‘When I was a Kid in Tel Aviv, we didn’t know what a black person was!’

A derelict building in Shapira, Tel Aviv (source: Cool Hunting)
A derelict building in Shapira, Tel Aviv (source: Cool Hunting)

In the past 15 years, tens of thousands of Africans, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, have crossed into Israel. The majority of these people now live in south Tel Aviv.

Shapira, a traditionally blue-collar area, is one of the neighbourhoods they have ended up in. Hipsters have also begun to move into the area, complete with fixie bikes and yoga lessons. These newcomers have come into conflict with Shapira’s original inhabitants, most of whom are religious Jews from Uzbekistan, Turkey and Greece.

Add lady-boy prostitutes, drug addicts and several hundred Philipino care-workers to the mix and it’s easy to see why Shapira, a neighbourhood that isn’t much more than a square kilometre in size, is a microcosm of so many problems relating to identity, tradition, immigration and crime that countries across the world are facing today.

During the past 12 months, I interviewed people in Shapira to see how they wound up there and what they think of the things happening in the neighbourhood. Here’s what one guy had to say.

Ben, 85 years-old

When I was a kid, Shapira was a neighbourhood for Israelis. For Jewish people from Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria. There was no one else apart from us. We had shops, houses and everything. How long did I live here? 100 years! No, I’m joking really….my business was here for 60 years. My family is originally from Greece, from Thessaloniki. During the time that the Nazis were in power in Europe, my parents were able to leave to Israel before they took control of Greece.

There were always a lot of different people in this neighbourhood. Once, there were a lot of Chinese people that came here to work. Then there were a lot Bulgarians, non-Jewish Bulgarians, that came to work. Once, there were a lot of Romanians too. So there were all sorts of people that came here to work and lived in the neighbourhood. But when I was a kid, it wasn’t like that. When I was a kid we didn’t even know what a black person was!

A lot of the people that lived here when I was a child left. They moved to nicer neighbourhoods. They built houses in places like Bat Yam and Ramat Gan [areas adjacent to Tel Aviv] and it was nicer to live there so they moved. The Bukharim [Jews from Uzebekistan] began to move here about 30 or 40 years ago. They’re not just in Shapira but also in Kiryat Shalom [an area next to Shapira].

I don’t live here anymore. I’ve lived for a long time, about 50 years, in Holon [an area south of Tel Aviv]. But I was born in Shapira and I’ve worked here everyday, 12 hours every day, for the past 50 years. I wake up at 4 am and I drive to work here and open my shop at 5 am. How old am I? I told you, I’m 100 years old. No, I’m messing with you. I’m 85. I was born here before the State of Israel even existed. Back then, this was a quiet area. There was a lot of space. Now people can’t find a house to live in.

When the Africans arrived here, it caused a lot of problems. Today, there is a lot of fear in the neighbourhood. People are afraid of the violence, of people getting drunk. I come here every morning at 5 am to open my shop. Today, you don’t see any girls walking alone in the neighbourhood. They’re afraid. When I was a kid, everyone would be in the street, their windows open. No one closed their door. Everyone had an open house. I’m not afraid. With these people, you don’t know what’s going to happen but I’m not afraid.

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