It’s Not ‘Us Versus Them’

25 January 2018

Since the government’s decision to step up deportations of thousands of African asylum seekers, Israeli rabbis, intellectuals and progressives who have spoken out strongly against the policy. But now the asylum seekers have support from people long written off as their adversaries – their neighbors, the residents of south Tel Aviv.

The residents of south Tel Aviv, themselves facing the challenges of poverty and years of government neglect, have become involuntary hosts to almost 40 thousand newcomers. They share their already limited resources with new residents who have been forbidden from working or making a decent living, and hence pushed to a vulnerable lifestyle.

The government’s initial policy had been to provide asylum seekers a bus ticket to Tel Aviv. When residents asked for help or protested dumping all the asylum seekers in one neighborhood, they were often characterized in the press as ignorant racists.

Right-wing politicians would stop by, scoring political points through incendiary speeches about the threat from the asylum seekers, and depart, leaving behind a legacy of division and suspicion while continuing to neglect the local community. The municipality also did little, and only civil society stepped up to assist the Africans, mostly Sudanese and Eritreans, secure legal rights, healthcare, and family assistance.

Now that the Netanyahu government is stepping up deportations of the asylum seekers to countries like Rwanda and Uganda, some of their neighbors in south Tel Aviv are remembering their own families’ history of fleeing persecution. Their own struggles to keep their homes and community intact in an expensive city have led many to make common cause with their African neighbors, realizing that the problem is not this marginalized group of asylum seekers, but rather an ongoing and systematic oppression impacting both groups.

Power to the Community, an NIF grantee founded by south Tel Aviv native and activist Shula Keshet, has worked for years to fight for affordable housing, represent the interests of underprivileged Mizrahim, and secure improvements for everyone in the neighborhood. In December, recognizing the common interests of the refugees and south Tel Aviv Israelis at risk for losing their homes to encroaching gentrification, Power to the Community launched the South Tel Aviv Against Deportation campaign.

Hundreds of banners proclaiming the campaign now hang from people’s porches and emblazon storefronts and walkways. Social media campaigns are enlisting more residents, both Israeli and African. An NIF emergency grant will fund a campaign coordinator, assist with creating videos and storytelling in print and help stage a big demonstration in the near future. Visits by Knesset members are scheduled.

“Not only are the asylum seekers now threatened with deportation, but also hundreds of Mizrahi families for whom the land on which we live in south Tel Aviv has become desirable real estate,” Keshet said. “In the face of a regime that attempts to subjugate and manipulate the weaker populations, it is important that we as long-time residents and asylum seekers unite against the shame of deportation and demand justice and rights.”

Along with veteran NIF grantees the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants and ASSAF: Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, who are working to prevent deportations and assist those already slated to go, Power to the Community is making a statement to the ruling elite, which has long sought to drive a wedge between poor Israelis and asylum seekers. The solidarity evinced by the new campaign is a reminder to all Israelis that dividing their marginalized fellow citizens from each other will not work when people recognize their common interests, organize, and speak out for justice.