Quite often I am “forced” to walk the short distance between the central bus station and the train station in south Tel Aviv on my way to work and back. This four-minute walk is far more than just a simple stroll along the city, as I am passing through one of the poorest areas in Tel Aviv.
Even without noticing, I find myself holding my phone tightly with both hands, my bag firmly held and I walk quickly, not making eye contact with the people walking alongside or in front of me. All I want is to arrive to my destination, get on the train or bus safely and out of that area. In these four minutes, it is easy to forget that the people on the streets, the foreign workers, asylum-seekers, old people, young children are just these “people”. We are so consumed by our fears, by the common perception that this area is dangerous, that they are dangerous and will try to hurt us or rob us, that we forget that they are people, just like us. We forget that they have hopes and dreams, that they came here maybe looking for a better future, to find a job or safety for their loved ones. Yes – some of them are bad, some of them steal or worse. I remember one time when I passed by there in the evening, I was scared by a woman screaming at the top of her lungs and when someone asked her what happened she just looked at us and walked away without answering.
In the four minutes that I walk on the street there, I don’t think of the innocent people, all I see is the dirt on the ground, the black sidewalk from years of neglect, the horrible stench of urine and rotten food, the homeless man sleeping, the abandoned cardboard they use as bed during the night, or the old man dressed in rags that sits on a small bench with several religious books on a makeshift table. I always wonder what he is doing, but I never ask and neither do the people that walk beside me. I wonder if they also thinking about why he is there and what happened to him in his life that got him to this point. But as I pass him, so do the thoughts about him, until the next time I walk by and the thoughts creep back to my mind.
On the intersection, just in front of the central bus station, a woman sits on the floor begging for money from the people passing by, she appears poor, dirty, looks like the image of a drug addict but I can’t be sure that she is on drugs. The people who pass her by look the other way, not to see, not to know, and so do I.
This is Tel Aviv we don’t want to see. We don’t want to know that just a few minutes from the center, the bars, restaurants, and luxury stores there is an area where people are living in poverty, sleeping on the streets, working hard in jobs we don’t want to do. We don’t want to see it because seeing it means getting involved, or we think there is nothing we can do about it. It might be simplifying the situation by saying there is nothing much we can do. Maybe we give them a few shekels to relieve our conscience, or we just ignore it, as none of our business, not our problem. I don’t have the right to criticize all the passersby who look away as I am one of them, but I hope that one day we can all look up and see these people for who they are….. just people.