Spreading Population Around

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.


  1. Nathanael

    Great analysis.

    Unfortunately it can’t happen in Israel, because treating non-Jewish immigrants as sources of future votes is contrary to the form of Zionist ideology which is still dominant even on the “left” in Israel. In other religiously-based societies, this is dealt with by conversion programs, but that’s not tradtional in Judaism.

    There’s a fundamental problem: the separatism at the heart of most versions of Zionism is inherently bigoted, and the people who might have pushed to make Israel a “democratic state” rather than a “Jewish state” have been sidelined for so long they’ve been emigrating. So you’re left with a system where even the “left” is mired in bigotry and unwilling to let go of it.

    We’ve seen that before, in the US, too. It’s only very recently that US left-wingers in power have really considered treating Native Americans decently, and this is partly because there are so few of them left.

    • Alon Levy

      See, I don’t think it’s an issue of Zionism. The left-wing Zionist parties were at least there to vote against a punitive law the coalition passed a few months ago, making it possible to throw refugees into prison for years without a trial. The Arab MKs were absent from the vote. The only member of the communist party who was present to vote against the law was Dov Khenin, its sole Jewish MK; the Arab MKs were absent, and when pressed on it later, they said they were in Jaffa mourning dead relatives of constituents, but had already agreed to cancel out with coalition members. (The practice of canceling out is that if a coalition or opposition MK can’t make the vote, an MK on the opposite side will agree to not show up or abstain.) And just a few days ago, MK Ahmad Tibi complained on Twitter that the refugees take Arab jobs.

      The problem is not quite Zionism as much as it is the specific kind of left that Meretz is. The party’s voters are usually well-off, what in the US is called latte liberalism. This leads to a progressive attitude, in the sense of 1910 rather than that of 2010: they have a solution to every problem, and it comes from the state. In the US this attitude is restricted to Thomas Friedman-style centrists nowadays because left-wing activists run into people from the communities their ideas affect and have to modify them (but once in a while the old paternalism creeps up, for example when people debate food stamps vs. cash benefits). But in Israel, the Jewish working class tilts right and the only combined Jewish-Arab party is the communist party, and this limits the contact between leftist activism and working-class neighborhood activism.

  2. Andre Lot

    Sometimes I agree with the positions conveyed in this blog, sometimes I don’t, but this is a truly (in my eyes) outrageous post. Of course Alon is entitled to write whatever he wants. I’ll make pointed critiques:

    First of all, it repeats a common mistake in equaling anti-immigration positions as automatically race-based hatred. Though that might be the case sometimes, often the “race (sic) factor” is only a proxy for real grievances or concerns.

    Even if there were no demographic uniqueness in the “Jewish character” of the Israeli State, even if religion were not an issue there, and no existential threat backed by angry neighbors were in place, Israel would still be a 7-million people country, relatively developed, with no material conditions to accept all people living in dire situation over Northern Africa.

    I currently live in The Netherlands and I witness the same issue here: the Dutch are few (16 million) living in a tiny parcel of land. If there was a “come as you want and be my guest because we are going to treat people as people” policy here, I’m sure in a matter of a decade the population of Netherlands – or Israel – could double before all social services would collapse and a massive downgrade in the standards of living would hit the native middle class.

    We live in 2012, this is not the age of “have goodwill, strong arms and willingness to sweat and that shall suffice” anymore. Taking a real sizable number of impoverished and (most importantly) lower educated/skilled economic migrants cannot work while keeping whatever welfare-based State structures in place.

    Second, Alon overlook the fact asylum was never meant to be the large scale re-settlement of populations in a permanent basis, not basis for widespread giveaway of nationality rights to refugees. Specifically, the war in South Sudan is mostly over. People could return to South Sudan, but if it is impossible, almost against the basic human instincts of the Sudanese migrants, to convince a family to leave the relatively comforts of Tel Aviv where they might have lived for years for the uncertainty, dirt-streets and open raw sewage of Juba. But it is not Israel’s responsibility for whatever standards of living they have in South Sudan. Israel already fulfilled a moral and humanitarian obligation by letting some refugees of war in on a TEMPORARY basis until things calmed down a bit.

    Third, there is clear bias on Alon’s own words. He speaks of “treating people as people”. Then, in other passage he argues that spreading migrants destroy their own social-economic networks within their communities. But elsewhere he criticizes the “patricians” for doing exactly the same – keeping their networks intact and keeping everyone else out.

