Walk through Levinsky Park near the central bus station here and you might think you were in another country. African men, and some women, occupy every inch of a low stone bench in the brutal sun. Blankets are stashed in the branches of a eucalyptus tree, to be retrieved at nightfall. For block after block of this seedy South Tel Aviv neighborhood, with trash spilling out of dumpsters and peddlers hawking batteries and blue jeans from sidewalk mats, nearly every person is African, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan.
Israel, as government officials here like to point out, is the only first-world country that you can walk to from Africa. This geographic reality has produced a flood — 60,000 in the last seven years — of refugees who make their way first to Egypt and then through the Sinai desert to Israel’s southern border. Even as a share of the population in this country of nearly 8 million, that figure is low compared to the number of illegal immigrants in the United States.
But the velocity of the refugee flow — from under 3,000 in 2006 to 15,000 annually in 2010 and 2011 — and the concentrations of the African population in this city and just a few other areas have created a serious social problem for a country that already has more than its share of troubles.
Israel faces a demographic threat to the Jewish state from its fast-growing Arab population, even without a deluge of African refugees with no religious ties or political loyalties to the country. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that “60,000 infiltrators are liable to become 600,000 and lead to the eradication of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Infiltrators is an unsettling word but mild compared to others’ rhetoric. Knesset member Miri Regev of Netanyahu’s Likud Party termed the Africans a “cancer in our body” — and, although she later apologized, a poll found 52 percent of Jewish Israelis agreeing with that ugly sentiment. After rapes blamed on Africans, riots broke out here in May, with firebombs thrown at buildings where migrants live, and shops vandalized.
An unacceptable response anywhere, but one that is particularly troubling in a country founded as a haven for refugees from the Holocaust. It is an uncomfortable irony that synagogues in the United States post “Save Darfur” banners to protest genocide in western Sudan while the Israeli government figures out how to deal with Sudanese “infiltrators,” including those from Darfur. It is unsettling to hear Israeli officials describe a massive detention facility in the Negev desert that, under a new amendment to the “Prevention of Infiltration” law, could hold those crossing the border illegally for three years.
One small slice of the problem, involving about 1,000 refugees from South Sudan, is being solved now that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has determined that it is safe to return them to the newly independent country.
Israel’s government contends that nearly all the remaining refugees are motivated by economics rather than fear of persecution, which would entitle them to asylum status. Yet it has failed to put in place an adequate mechanism for determining asylum claims.
The “temporary group protection” granted to Sudanese and Eritreans does not allow for such individual determinations. While the refugees cannot be deported as long as their countries are deemed unsafe for repatriation, they also cannot legally work. Meanwhile, the government is taking steps to make remaining as unattractive as possible, with a proposed law preventing refugees from sending money back home.
“I know that we have become like a burden because the country is very small,” Tekle Ghebvehiwot, a 31-year-old Eritrean who arrived here in 2007, told me in his small grocery shop, its shelves stocked with lentils and spices. “But we are real refugee people who need real help, and we are not looking for anything but this country to help us until the situation back home becomes less dangerous.”
Equally compelling is the plight of the original neighborhood residents, mostly poor immigrants themselves, Russian and North African Jews, who complain of refugees defecating in their yards and of being afraid to venture out after dark. “Basically, we feel like refugees in our own houses,” said Shlomo Maslawy, a Tel Aviv City Council member who represents the neighborhood.
“You shall love the stranger, for you yourselves were once strangers in the land of Egypt,” the Torah teaches. Israel cannot reasonably be expected to absorb every refugee. But it is also falling woefully short of observing that biblical command.