Sami Abu Shahadeh, Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipal Council Member and semi permanent graduate student in modern history at Tel Aviv University, notes with a mixture of bluntness tinged with irony, “Our state is killing our people since its establishment as part of daily life and it didn’t stop in ’48.” So much for the happy co-existence fantasies for the “mixed cities” in Israel.
Sami explains that until the Second Intifada, the one million Palestinians with Israeli citizenship were largely invisible, despite being 20% of the population and living under military occupation until 1966. Only 9% of such Palestinians currently live in mixed cities. Jaffa, like Lyd and Haifa, have Arabs and Jews demographically living together, but not in actuality and there is minimal public conversation about the racism fundamental to this reality.
Jaffa joined Tel Aviv in 1950 as a southern suburb of one combined municipality, but the city is one of the oldest in the world, dating back some 6,000 years. During the past 200 years the city was transformed by the Jaffa orange export economy, becoming one of the largest Arab cities in the world with a population in the vicinity of 120,000 with thousands of unregistered Arab workers from all over the world. The southern neighborhood of Ajami developed in the 1800s and was a center of economic, cultural, and intellectual activity. Tel Aviv was founded in the early 1900s by several Jewish families as a northern Hebrew neighborhood of Jaffa and exploded in population over the decades. The story of Jaffa and Tel Aviv is a microcosm of the story of the Nakba, the Palestinian experience of 1948.
Jaffa was occupied in 1948 and many terrorized inhabitants fled, leaving a few thousand “present absentees” herded into the fenced in ghetto of Ajami. The street names were all changed to Jewish leaders and religious references, the wealthy Palestinian homes were seized as absentee property, although the owners were often living a few blocks away, some Arab homes were subdivided to absorb Jewish refugees from Rumania or Bulgaria, leaving the original Palestinian family in one room with a shared bathroom and kitchen with the Jewish immigrants.
As we walk the old stone streets, passing massive gentrification projects, gorgeous purple bougainvillea cascading over walls, I am struck by the rows of bike rentals and the big recycling bins; coming from East Jerusalem it is amazing to see what a funded and functional local government can actually accomplish. We stop by an old pharmacy dating back to 1924. The pharmacist’s grandfather graduated with a degree in pharmacy from Istanbul and came to Jaffa in 1919. In 1915 he joined the Ottoman army. His father graduated in pharmacy from Beirut and now the son Yusif is carrying on the family tradition.
We turn on to Sha’rev Nik Anur Street, formerly Talamas Street, and stand in front of a graceful villa, once the Talamas home, a wealthy Christian Palestinian family active in the orange trade. They even sent oranges to the Pope! Oranges were the most important commodity in the Palestinian economy. In the 1930s, five million boxes of oranges were shipped per year with over 400 million oranges picked, sent to warehouses for individual wrapping in silk paper, and then sent to the port to waiting ships. (Didn’t I learn in Hebrew school that the kibbutzim brought agriculture to the region and Arabs were shiftless and unproductive? But I digress.) Because there was not enough local labor, starting in the late 1800s, thousands of workers from Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, and all over the Arab world were brought in. After the Nakba, Palestinian workers were dispersed all over the Arab world and this elegant old mansion was turned into eight apartments, “A travesty,” comments Sami.
We continue wandering towards the majestic Mediterranean Sea and Sami explains that there are 17 neighborhoods in Tel Aviv/Yafo and Ajami is the “weakest.” We snap photos of magnificent mansions, old wealthy Palestinian homes facing the sea, now gentrified and selling for many millions as the locals are priced out of existence with nowhere to go. This is clearly expulsion via the free market. One of the for sale signs on a gorgeous seaside apartment is being sold by a company appropriately misnamed, “Home Land.”
Sami reviews the attack on Jaffa in 1948, the lack of any Arab army defenses, the violent siege and expulsion, and the clear Zionist intent to create a Jewish state without any of the bothersome indigenous inhabitants. Jaffa went from 120,000 people to 3,900 with the remainder killed or scattered all over the Arab world. For those who remained, the trauma is unimaginable. Street signs were Judaized, children and parents separated, lost, injured, mothers gave birth in the midst of the fighting, friends disappeared. Perhaps Jews should be able to empathize with this history? The remaining Arabs were rounded up and fenced into the neighborhood of Ajami which European Jews fresh from their own catastrophe, aptly named “the ghetto.” Those who fled beyond the state borders were now declared “enemies,” although Sami remembers his grandfather taking a train to Beirut which he considered part of his world. The survivors were not allowed to ask what happened to their lost relations, “Where is my mother?” because she was now part of an enemy state, if she was alive at all. The physical and emotional trauma and loss were profound. Normal social expectations like weddings, court systems, dressmakers, carpentry shops, five hospitals, all disappeared in the war and its aftermath. Sami exclaims ironically, “Now we are a minority in our homeland and the Israelis are immigrating to us.”
