There was a series of hate marches and anti-immigrant riots in Israel last week, continuing intermittently to today; at heart was incitement against Sudanese and Eritrean refugees, who the government labels infiltrators and work migrants. Politicians from the center rightward have variably said the country belongs to white men, the refugees are cancer, and leftists should be thrown into prison camps.
I am not going to discuss the violence or the moral bankruptcy of the center and the right, not because it’s not important, but because I have nothing to add that the team on 972Mag hasn’t. What I am going to talk about is the saddening reaction of the left and center-left, which are reproducing all the urban renewal mistakes the patrician elite made in American cities.
First, some background: in both Eritrea (which Israel maintains diplomatic ties with and has sold weapons to) and Sudan, state terror has produced large numbers of refugees, of whom some fled to Israel. They do not have legal status in Israel, which categorically refuses to even check who is entitled to refugee protections, and instead labels them illegal work migrants, and occasionally deports them. The magnet neighborhood for refugees is Shapira/Levinsky, in working-class South Tel Aviv. The hate marches are not based in Shapira, but rather in Hatikva, a socially conservative working-class neighborhood separated from Shapira (and the rest of the city) by a freeway and a secondary neighborhood for the refugees. In one such march, the police did not protect black people within Hatikva, but did block the overpasses to prevent rioters from going to where the immigrants are.
Shortly after a major hate march in South Tel Aviv, leftist Meretz reacted with its own five-point program proposal for solving the crisis. It included general social programs, including social spending to alleviate poverty, and giving the refugees legal status and letting them take the jobs that currently go to temporary guest workers. This is par for the course on the left.
But the third point of the program was to spread the refugees around. It’s not fair that they all cluster in one or two neighborhoods, say both some longtime neighborhood residents and people who do not live anywhere nearby but sympathize selectively. The call for spreading the refugees around was echoed in some left-wing blogs and comments, for example in an article by Larry Derfner, who grew up in the US and should know better.
If we strip away the recent violence and the refugee versus economic migrant question, we can piece together the following story: people from the third-world moved to a developed country, mostly to a relatively low-rent urban neighborhood. They start their own businesses there (reports from the riot note broken windows at Eritrean stores). Crime rates are lower than the national average as the police indicates when pressed, but the media and leading politicians pretend the opposite is true and sensationalize real and imagined crimes. There are some clashes with older residents, but the worst comes from people who do live elsewhere: MK Michael Ben Ari, who started the first recent hate march, lives in a settlement 46 km from the city. The patrician elites then decide that the immigrants are a problem and propose to force them out of the neighborhood they have settled in and scatter them around the country.
It’s been done with poor Jewish immigrants before, for both anti-urbanist and nationalistic reasons of settling the periphery, where Arabs or Bedouins used to be the majority. (Even today, the center receives far fewer national housing funds than its proportion of the population.) Some of the towns those immigrants were settled in are now infamous for their poverty, and the rest are hardly any better. The only things that changed from the previous situation were that the physical stock of housing improved, and that those immigrants were put out of sight and out of mind.
It’s a story that’s played itself time and time again, in cities all over the world. When the patricians fail to uproot the newcomers, the newcomers often thrive and become upwardly mobile. Sometimes this is in perfect integration with patrician ideals, as was eventually the case for Jews and Italians in the US; sometimes it’s in neighborhoods that resist formal assimilation, such as the Brazilian favelas. When the patricians succeed, the newcomers remain segregated, even if they’re physically close to other groups. Singapore has racial quotas in HDB blocks, to prevent the formation of ethnic enclaves; despite this, segregation remains social fact, and the Malays and Indians remain poorer than the Chinese.
Although in most cases the patricians have won at least partial victory, in many it was a Pyrrhic one. In American cities, beginning in the 1930s, redlining pushed Italians and Jews out of their neighborhoods and into the suburbs, accelerating in the 1950s and 60s. Urban renewal programs destroyed what was left. Italian East Harlem exists only in a few landmarks serving people from outside the neighborhood. But by then ethnic whites had already attained middle-class status; they suburbanized because they had enough money to buy houses, and the role of redlining was to make sure they bought in the suburbs and not in the neighborhoods they grew up in.