    It gives the clear impression that Alon thinks people are people, nation as a concept is totally irrelevant and, more important to the blog general theme, newcomers and/or ethnic minorities would be entitled to have their own “enclaves” supported to flourish as “their” communities without being dismantled by “urban renewal” programs. He implies that it would be racism the motivation behind arguing against the concentration of people of ethnic/national origin/religious lines, and implies that letting such minority communities to have their own socio-economic microcosmos would be good. However, “white Caucasian” or other majority-based actions on the very same lines would be inadmissible and rooted in prejudice (as he once criticized white flight and other similar phenomena).

    So, at least for me, that looks a serious paradox. You can’t have it both ways. Either you open the floodgates of international immigration, unchecked and uncontrolled, or you enforce laws that assure limited/temporary permanence only. Either you think demographic enclaves (majority or minority, rich or poor, newcomers or native) are inherently good/bad and desirable/undesirable or you adopt a demographic-blind stand on these discussions. What looks like a shortcoming is to think the answer for these conflicts would vary according to the income or current/past suffering or acceptance of the groups concerned..

    • Alon Levy

      Israel does not claim that some people are refugees and some aren’t; it categorically refuses to check who is a refugee, and automatically labels all the people in question illegal work migrants. There’s a court ruling that makes deportations slightly harder, but they have no legal status, not even a temporary one.

      You’re also wrong about the fact that repatriation is possible right now. The Sudanese are mostly Christians from (North) Sudan; repatriation to Sudan is impossible because they’d be unsafe there, and sending them to South Sudan is no longer a repatriation. The Eritreans would have to contend with a totalitarian dictatorship that drafts people to the military indefinitely, treating them as slave labor. (And Israel sells said dictatorship weapons; a former General and Labor MK who was involved in the deals goes on television now and insists that there’s no humanitarian crisis in Eritrea.)

      In the early 1990s, Israel accepted about a million Soviet Jews. They formed an ethnicity of their own, with their own enclaves and their own political parties. They were more educated than their wealth would suggest and this helped a lot (they’re overrepresented in science and engineering), but the pace of political integration was still very rapid, much more so than that of other Jewish minorities within the country. It’s not that people in North Tel Aviv like the Russian neighborhoods, and there have been clashes between Russians and longer-established minorities, but they were a swing constituency and so overt racism of the kind that Miri Regev and Eli Yishai engage in was a nonstarter, and this helped legitimize them. Today, many of the good-government types who oppose ethnic parties and propose schemes to get rid of the ultra-Orthodox and Arab parties treat Israel Beitenu as a mainline party.

      The issue with enclaves is how they maintain cohesion. In a non-racist city, they will lose their ethnic characteristics over the generations, but through a bottom-up rather than top-down process. I’m told Vancouver has high enough a rate of interracial marriages that people are moving to ethnic neighborhoods that aren’t their own; in this case, the basic social networks stay in place but get modified organically. You haven’t seen how I react when people in such ethnic enclaves try to protest against another ethnic group that’s moving in the same organic way they moved in, but it’s not positive. (I forget which Queens blog it is that spins stories of how the Chinese are taking over, but I said nasty things on Cap’n Transit’s blog in response to it, and I’ll stand behind every word.)

      This is quite different from the process of uprooting common to urban renewal programs, in which the same networks are disrupted. I’m writing about it in racial terms because in both Israel and the US it takes racial forms, but in more homogeneous countries (for example, Britain in the first two thirds of the 20th century), it doesn’t. But in modern-day Israel, and the US of 1900-1960, it’s impossible to ignore the racial impact of it.

      • Andre Lot

        [i]”You haven’t seen how I react when people in such ethnic enclaves try to protest against another ethnic group that’s moving in the same organic way they moved in, but it’s not positive.” [/i]

        Except in cases of forcible relocation or mass demolition, which are far and few between them (and usually warranted such as removal of quasi-slums), I don’t see how the “organic” way by which people move to an area should be of any relevance.

        I write this because generally, on part of the urban planning blogosphere, there is this huge fuss, inherently discriminatory (not saying now it is your case), that sees gentrification as an inherently evil process, whilst minorities moving to another place and “making xyz more diverse” get a free pass at it.

        I think the idea of “ehtnic-based” networks promoted as a mainstay is wrong in many levels (beginning with things like “association of (put your favorite minority)-American professors/businessmen/police officers/doctors”). It is a discussion that goes above and beyond urban form.

        However, when it comes down to it, it appears that there is enormous resentment when the group moving in (and absent massive new real estate development, if someone is moving in, someone else is moving out), even if organically (as in not in an orchestrated ethnic takeover to say so), are the richer ones among local majority. That is the typical anti-gentrification rant, currently running high in regard of the “loss of Chinese character of Chinatown”, formerly witnessed in regard of the “inadmissible loss of the African-American socio-economic ecosystem in the Harlem”.

