Wanted: A nuanced debate


A rally calling for the deportation of African migrants in south Tel Aviv last May. Placard reads “Sudanese to Sudan”. (Photo: Ben Hartman)

Despite a series of unqualified statements and inflammatory, racist language directed towards African migrants, (called simply “infiltrators” – a word typically only used in Jpost articles when quoting official statements by politicians or protestors), a June 8 article by prominent Israeli journalist and commentator Ben Caspit entitled “South Tel Aviv: Abandoned by the State” didn’t make the sort of online stir I thought it would.

On January 17, the African Refugee Development Center issued a press release criticizing the article, posted first to the Post.co.il and then translated for the Jpost – entitled “ARDC challenges racial incitement by respected Israeli journalist, Ben Caspit”. The press release takes issue not only with the racially-loaded language of the article, but also what it says are a series of inaccurate assertions.

The release criticizes Caspit’s “considerable inflation of the number of asylum seekers currently in Israel (despite the fact that the correct figure is publicly available); his assessment that those fleeing Eritrea and Sudan cannot be legitimate refugees; his description of the ease with which asylum seekers can open a business; and his accusation that asylum seekers are the cause of the area’s general deterioration.”

According to the ARDC, “Caspit’s manipulative play on fearful Holocaust survivors and the supposed desecration of a synagogue – together with references to an “imaginary ship…from the bowels of Africa” – is not investigative journalism. The article is, at best, irresponsible and, at worst, dangerous.”

The ARDC also expressed confusion about a building at the corner of Neve Shaanan and Rosh Pina street near Lewinsky Park that Caspit says was once a Georgian synagogue but has now become the site of a “huge carnival” for African migrants and is now too dangerous to approach at night. It appears the building in question is one two doors down from the corner, one that was at one point a synagogue but now the site of an open air bar where migrants drink beer, smoke shisha and watch soccer on big screen TVs.

I’m familiar with the building because I was taken there on a tour Tel Aviv police gave to Israeli crime reporters earlier this year, though the building also features in other tours of the neighborhood. While I’m not sure if it was part of Caspit’s tour as well, the Israel police also took reporters to a building at the corner of Fein and Salomon street, once an infamous drug den that has today houses African migrant families.

That building, according to police, represents how in recent years with the African influx, the area has seen in some ways a sort of gentrification, and how some buildings that were once vacant or inhabited only by junkies and prostitutes, are now housing paying African tenants and their families, or African-run businesses. Sure, there were still people shooting up in the street a few steps from the building, but the picture was not a cut and dry one like Caspit describes. Also during that same tour, while walking past the illegal bike market on Neve Shaanan street, which Caspit mentions in passing, one police officer described how officers decide to let the market stay open, believing that it’s better to allow unemployed or desperate migrants to make money this way than through more severe crime.

The reality presented on that trip and in countless visits I’ve made to Neve Shaanan at all hours of the day and night (without a bodyguard or any real fear for my personal safety, unlike the picture presented in the Caspit piece) is one of a struggling neighborhood in transition. It’s a picture of a neighborhood that for years has been plagued by the drug and sex trade, relegated to being the neglected back yard of Tel Aviv. Over those same years, the neighborhood has seen a massive influx of foreigners that has strained its resources and complicated its social problems even further, while at the same time, bringing urban renewal in a way that is typically overlooked. There is a real social time bomb in south Tel Aviv, but it is part of a complicated reality that requires a nuanced and sober perspective.

Such a perspective was missing in the Caspit piece – which was replete with racially-loaded language,

Direct quotes include:

“Tens of thousands of Africans have infiltrated into Israel – between 65,000 and 80,000 have completely taken a section of Tel Aviv – and have founded the first “African Republic of Zion.”

“It is the Africans who control the area.”

“The neighborhoods where these residents grew up are now conquered territory – no-man’s-land with no sovereign ruler.”

Other quotes blame the Africans for bringing the drug industry to the area – though it preceded their arrival by decades – and also for bringing a culture of drinking to the neighborhood. The latter presents one of the piece’s more bizarre lines – that “the Africans begin drinking and they do not know how to hold their liquor. They weren’t used to drinking alcohol where they come from”. This despite the fact that most migrants are from Eritrea, a majority Christian country with its own local beer industry. It’s safe to assume that Sudanese migrants, most of who lived some time in Egypt – where beer is readily available – were also not completely ignorant of the beverage before they made it to south Tel Aviv.

Along the way, he rules that all of the migrants “came here in the first place to make money and not for any other reason”, an assertion that is certainly true for an unknown percentage of them, but one that is impossible to determine if, like Caspit or the state of Israel, one has not examined their asylum requests.

The language of Caspit’s article – if not the political or policy assertions – would likely be condemned by one well-known Israeli commentator: Ben Caspit of 2012.