It’s with blacks that the American patricians attained total victory. Blacks were always more discriminated against than ethnic whites, and so it was easier to destroy their neighborhoods, and suffered more police violence; but they also moved to the industrial cities fifty years later than most ethnic whites, in an era when urban renewal had the full backing of the federal government.
The heart of the problem is that Meretz does not think of the refugees as people it should serve. It doesn’t even think of them as potential future citizens and voters. It thinks of them as a problem to be solved so that it can show that it cares about a working class that persistently thinks it’s an elitist party and votes for the right.
As I keep stressing whenever I write about racial issues, the way to solve them is to treat people as people, and instead treat racism as the problem. This is not done by spreading population around, because that destroys the minority social networks that are crucial for upward mobility. It’s done by enforcing those anti-discrimination laws that are on the books but are never taken seriously. There are rabbis, on municipal payrolls, who issue no-Arab-workers certificates to business owners; they’ve never been prosecuted for this, and pressing the issue would do far more to help anyone in Israel who isn’t Jewish than urban renewal proposals.
Urban policy is marked by a host of government failures. It’s not that government abstractly can’t make cities better, but outside bounded infrastructure issues, with sanitation, transportation, and so on, it hasn’t. Elite planning can’t make functional neighborhoods, even when it employs the best design principles. And current Israeli zoning codes do not employ good design principles. In contrast, haphazard development has produced functional neighborhoods. Shadow Cities mentions a jewelry store owner in Rio who moved her operation from a rich neighborhood to a favela, because the favela was safer.
Meretz’s own history is not very pro-urban. Of the two traditional geographical elites in Israel – the kibbutz movement, and the urban favored quarters (including my own Old North) – Meretz tilts toward the former. That said, the patrician elites of early-20th century New York lived on the Upper East Side and not just in Westchester and Long Island. People in North Tel Aviv keep voting for politicians who engage in destructive urban renewal in Ajami; I doubt that any of the succession of centrist liberal parties that appealed to urban professionals would come up with a less bad program than Meretz.
The problem then is distribution of power. The entire discussion of immigrants in Israel has ignored activism by the immigrants themselves. For all I know, there hasn’t been much of it; the protests against racism were run by Jews, some from within Shapira but most from outside of it. Moreover, just as the Real American stereotype excludes people who live in the big coastal cities or who aren’t white, the stereotype of the ordinary Israeli, as opposed to the elite, is invariably Jewish. As a result, even in the eyes of the mainstream left, the refugees are an Other, a problem to be solved rather than people whose problems the government must solve.
It’s not my role to tell Meretz and other Israeli leftist parties how to conduct their internal affairs or how to construct their ideologies. There are enough people on the Palestinian and international left inching to declare Zionist parties morally bankrupt, and it’s not my intention to do the same here. For what it’s worth, any scenario involving the replacement of Zionist Israel with an Arab state would probably involve large-scale urban destruction in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (due to domestic policy, not war). It’s a problem of relations between political elites and newcomers, and of how people are to be thought of.
The only advice I can give here is that naturalized citizens can vote. Political parties that treat immigrants as future citizens and as a source of votes, as the Democrats do in most of the US and the Republicans do in Florida and Texas, are less racist and also cause more political integration than parties that treat them as a source of problems.
This is initially hard, because the political elite can’t create neighborhood political organization from scratch, and the existing organizations are run for older residents rather than for refugees. The human rights organizations are busy alleviating absolute poverty and protecting refugees’ civil rights; they cannot be expected to create immigrant social networks. However, a Do No Harm approach, focusing on keeping refugees safe from violence and letting them conduct their own affairs in the neighborhood they’ve chosen to stay in, could eventually lead to such organization.