        If one is to accept the use of “race” (sic) as an inherently bad criteria to divide and segregate people in society, then the thought of promoting ethnic community relations and network as positive or desirable MUST be dismissed as racist at its inception. Even if the problematic “justification of reverse discrimination” fallacy were to be considered (as in “minorities need their own exclusive networks because the WASP networks keep them out altogether and they need a city territory where they can thrive as group”).

        • Alon Levy

          There are two major differences here. One is the amount of violence in question. Chinese people aren’t staging riots against white people who are moving into Chinatown. The black-on-white race riots in the US were never about gentrification, but rather about other things – most recently, the Rodney King saga.

          The other difference, the major reason why leftist urbanists do not instantly dismiss concerns about change in neighborhood character, is that gentrification prices out the existing residents. That, and not the change itself, is the problem. So when mainline urban bloggers complain about the gentrification problem, it’s never about the evils of white people in Harlem, but rather about rising rents. Sometimes, this gets conflated and the anti-gentrification advocates blame the people who are moving in, though the ones I met do not, and instead blame developers and the city for engaging in zoning practices that promote gentrification. The problem then is rising rents rather than people.

          In Israel, the issue is the exact opposite: the rioters who live nearby complain about undesirables, which they’d frame in terms of property values if they were middle-class and owned their own apartments. But the mainline left (i.e. Labor and Meretz) similarly blames the government for disinvesting in low-income (Jewish) neighborhoods such as HaTikva and creating a situation in which some refugees sleep on the streets; it’s this perspective that leads Meretz to treat the refugees as problem people and propose to scatter them nationwide, though Labor has so far avoided this recommendation. In this case the problem is lack of investment in the neighborhood, and again not the people themselves; neither Labor nor Meretz is comfortable talking about racism, so this is the second best approach.

  3. Eric

    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.

    Um, what? “White” people were moving by choice to the suburbs in large numbers in the same period. But when Jews and Italians moved to the same places at the same time, it was a racist plot?

    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

    You’re discussing the replacement of one political entity with another that is currently extremely hostile to it, and your main concern is not harm to people but harm to the urban form?

    And as Andre said, many of the political judgments in the post are questionable. Next time, Alon, you should stick to the subjects where you have a competitive advantage.

    • Beta Magellan

      I don’t think Alon’s necessarily referring to Jews and Italians being redlined out (although the St. Louis redlining maps described in Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier did specifically mention “foreign or negro” elements as justification for redlining neighborhoods, this often affected both the suburbs and the city)—rather, whole neighborhoods would be redlined even if there was a only small black presence. This cratered property values (hurting property owners) and gave landlords less incentive to maintain and modernize properties, hurting renters. Both of these pushed whites (“ethnic” and not) out into the suburbs, even if they preferred to stay.

    • Alon Levy

      What Beta Magellan said. By the 1930s there was less of an impetus to Americanize Jews and Italians, but it was still there; the main ethnicity that was redlined was blacks, and this effectively barred investment in most urban neighborhoods.

      As for what I’m saying about the destruction of Zionist Israel, I know very well what it’d do to people. The point I’m making is different – it’s that you have to look beyond general attacks on Zionism to understand why the Zionist left proposes to treat refugees as a disposable workforce.

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  5. Yoav

    I have to say, that some populations don’t mix well.
    Well, maybe in a city as dense as new york this problem becomes a non-issue, but there are none like that in israel.

    One good example, is the massive “inflitration” of Ultra-Orthodox into secular neighbourhoods.
    Of course, it is not inflitration – they are buying the houses through legal means or getting them through political pressure.
    But from the standpoint of the inhabitant of the neighberhood it seems that way.

    the buissneses are closed on saturday, because otherwise a big group in the neighberhood won’t use them. Their kids are filling all the playgrounds, and they won’t play with your kids.
    The walls are covered in invitations to religous seminars.
    All legitimate uses and choices, but ones that greatly detriment from the life of the secular inhabitant of the neighberhood.

    I assume also that the Ultra – Orthodox are not happy about secular practices – such as driving in saturdays, and women walking in short clothes.

    This is one example, but it can be expanded. Some different ethnic groups mix better than others, and your neighberhood for year gets “invaded” by a different ethnic group, with clashing practices, it can lead to dicomfort, especillay when you can’t afford to relocate.

    The africans in tel aviv, are, generally, messier and dirtier. they sleep on benches and occupy the public areas all day long. they listen to different music, abd eat different foods.

    I can understands the old inhabitants that don’t like them in “their” neighberhood.

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  7. Pingback: Dispersal of Urban Networks is Bad | Pedestrian Observations

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