History, Racism, and Identity Politics in Israel: A response to Open Zion

A recent Open Zion article titled, “Israel’s Most Liberal City Introduces Racially Segregated Kindergartens,” does a disservice to both the African and Israeli residents of Tel Aviv’s poorest neighborhoods.

Tel Aviv’s school system, like the city itself, has been unofficially segregated for decades. Prior to the arrival of Filipino migrant workers and African refugees South Tel Aviv was home almost entirely to MizrachimJews from Arab and Muslim countries who fled or were expelled from their homes in the 1950s and 60s. While Tel Aviv north of Rothschild Boulevard, the famed avenue of chic restaurants and cute cafes, became the home of liberal Ashkenazi Jews, South Tel Aviv turned into ghetto for Oriental Jews. And this didn’t happen by accident.

When Jews fleeing persecution in Arab and Muslim countries arrived in Israel they were not greeted with open arms by the Ashkenazi establishment. Instead, they were shunted into development towns in Israel’s southern region or slums like South Tel Aviv. The kibbutzim largely refused to accept them. The Labor Zionist leadership related to them with condescension and disdain. The liberalism of the Ashkenazi elite did not extend to their Arabic-speaking brethren. There was a concerted policy of separation between the two populations. This historical tension between Ashkenazim and Mizrachim forms the background of many of Israel’s contemporary political problems, including the paroxysms of racism and violence in the Hatikva and Shapira neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv.

But Mizrachi anger and resentment towards the Ashkenazi establishment is only one factor in South Tel Aviv’s volatile political equation. Another factor is a different, concrete government policy – the concentration of African asylum seekers and refugees in Tel Aviv’s already weakened neighborhoods. Lisa Goldman, the article’s author, writes that “in recent years newcomers settled there, most notably foreign workers from the Philippines. More recently, asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea found their way to the economically depressed neighborhood.” The Sudanese and Eritreans did not “find their way” to the economically depressed neighborhoods. Instead, they were collected at Israel’s border with the Sinai desert, and after time in detention centers, placed on buses that took them to South Tel Aviv. They were dropped there at the New Central Bus Station (yet another one of the economic and social ills that afflict South Tel Aviv’s unfortunate inhabitants), left to struggle to survive in a country where they do not speak the language and are often not permitted to work.

The arrival of even more impoverished residents to South Tel Aviv’s neighborhoods tore holes in what was already a fraying social fabric. People who had struggled for decades to earn enough to support their families and find steady employment now had to deal with thousands of new arrivals willing to work for less than than they were. The many refugees, before finding work, slept on the street or in parks, disturbing the shaky order of South Tel Aviv. During the early years of the influx of migrant workers and refugees South Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park became an encampment for hundreds of homeless Eritreans and Sudanese refugees – one that still exists today. While its true, as Goldman writes, that “tension between the veteran Jewish residents and the African asylum seekers has been high for quite some time, thanks partly to incitement from certain right-wing Members of Knesset and some rabbis, with the latter discouraging their followers from renting apartments to non-Jews”, the call of South Tel Aviv’s residents for the segregation of kindergartens does not arise simply from baseless hatred and racism.

The demand for segregated kindergartens comes mainly from a sense of victimhood felt by the people of South Tel Aviv who, too, have experienced discrimination and segregation at the hands of the Ashkenazi liberals who now accuse them of racism. Racism and xenophobia are widely expressed by many living in South Tel Aviv. And after almost being assaulted in the Shapira neighborhood where I lived last year for being a leftist, I’m the last person to deny that. But there is something insincere about Liberal Ashkenazi Jews’ concern over racism and segregation when they have been silent about it for decades. As mizrachi-feminist activist Or Tal Ben Dayan writes in blog post titled “The True Moral Test”,

The Ashkenazi Left holds two systems of discourse about difference when it comes to discuss questions on human rights, racism, morality, and justice. One [the Ashkenazi Left] uses when it comes to discuss the occupation, refugees, and non-Jewish “others” in Israeli society, and the other it uses when it comes to discuss hierarchies and racism within [Israeli] Jewish society. This way, it’s acceptable to be racist towards Mizrachim but it is terrible to be racist towards Arabs and refugees (my translation).

