In Tel Aviv, a Park for Those who Have Nothing

Levinsky Park is a two-minute walk from the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. If you arrive in Israel via Ben Gurion airport, and ask a cab driver to drive you to the park, chances are he’ll ask you why the hell you’d want to go there, and warn you that the place is dangerous. If you arrive in Israel, instead, as a refugee, you’ll be scooped up by Israeli police, sent to a detention facility in the Negev, and, after you’ve been processed, put on a bus to Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. From there you’ll wander over to Levinsky, and nobody will ask you any questions about why you’ve decided to come to the park.

Since 2005, nearly 60,000 African refugees—mostly from Sudan and Eritrea—have fled to Israel. They’re under tremendous pressure, as this weekend’s protest at the Holot detention center showed. But no matter what their current situation, almost all of them have spent time in Levinsky Park, in Southern Tel Aviv. The Park’s primary draw is its location. Israel’s Central Bus Station is one of the busiest in the world, and when African refugees are given a ticket from processing facilities to the Bus Station, many don’t make it much farther than the Park. “In 2007 a big wave of Eritrean and Sudanese came—maybe 1000 a month. The police dropped them at Levinsky. First they put them in the jail. When the jail is full of people they released them to sleep back in the park,” Jean Michelle, a Congolese refugee and member of the African Refugee Development Center told me.

When you head to Levinsky today, you’ll see clumps of Eritrean and Sudanese men, sitting in circles or lounging and having a cigarette. Many sleep in the park, until they can develop connections that will get them a roof over their heads. The park is small and grassy with a jungle gym in the middle that—if there’s a rally—can be repurposed into a stage. Vans frequently come and go, picking up refugee day laborers, and dropping them back off again. During the day tours of Israelis and foreigners will come by to learn about the conditions of the refugees. During the night, the park is deserted except for the most luckless refugees, who haven’t found an apartment they can cram into. The park feels very safe, though, if you are not a refugee, you will be given a very wide berth. Nobody wants trouble. Suleiman Walydin, a Darfurian refugee and activist, told me, “Levinsky Park is the center of the area. Because of racism its difficult to stay elsewhere, so most people rent houses here. It’s a poor neighborhood.”

Levinsky Park is in southern Tel Aviv, the poorer half of Israel’s richest and most cosmopolitan city. For many longterm residents, the refugees are considered, at best, unwelcome guests. Sophie Menashe, a longterm resident, complained to Times of Israel that, “South Tel Aviv is South Sudan now”. Crime was rising and Israel’s government, she said, was doing nothing to keep the refugees out of her neighborhood.

Government ministers have responded to Israeli concerns about refugees with tough talk. Two years ago, Danny Danon, the hardline Chairman of Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu’s party, wrote, “Israel is at war. An enemy state of infiltrators was established in Israel, and its capital is South Tel Aviv.” At the same time, another member of Israel’s Parliament complained in a speech that the refugees were a “cancer in our body”. Over the next few weeks, bands of Israelis smashed shop windows believed to be owned by refugees, chanting “blacks out.” The only group that attracted as much ire as the refugees were the Israeli “leftists” who escorted refugee children from school to home over the next few days.

Levinsky Park may sit at the center of the war for South Tel Aviv, but the war arguably about a lot more than just refugees. The neighborhoods in South Tel Aviv are dilapidated; the schools are bad. The Jewish immigrants who settled there tended to come from less privileged backgrounds. For many residents, the refugees are simply the latest problem that government inattention has visited on them. Before Levinsky Park was a center of refugee life, it was a place for junkies to shoot up. As commentators have pointed out, most of the crime and drug problems attributed to refugees are actually committed by the same Israeli citizens who were committing crimes prior to the refugees’ arrival. The ‘refugee crisis’ allows residents to complain about government neglect in a compelling enough way to make the rest of Israel listen. Jean Michelle, a Congolese refugee, told me, “People are reacting against immigrants because their own troubles are not being addressed.”

The refugees have a rough time in Israel. Though they come, almost exclusively, from oppressive and war torn states, the Israeli government does not consider them refugees, and does not give them residency permits or a path to citizenship. They have no opportunities to pursue education and instead are regularly picked up by police and deposited in Holot, a detention center in the Negev desert.

In alliance with Israeli civil society organizations, refugees have begun a steady campaign to fight for their rights. The campaign has involved mass strikes, so that employers and customers are aware of how much the Tel Aviv economy relies on immigrant workers to function. Most prominently, though, it has involved a series of massive protests in Levinsky Park.

The protests, which peaked at the start of the year, featured an unusual pan-African alliance. Eritrean and Sudanese immigrants can generally communicate with one another in Arabic, but are nonetheless divided by differences in culture. The Levinsky protests attracted thousands of Sudanese and Eritreans—as well as migrants from West Africa– and featured speeches in Hebrew, Arabic, English, and Tigrane calling for refugees to be granted rights. Tesfaye, an Eritrean refugee, told me that Levinsky was a natural place for joint protests to be held. “We all entered Israel here,” he told me. “So we are all trying to improve things here too.”

Refugees rally, Levinsky Park. Photo by Jon Emont

There are, however, few signs that the situation is improving. In an echo towards American politics, Israeli politicians continue to encourage migrants to self-deport, and there is no indication that the migrants, or their offspring, will be granted refugee status. Since 2012 the government erected a wall between Israel and Egypt that has effectively shut down the flow of refugees, which has decreased the urgency of finding a longterm solution for the refugees.

Today, there are fewer refugees being picked up at the border and deposited at the Levinsky. But there are enough refugees being transferred to and from detention facilities in Holot and elsewhere that Levinsky Park remains a potent symbol. In a country determined to give them nothing, Levinsky Park is perhaps the only place that refugees can call their own.

Jon Emont
Jon Emont has written for Slate, Tablet, and The American Prospect. He's a co-founder of Extend, which offers immersive tours of the West Bank to young Jewish Americans interested in exploring Palestinian life.
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