Remembering a Tel Aviv childhood: when racism was wrong

By Oded Feller

After the anti-immigrant demonstration in South Tel Aviv ended, I decided to hang around. I went to the market, walked down Etzel Street, watched the people on the Hagana Road, turned to Yigal Alon, and kept walking as far as Hilhel Avenue. Evening came and the avenue was calm and silent, its sights and smells familiar and soothing. Nowhere in the world can you feel like this; nowhere but home. I sat on a bench.

About an hour ago, MK Michael Ben-Ari (National Union) roared from the podium: “I am not a guest here, in this neighborhood. I grew up here! I used to play here, in Hatikva Park. I attended the Yod-Gimel High School. I had my bike fixed at Avshalom’s.”

Damn that Kahanist. He has the memories. How did he remember Avshalom? Avshalom who gave me some glue and pieces of rubber and taught me how to fix a flat, alone, with a pump and a bowl of water. Avshalom, who fixed my bike with new, wide and ugly wheels after that time that I made a mistake and, instead of taking my bike into the schoolyard, I left them tied outside, in Hatikva Park. They tried to steal them, and when they failed, they twisted the wheels. “The new wheels are not that nice,” Avshalom comforted me, “but they are strong and the way they look, no one will want to twist them.”

“They steal bikes, mainly the new and good ones!” Yisrael, a junior high student who was invited to speak at the rally, said angrily. “Is there anyone here whose bike was not stolen?” the speakers repeatedly asked. One of them summed it up saying: “Every day, there is murder. Every day, there is rape. Every day, they steal bikes.”

In 1992, Headmistress Ronit Tirosh ruled over the high school empire that stretched from Holon in the south to Givatayim in the east. The children of the Yad Eliyahu, Hatikva, and Kfar Shalem neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv were her subjects, one and all. They were the bricks of the wall of Israel’s largest educational institution at a time when a new generation emerged with 23 seventh grade classes.

I was in eleventh grade then, active on the school newspaper. Sharon, one of our English teachers, addressed us. That year, she taught a class of eighth graders that included four new immigrants from the former USSR. For quite some time, she felt, there was tension between the veterans and the immigrants. More than tension. They fought and yelled, and not only during breaks. They were at each others’ throats all the time. When things became intolerable, Sharon decided to dedicate an hour to the issue. The pupils were asked to write how they felt about the situation. “I hate the new immigrants, don’t know why,” one of the native-born Israelis wrote. An immigrant kid wrote: “That’s the way it is: They hate us for the color of our skin.”

We decided to run a questionnaire among the pupils, randomly selecting 15 classes with immigrants. Some 300 students responded: 50 percent felt immigration should be curbed; 14 percent said it should be terminated altogether. Why? Dozens replied, one way or another, that it was because they took our jobs and apartments, and ruined our economy. They added: “Everywhere you go, you see them and hear their nasty language. Enough!” “In Israel, Hebrew has become the second official language.” “In the end, we will be a land of Russians, not Israelis.” “They are already more than we are.” “They are taking over.” Of course, there were a few who made sure to mention that “they stink!”

Some 18 years later, men and women my age stood on the podium, saying: “They say we are racist; we are not. This is not racism.” “Take those niggers out and throw them away!” Yoel Hasson, a member of Ronit Tirosh’s party, Kadima, also explained it was not racism. I took a picture of right-wing Ma’ariv columnist Ben-Dror Yemini, leaning against a lamppost, looking smug. I wanted a souvenir.

I know, I agree: It is the government, the injustice, the negligence, and the Ashkenazim. At the rally, someone said this cannot be viewed as racism because this is a warm neighborhood of warm people. No one will ever go hungry here. There will always be someone to offer a slice of bread and a bowl of soup. But to whom?

It was getting cold on the bench. I badly needed a bowl of soup.

The author is head of Migration and Civil Status at ACRI; this post was originally published on the Laissez Passer blog.