Tel Aviv — Sophie Menashe, who is in her 70s, rarely leaves her fifth-floor walk-up apartment these days, but she insists it’s not because the six-story building lacks an elevator.
The reason, she said, is fear.
“I’ve lived here 40 years. I raised my three children here and I love to walk to the sea. But now I live in a ghetto. I can’t leave my home because this building is full of infiltrators,” said Menashe, a resident of South Tel Aviv, which has the highest concentration of African asylum-seekers (or, depending on who you talk to, “migrants”) in Israel.
When Menashe, who immigrated to Israel from India as a child, wants to leave her apartment, “I often call the police,” for an escort. “Women I know have been attacked. One was murdered. The Africans knock on my door and try to force their way into my apartment,” she said.
“The police have given me a call button so I can call in case of emergency,” she said during an interview in her dilapidated building, whose hallway is dark and littered with cigarette butts and trash. Of the 24 apartments in the building, 21 are rented by asylum-seekers, she said.
Menashe said she has no plans to leave the area despite feeling unsafe.
“This has been my home for four decades. I like the neighborhood. And where would I move? This is my home, this is my country and I can live wherever I want to,” she said.
Menashe is one of the many residents of South Tel Aviv who are pressing for the removal — if not the outright deportation — of the roughly 38,000 Africans who entered Israel illegally.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, who calls the Eritreans and Sudanese “infiltrators,” has vowed to deport or imprison any male asylum-seeker who is not a father unless he accepts $3,500 and a one-way plane ticket to an African country, believed to be either Rwanda or Uganda, possibly both.
On Sunday the government began handing out deportation letters to the asylum-seekers, who were told they would be sent to an African nation with a “stable government.”
Residents of South Tel Aviv say media outlets and the humanitarian organizations that are fighting the deportations have ignored their plight, and have instead focused on the Africans’ rights.
Shlomo Maslawi, a Tel Aviv councilman, acknowledged that South Tel Aviv has always been economically depressed, but said young students and professionals began to move here a couple of decades ago. They have since fled, he said, due to the presence of asylum-seekers.
“In recent years the stronger populations have left the neighborhood and only the weak remain.”
Maslawi said the asylum-seekers have brought crime to the neighborhood, despite the fact that a controversial police report found that the foreigners commit fewer crimes than Israelis.
“Take a walk around here at 8 or 9 p.m. and you’ll see hundreds of them drunk, using drugs. They’re working with the Bedouin to sell drugs.”
Yaakov Omrad, who owns a printing press in the area, said he was forced to eliminate the press’ overnight shift “because customers are afraid to come after dark.”
Despite what he considers a problematic situation, Omrad said he isn’t in favor of a mass deportation.
“Israel should help law-abiding, genuine asylum-seekers,” he said. “At the same time, it’s easy for the [humanitarian] NGOs to talk about Israel absorbing tens of thousands of people. They aren’t the ones living here.”
Mohammed Ali, the owner of a nearby souvenir shop who immigrated — legally — to Israel from Egypt, said female foreign workers who are in the country legally fear the “Africans.”
“I’m married to a Filipina, and she was attacked twice, the second time by two women,” Ali said. “They they sell drugs. I’ve seen soldiers and teenagers selling their electric bikes to them to pay for drugs.”
Ali insisted that his complaints “are not about color.”
“Many of my clients work at African embassies and we are friends. But migrant workers who entered the country illegally and for financial reasons are taking away jobs and don’t respect Israeli sovereignty,” Ali said.
Cristina Billar, a Filipina who is living in Israel legally, had harsh words for the asylum-seekers who, she said, sometimes prey on the Filipina workers who share apartments in South Tel Aviv.
“Several Filipinas I know have been sexually assaulted or actually raped, but we don’t complain. We go home to our employers and take a bath and don’t speak about it again,” Billar said.
Many of the assault victims don’t report the attacks to the police because they have overstayed their work visas, or lost their visas because they have given birth to children in Israel — something that invalidates the visa.
The asylum-seekers do not deny that some Eritreans and other foreigners have committed crimes, but insist that the vast majority are law-abiding and simply want a place to live until they do not fear for their lives back home.
“I am not pro-criminal but at the same time it’s important to remember that many of our young people are living with trauma. Many were tortured on their way here. Nine-nine percent are Christians. Most obey the law,” said Teklit Michael, 29, an activist for the asylum-seekers.
“I myself left Eritrea when I was 17 because they wanted to draft me into the army indefinitely. They sent me to prison for a while and some of my relatives are still in prison.” He made his way to Sudan, then to Egypt, and finally arrived in Israel nearly a decade ago.
“I’m not here permanently,” Michael, who is Christian, said. “I receive no government benefits, no health coverage, no education. I’m here only until my country becomes safe enough to return home.”