Stop excusing the ‘have-nots’ for racism and violence

The riots in South Tel Aviv are further evidence of the violent racism among Israel’s Sephardi underclass. It’s part of a worldwide, historic phenomenon among poor people that the left doesn’t want to face up to.  

As a matter of principle, I think Israel has to relocate the great majority of African refugees from South Tel Aviv’s poor Jewish neighborhoods. It isn’t fair to the Hatikva and Shapira quarters to have to absorb such a large, alien, troubled and in some ways troubling population when middle-class and upper-class Israel don’t have to absorb any refugees at all.  I believe that if left to its own devices, society will turn to the law of the jungle, to the strong eating the weak and the rich eating the poor, and that it is society’s moral duty to try to even things out as much as practically possible. It’s market forces that have routed the refugees to South Tel Aviv, and it’s up to society, through the government, to reroute them, to spread them around the country for the sake of the Israelis being inundated by them.  

But again, for me this is a matter of principle – liberal principle and patriotic principle, too: I also think people have a responsibility to their countrymen. So on both counts, I want relief from the refugee crisis for the Israelis in South Tel Aviv. But while I sympathize with them, and fully appreciate that they’re feeling the heat of this crisis while middle-class liberals like me are not, I’m not going to pretend that they are not directly responsible for this lurid spectacle of anti-black violence and cruelty that’s been going on the last couple of weeks. 

Yes, the residents are being incited by Knesset members Miri Regev, Michael Ben-Ari and others – but they want to be. They don’t need demagogues to help them hate these “niggers,” these “monkeys” as so many of them call the Africans – they’re bursting with aggression against them, and the demagogues just provide the necessary leadership to turn it into action. Those people are not being manipulated; when Regev told the crowd in Hatikva that the Sudanese were a “cancer,” she brought them closer to the boiling point, but she wasn’t telling them anything they didn’t already know – she was telling them what they wanted to hear. It’s not an accident that the residents are listening to the words of Ben-Ari (a Kahanist who, incidentally, grew up in the neighborhood) and not those of, say, Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On. 

I have some familiarity with Hatikva. My wife has been a social worker there for 21 years. I’ve been there dozens of times, interviewed scores upon scores of people there for stories. It’s the capital of the “second Israel,” of the Sephardi underclass. The Sephardi music revolution was centered there, legendary Sephardi mafia figures grew up there, the Yemenite cafes and Middle Eastern grills on Ha’etzel Street are fantastic, and there’s plenty of ethnic consciousness and resentment around. I think of Hatikva as Israel’s Harlem. 

But liberal it’s not; tolerant it’s not. It used to be heartland Likud country, but now it’s Likud, Shas, National Union and Yisrael Beitenu, and even before people started spray-painting threats to the “niggers,” they were spray-painting “Kahane was right” and “death to the Arabs.” I remember a newspaper photo from the very beginning of the second intifada: It showed a young Arab man who worked and slept nights at one of the grills on Ha’etzel Street running in his boxer shorts from a crowd of neighborhood residents who’d rousted him out of bed. The faces in the crowd didn’t look angry; they looked gleeful. 

Racism against blacks isn’t exactly new for the folks in South Tel Aviv, either. A few years ago I went to a Maccabi Tel Aviv soccer game in Jaffa’s Bloomfield Stadium, and throughout the match there were scattered chants of “hoo-hoo-hoo” – monkey sounds – at black players on the opposing team. When one of them scored a goal, the section for hardcore Maccabi fans erupted in a long, enraged chorus of “hoo-hoo-hoo” at the top of their lungs.

They were all, or virtually all, lower-middle-class Sephardim like the mobs in Hatikva you see on TV screaming, breaking windows and chasing refugees. They’re the same sort as the mob of Betar Jerusalem soccer fans who beat and kicked every Arab customer and worker they could find in the capital’s Malha Mall a couple of months ago.

For 40 years and more, Israel’s Sephardi poor and not-so-poor have been complaining about being discriminated against by the Ashkenazi elite, and now those in South Tel Aviv, the “flagship” of the Sephardi poor, have turned into a rampaging, Hebrew-speaking Ku Klux Klan. Yes, there have been a couple of murders and a couple of rapes by African refugees, and there’s a lot of dereliction and public drunkenness and theft – but Hatikva and poor Sephardi neighborhoods like it have produced their full share and more of murderers, rapists, drunks, thieves and such. This has gone way, way beyond a backlash against crime or an attempt to preserve neighborhood character; this is an attack on black African gentiles who are seen as an inferior breed. And in neighborhoods like Hatikva, it’s perfectly in character.

I know there are a lot of poor and working-class Sephardim in these neighborhoods who are against the violence and racism. Where are they? Why aren’t they counter-demonstrating or at least raising their voices? Because they’re afraid, and I don’t blame them. The fascists own the “street” and the local debate. 

This is a terrible thing for liberals and leftists to face. We (overwhelmingly middle-class Ashkenazim) think of ourselves as being in solidarity with the poor, with the oppressed – but how can we be in solidarity with people when they’ve turned into Brownshirts? 

So here’s what liberals and leftists are saying: It’s not the Hatikva residents’ fault, they’re being incited by cynical politicians, they’ve been neglected by the government just like the refugees, they’re victims of the government’s lack of policy, too, and we liberals and leftists stand with the people of South Tel Aviv just like we stand with the refugees. The ones responsible for the riots are the cynical Netanyahu government and the despicable inciters. 

Try going down to Ha’etzel Street and delivering that message. Just make sure there are no holes in your boxer shorts.

This has been a contradiction at the heart of left-wing ideology from the beginning: Poverty, ignorance, violence and oppression are evils that we must eradicate – but the people who’ve suffered these evils are really cool. They mean no one any harm. They’re innocent souls, our allies.  

It’s not true in Hatikva and it’s not true in Africa, either. In South Africa, many Zimbabwean work migrants have been burned or stoned to death by local mobs accusing them of taking their jobs and stealing. All over the world, it’s the poor and lower-middle-class (among a nation’s majority ethnic group) that tend to be the most nationalistic, most racist and most pumped up for war.

I want a better deal for the underclass, in Israel and elsewhere, but not because I like them or because I think  the “culture of poverty” is redemptive or makes people better – but precisely because I think the culture of poverty tends to make people worse. If it didn’t, why try to end it?