In a May 2012 article in Maariv headlined “Metastasis of Hate” (which was later translated to Al-Monitor, where it can still be read with the headline “Racial Hatred in Tel Aviv Recalls ‘Dark Days’ in Jewish History”), Caspit railed against Likud MK Miri Regev, who had famously called Sudanese migrants “a cancer in the body of our nation” at an anti-migrants rally in the Hatikvah neighborhood of south Tel Aviv on May 24, 2012. Hours after her statement (for which she later apologized – to cancer victims, for comparing them to Sudanese), south Tel Aviv residents went on an anti-migrants rampage, smashing stores belonging to African migrants, and assaulting dark-skinned people found out on the street.

In the Maariv piece, Caspit speaks as the responsible adult standing up to rabble-rousers and race-baiters like Regev and former MK Michael Ben-Ari. Caspit writes of a social problem caused by official state negligence, from which the residents of south Tel Aviv suffer – and for which the migrants are not to blame.

“The campaign against the ‘labor infiltrators’ is an authentic struggle, motivated by a real plight, which requires an immediate, efficient and effective solution on the part of the government. The infiltrators themselves are not the culprits. They saw a breach and entered through it,” Caspit wrote, a little over a year before the Jpost piece.

In terms of Regev and her ilk “they put the entire [Likud] party to shame. They blacken our name in the eyes of the world,” Caspit says, adding that “the residents of south Tel Aviv are fed up, and justly so. They need help and sympathy and prompt solution of the problem. They don’t need the gang of publicity-chasing opportunist politicians to incite and rouse them against those poor hapless migrants thrown in the streets. This is not the way. It is not our way. But go and explain it to Miri Regev.”

Caspit 2012 was right. Over the past three years that I have covered the migrant issue for the Jerusalem Post, I’ve seen it hit peaks and valleys in the public debate, disappearing more or less for months at a time, before an incident (such as a violent crime by a migrant or the announcement earlier this month that Israel has reached an agreement with a third party country to absorb deported migrants from Eritrea or Sudan) brings it back to the forefront. The issue is one of the more complicated and sensitive in Israel, and is loaded with racial, social, and political overtones.

For an issue of such sensitivity, it has unfortunately been one defined at times by a tone of extremes, both by opponents of migrants, and their supporters in left-wing Israeli NGOs. Just as they are not all political refugees or asylum seekers as their supporters claim, they are also not entirely foreign workers “infiltrating” the country to steal jobs and along the way assault our daughters and threaten the Jewish character of the state of Israel, while forming their own mini al-Qaeda outpost in south Tel Aviv. While I would not advise a woman to walk alone in the area around Lewinsky Park late at night – an area that reeks of urine and is littered with hypodermic needles – I would also acknowledge that it and Hatikvah and Shapira are not no-go areas where Israelis only venture outside after sunset with armed guards, if at all.

This issue is a complicated one that Israel — like all first world countries – must deal with. This issue isn’t helped by bloggers and amateur video makers using it as a ham-fisted way to paint Israel as a “Nazi apartheid state”, or by right-wing politicians looking to win voters by stirring up anti-migrant sentiment.

Furthermore, the racism that is unfortunately part of the public debate doesn’t negate the social problems at stake, just as those same social issues don’t justify or explain random attacks on Africans, or the times I’ve seen young Israelis make monkey noises at African men walking around Hatikvah or Shapira. Israel in 2013 is not Alabama in the 1950s, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a strong current of racism that has poisoned the debate on this issue.

The African migrants issue is one that demands real government policy and a grown-up debate on handling a first-world problem that Israel did not ask for but must deal with.

Racially-loaded language and warped assertions about the issue are not the way and not our way. But go and explain it to Ben Caspit.

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One Response to Wanted: A nuanced debate

  1. Jeremy says:

    Interesting piece Ben – I think it all comes down to people mixing up issues.
    As far as I can see there are two issues here:
    1. The deterioration of the neighborhoods around the central bus station – which has been going on for many years – it used to be full of drug addicts and prostitutes and now is home to many Africans as well.
    2. Illegal immigration by Africans claiming Asylum here – some of whom genuinely need asylum and others who are just taking advantage.
    Both issues should be solved by the government.
    First, something should be done about regenerating the deteriorating areas of south Tel Aviv – there is no need for such a significant part of the city to be in such disrepair.
    Second, while we can’t blame the Africans for taking advantage of our overly hospitable hospitality, in order to stem the flow of illegal immigrants it is imperative for there to be a consistent and conclusive policy on illegal immigration and asylum seekers. Clearly, even if all six million Eritreans are under threat in their country, we don’t have enough room and resources to accept all of them into our country – even if they went through hardships trying to get here.
    The government needs to evaluate who is here illegally without just cause and throw them out. They must then place a limit on the number of genuine asylum seekers we can afford to take in and deal with them responsibly.

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