For Sami, the second Nakba was the seizing of all Palestinian property, libraries, possessions, “The biggest armed robbery in the twentieth century.” Under the Absentee Law, all Palestinian property was counted as “neglected property” if the owner was not present in the home from which he had just been expelled and tossed into Ajami ten minutes away. Even more painful for the Jaffa Palestinians was seeing their homes, their furniture, their gardens, occupied by newly arrived Jewish immigrants. Poverty stricken locals would go back to the now Jewish homes and beg for a blanket or some personal item. Wealthy factory owners became impoverished workers in their own factories. Wealthy businessmen like the Hassouneh family, major orange exporters, became workers in their former orchards. The psychological humiliation was as great as the physical loss.
The third Nakba, states Sami, is coexistence. He asked us to imagine the Arab family sharing their home with the new immigrants who periodically go off to the Israeli military for a mission in Gaza where that Arab family’s relatives now live. “Maybe they will kill my brother?” And then the soldier returns and shares the bathroom and the kitchen. With this further psychological catastrophe, many men became dysfunctional, drug addicts, alcoholics, probably supplied by Israeli soldiers and Bedouins, while the women coped as women will do. In the course of three terrible years, Ajami was transformed into a small, poor, criminal neighborhood.
From the 1960s to 1980s, Ajami was slated for destruction, 3,000 apartments were razed, engineers planned a park along the water and hotels. The garbage from the demolished homes was thrown along the beach creating a huge mountain of toxic materials. Ultimately the plans were scrapped because the chemicals kept exploding and the area was unsafe to build. It is now a lovely park with bright new playgrounds and palm trees hiding this dark secret past.
Similar to West Bank Palestinians, folks in Jaffa were unable to obtain building permits, renovations occurred with growing families and no place to go, and now the State is claiming that not only were fines due 40 years ago for the transgression, but with interest, the fines are now millions of shekels. Thus 400 Arab families, who are by the way, citizens of Israel, are under demolition orders due to the crime of renovation. Sami describes a host of other Kafkaesque situations. For instance, the state owns all the houses from 1948 in Ajami, the “owner” pays for 2/3 and the state owns 1/3. The Palestinian children cannot inherit the house unless they are living with their parents at least six months before the deaths of the parents. But it is also illegal to live with their parents if they are married, so it is unlikely they will be there with their dying parents. If I made this stuff up, you wouldn’t believe me.
Since the 1990s gentrification and neoliberal market policies have dominate the scene. Since the welfare state cannot “fix” these problems, let the free market take over. The wealthy move in and the locals cannot afford to stay, then schools close, local markets close, “We are a beautiful cemetery of thousands of houses.” While 5-10% of local Palestinians are doing well, 50% are on welfare.
The latest threat is the plan to build national religious Jewish settlements in the Arab neighborhoods to “strengthen” the Zionist ideology of lax secular Jews and to change the demographics of the neighborhoods. Thus the ultra-Orthodox want to “settle in the heart,” ie within the Green Line, and if any settlers are removed from the West Bank, these right wingers will “burn the State from within.” Interestingly the Yossi Beilin left agrees that demographics are a problem, but disagrees with this solution, while the Avigdor Lieberman right is ready to transfer Palestinians without any further charades. Sami muses, “So my beautiful eight-year-old and five-year-old are demographic bombs,” while large Jewish families are, “Blessed by children.” He describes a recent tortured political fight between Palestinian activists and businessmen versus the settlers. The fight went to the High Court and involved illegal dealings by the Israeli Land Authority and court decisions wreaking of racism and cowardness. Mixed cities are now considered the “greatest danger to Zionism,” and people talk openly of “clean kindergartens, clean schools, clean neighborhoods.” Racism? Fascism? Echos of the Third Reich?
As Sami reflects, “We are trying to survive, we lost in 1948 and we have nowhere to go.” The housing issue is critical but all the city planning is done by Jews for Jews with no concern for the social impact on the local community. The problem is, “Most of the wars, we are here and they are there. Our wars ended but we are here and they are here and this is the cultural reality.” Sami wonders, what kind of multicultural reality is possible in this racist reality. What are the rights of the Jews in this situation? What kind of society do we want to create? He suggests that a mixed educational system instead of the current Arab, ie poorly funded and inadequate, secular Jewish, and Orthodox might be a start. He notes that already 20-25% of Arabs send their children to secular Jewish schools to get a better education. But then what kind of history would be taught? Do you tell Jewish children that their grandfathers ethnically cleansed a whole city? These are not popular questions to be asking, but that has never stopped Sami from asking. I do not know whether to scream or cry.