The Other Side of Start-Up Nation

What’s most startling about South Tel Aviv isn’t the poverty or the diversity – it’s the decrepitude. The area around the Central Bus Station is a study in urban decay. The streets themselves are, for the most part, clean. But the buildings are crumbling and coated in countless layers of grime. Behind rusted fences or chipping cement blocks are acres of jiffa – the Israeli word for the specific kind of rubble and trash that accumulates here. Down the side-streets and alleyways, everything looks old. The years of neglect age the buildings’ facades by a factor of at least two.

Homeless man sleeping across the street from the central bus station.

Homeless man asleep across the street from the bus station.

In South Tel Aviv, laws protect space instead of people. Consequently the daily struggles of the people living here are hidden behind a meticulously maintained mask, kept out of view of the rest of the city’s population. The streets, which are visible to everyone who travels in the city look almost manicured. Street cleaners prowl up and down the street corners nearly every other night. Municipal workers, typically contract workers from poorer nations in the global south, scour the sidewalks for stray pieces of garbage. In the most neglected part of the city, where nearly all other social services are absent, the municipality deems it somehow necessary to send in the sanitation department regularly.

The real state of the neighborhood can be found behind the gnarled metal gates and within the weathered buildings. The squalor and poverty collect in alleyways and side-yards, occasionally overflowing out of windows or from underneath front doors. Since three, linked events – the construction of the New Central Bus Station, the steady flow of migrant workers, and the arrival of refugees – whole  segments of the neighborhoods have become outlets for the overflow of suffering and deprivation. The streets that run from the Central Bus Station to the beach wouldn’t look out of place in New York’s Lower East Side. But on the side-streets and in the neighborhoods that sit directly behind the bus station, in its shadow, the neglect and decrepitude once kept inside have been externalized.

Residential building in Shapira neighborhood

Residential building in Shapira neighborhood

From the main roadways or from the windows of buses passing by, it is hard to see the people asleep on the sidewalk, or the children in shoddy shoes kicking a ball back and forth amidst the ruins of what feels like a forgotten city. People cook on tiny gas stoves crammed onto dilapidated balconies or crumbling street corners to escape the tininess of their apartments. Parents bathe their children in jiffa-filled alleys.

South Tel Aviv is like a postcard sent back from a neoliberal future.

It’s a global city, hub for capital and labor-power, and a seemingly innovative and modern place. It is also home to a severely impoverished, intentionally neglected, and vulnerable population. It is a locale, like many others in the rapidly developing world, where those in power prioritize property over people, with terrible consequences. The people sleeping in Levinsky Park are the other side of start-up nation. In many ways, Israel’s most shameful policies pave the way for its proudest achievements.

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6 Responses to The Other Side of Start-Up Nation

  1. I’m not sure I would call South Tel Aviv a postcard from the “neoliberal” future. A true advocate of free markets would also support the free flow of labor across borders, and that would in turn entail giving people who cross borders legal protections equal to those enjoyed by citizens. The conditions in South Tel Aviv stem from a pernicious sociopolitical — rather than economic — ideology: To preserve Israel as a Jewish state, the current government is doing all it can to discourage asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants and to make legal migrant workers think of Israel merely as a temporary home. The economic squalor is just a tool in the service of that sociopolitical goal. If it were just about money, the Israeli government would support rather than hinder NGOs attempting to aid the people living there.

    • Josh Leifer says:

      I get what you’re saying, but by “neoliberalism” I don’t mean standard free-market policy. Instead, I think “neoliberalism” is best looked at as the way of characterizing the simultaneous deregulation of the economy and erosion of civil liberties. In “neoliberalism,” the more intrusive state, in civil and social matters, is coupled with privatization and the defunding of various social welfare programs. Israel’s treatment of the refugees and migrant workers – both illegal and legal – is therefore in keeping with that ideology. It allows migrant workers to come to Israel, often through extortionate man-power companies, and then prevents them from receiving certain kinds of state labor. Israel’s sociopolitical ideology definitely contributes its flavor of economic ideology. But, ultimately, I think the state actively makes life difficult for the refugees and migrant workers firstly because it doesn’t want to pay for their welfare and secondly because they aren’t Jewish.

      • NGOs / charitable organizations aren’t “state labor,” though. If the primary issue is that the state doesn’t want to foot the bill, then why are they hindering the efforts of charities?

      • Josh Leifer says:

        Well, a big part of how the government hinders NGOs/charitable organizations is by withholding funding or by refusing to fund them. Most Israeli NGOs receive some kind of funding from the government. But the government does not want to spend any money on these people, even if indirectly. As for hindering the efforts of charities that don’t receive stae funding, or even those that aren’t dependent on state funding, the sociopolitical environment definitely plays a role, though I think the fear that the migrant workers and refugees will stay and become normalized if they receive aid and consequently become reliant on social welfare program plays a role as well.

  2. Dafna says:

    Hi Josh, we met when Bart and I were visiting Lily – we’re the parents who worked with Steve Mufson at The Washington Post. Two thoughts on your blog, which I found through Lily’s twitter feed. 1: It’s keenly observed and spectacularly written journalism. Although I am used to reading this level of reporting without opinion, I thought your last line worked beautifully into the whole and I appreciated it. 2. We happen to be friends with Dan Senor, the author of “Start-Up Nation.” He is coming over for dinner Wednesday and I will show him you blog. Happy New Year, Dafna

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