This sentiment is expressed in part of the YNet article Goldman cites but decides not to quote.

Another resident with children going into kindergarten said this week: Finally the city is doing what its been supposed to do for a while. Everyone who criticizes us and thinks this is racism is welcome to admit foreigners into their children’s kindergartens. They should have to deal with the problems we are dealing with. I would be happy if the city were to open a complex of kindergartens like this in North and Central Tel Aviv. Here lives a weak population, and it is weakened even more when integrating children from a different culture who don’t speak the language. We bear the burden (my translation).

This seems to be less of an incidence of “outrageous” racism and more of an expression of deep resentment and even a plea for help. The woman interviewed, with her reference to North and Central Tel Aviv, expresses a common sentiment that I encountered when I lived in the Shapira neighborhood last year. The Ashkenazi establishment, which has hegemonic political power, engineered a policy that put refugees from Africa in Israel’s poorest neighborhoods. And when those residents express displeasure, which unfortunately is often couched in racist language, the same Ashkenazi establishment reacts in the media with opprobrium and condescension towards South Tel Aviv’s mostly Mizrachi population.

This political reality combined with the economic and material strains that the arrival of the migrant workers and refugees placed on economically depressed neighborhoods is what makes those neighborhoods fertile ground for racism and reactionary politics.

Almost a year ago today I moved to the Shapira neighborhood of South Tel Aviv where I spent a year there as a volunteer in a kindergarten attended by children who were identified as at-risk by the Ministry of Welfare. The kindergarten was mixed – the children of Mizrachim played together with the children of Palestinians who had been relocated from the West Bank and Gaza, the children of Filipino migrant workers, and the children of African asylum seekers.

At the end of each day, when parents came to pick up their kids, the tension was palpable. I was disturbed by the distrust and racism with which the Israeli parents treated their Palestinian and foreign counterparts. But what disturbed me even more was the hardship and neglect experienced by those parents at the hands of the Ashkenazi political establishment that failed to accept them as equals and now censures them for being uneducated, uncultured, and unethical.

It is important to call out racism whenever it is expressed and especially when it is translated into public policy. But this must be done with a broader historical awareness and an acknowledge of the different socio-political elements at play.

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2 Responses to History, Racism, and Identity Politics in Israel: A response to Open Zion

  1. Old Man says:

    Young Man,

    (Can I call you Mr. Leefer? Are we not now on a last-name basis?) Let me begin by asking you, is this a text message, or is it an instant message? Or perhaps it is neither, since I wrote in on Monday, and sent it on Tuesday, which was technically Wednesday. However, where I’m from, we don’t have Wednesdays, only delayed Thursdays and extended Tuesdays.

    The reason I am writing is that I refuse to use the phone, as I am afraid I will not hang it up properly, and unbeknownst to me, the person on the other end will be able to hear my whole life as though it were the radio! I value my privacy, you see.

    Which brings me to my next point. I am disappointed in you and other members of your generation who spend too much time farming tomatoes, who forsake hygiene, and who overuse swear words like “yo.” I have written many acrostic poems about this. Seven in fact.
    I hope that you, a fine, upstanding young citizen of the world, agree.

    Very sincerely,
    Old Man

  2. Old Man says:

    Young man,
    In response to your letter, which I found altogether charming and, for the most part, legible, I would advise you thus:

    Although you are, technically speaking, too young to run for the U.S. Senate, I do believe there is a high probability that the public will overlook your age, given your credentials. Regarding your campaign, I would be more than happy to be your Campaign Manager, and to manage your campaign. I have already come up with some slogans, many of which I think have potential. One of is, “Joshua Leifer Will Represent You.” Another is, “Joshua Leifer is Not a Convicted Felon, and He Doesn’t Plan to be One.” What do you think? Which do you prefer? Take your time; don’t answer too hastily. Really think it through.

    As for public appearances, don’t worry about that either. I have some basic training in stage makeup, and I would be more than willing to take an eyebrow pencil, and to make you appear to have wrinkles. Don’t worry! These wrinkles will not be permanent. They will be a mere illusion, meant to fool the public. In fact, they will wash off with water.

    It is my greatest hope that I have answered your questions– your plea for guidance— with wisdom and pragmatism.

    Sincerely as Always,
    Old Man

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