In Dusty Israeli Town, Immigrants and ‘veterans’ Struggle to Coexist
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In Dusty Israeli Town, Immigrants and ‘veterans’ Struggle to Coexist

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When Irena Rahmanov moved to Yeroham four years ago, the last thing she expected was that her fellow Jews would call her names.

“In Tashkent, I was a dirty Jew; here I am a dirty Russian,” said Rahmanov, sitting in her two-bedroom flat in this tiny development town south of Beersheba in the Negev Desert.

With its mix of new immigrants from the former Soviet Union and “veteran” Israelis who came from North Africa several generations ago, Yeroham might have been a success story of social integration in Israel.

Yet it has been plagued by difficulties — a 9 percent unemployment rate that is the highest among Israel’s Jewish communities, low-income population, limited budgets and few employment opportunities.

Like other development towns in the Negev that suffer from similar social tensions, Yeroham simply is not at the top of the government’s priority list.

Rahmanov does not think of Yeroham as a success story. Recently she filed several complaints with the local police station claiming that local youths have harassed her, calling her names, throwing stones and using drugs in the backyard of her apartment building.

When she told the youths last week to stop taking drugs in her yard, one told her, “Watch out that I don’t turn your children into drug users,” she said.

Like many new immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Rahmanov is a single mother: She left her divorced husband in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and brought her three children to Israel.

A few months ago, her eldest son, Shmuel, 15, was attacked by a group of local youths. They came up to him during the day, began teasing him and eventually attacked him, wounding him with a knife just below his right eye.

Police investigated, but released the suspect because he is a minor.

It’s not only Rahmanov and her family who have complaints. Maria Grusman, 17, said that she was approached by a local youth who began flirting with her on Yeroham’s main street.

When she turned him away he broke a bottle and tried to cut her face. Grusman lifted her arm to protect her face, and received an ugly gash on her elbow.

Police investigated and released the suspect, on the grounds that he is insane.

The common denominator of both incidents is that the victims are new immigrants from the former Soviet Union, while the attackers are veteran Israelis of Moroccan origin. That has led to growing intercommunal hatred, calling into question the idea of Israeli society as a melting pot for Jews from all corners of the world.

Police, however, say the situation in Yeroham is not out of hand.

“There is nothing extraordinary about Yeroham, and we have no record of extra amounts of crime,” said Supt. Tamir Avtabi, spokesman for the Southern Police Command.

According to police, out of 100 files on violent crimes in Yeroham this year, only 21 were filed by new immigrants, and only four related directly to intercommunal tension.

Yet residents say that many cases of crime go unreported to the police, a legacy of the distrust of authority that the new immigrants brought with them from the former Soviet Union.

Some 2,700 of the town’s total population of 9,000 are new immigrants, most of whom arrived in Yeroham in the past seven years to take advantage of deep discounts on housing.

The first settlers came to Yeroham from Romania in 1951, bused there directly from the airport. No one asked them where they would like to live; Jewish Agency for Israel officials simply directed them to new homes in the desert, hoping to spread the population of the young and vulnerable country to the periphery

Many immigrants who settled in Yeroham were attracted by the opportunity to upgrade their living standard considerably.

What authorities did not take into account was that their generosity to the immigrants would anger the “veterans” — or “the Israelis,” as the new immigrants tend to call those who immigrated from Morocco in the 1950s and 1960s.

“They receive everything for almost nothing,” said Yosef Revivo, an unemployed “veteran,” who spends his days and evenings at a local cafe, doing basically nothing.

“They received flats and cars and, whenever there is a job opening, the Russians get it first,” Revivo said. “They complain of discrimination? We are the ones discriminated against.”

David Bouskila, another unemployed “veteran,” used stronger words — derogatory language applied to non-Jews.

“They are goyim,” he said. “Even if they are registered as Jews, they lead a goyish style of living.”

Bouskila claimed that the arrival of so many single women has devastated family life. He himself, for example, divorced his wife to marry a Russian immigrant.

They had a child together but now they too are divorced, “and she does not even let me see my daughter,” Buskila said.

Mayor Motti Avitzrur, the second-generation scion of a Moroccan family, says intercommunal tensions are not as bad as they might seem.

His main struggle, he said, is against the fragmentation of the community into ethnic sectors.

Avitzrur’s record is impressive. In his 10 years in office, he has introduced an educational revolution in the town: Technical classes were developed, a record 60 percent of high school students qualified for matriculation and the number of school dropouts has fallen considerably.

Yeroham comes alive when evening falls. After a hot summer day, people come out to enjoy the evening desert breeze.

Children fill up the playground where Shmuel Rahmanov was attacked. Irena Rahmanov sits on a bench near her home with her youngest son Immanuel, 5.

Her conversation is interrupted by two local youths teasing a drunk immigrant. The drunk becomes furious.

“They call me ‘Russian drunkard!’ ” he shouts excitedly. “Whenever I walk on the street, they are after me, they never let go!”

Two teenagers sit on another bench a few yards away, grinning. What better entertainment is there than to tease a Russian drunkard who can hardly utter a word in Hebrew, they wonder.

In fact, there is no better entertainment in Yeroham — there is no cinema, theater or sports club. The local youth center boasts a beautiful library, but very few organized activities.

The most active social place is the “cafeteria,” a small cafe with a few tables lined up on the adjacent promenade.

Tables divide along ethnic lines — a Russian table next to a Moroccan table — and rarely do their occupants mingle.

But Avitzrur has two things to say in defense of Yeroham. First, it is no better and no worse than other development towns in Israel. Second, things are going to look much better in the long run, he promises.

“Patience, my friend. Give us a few more years, and no one will remember the few frictions of the present,” he says. “Rome was not built in a day. Neither is Yeroham.”

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