope, universal agreement that it is THE PROBLEM that has to be solved, and then the impacts of the problem will go away. The solution is to stop the influx, n’cest pas? Is there anyone out there of any political ilk that feels differently? i. e. that wants the influx not to be stopped? Pray tell, if so, where the resources will come from to care for and support the new people arriving.

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