Spending a few hours with Tamer Nafar, the hip-hop artist for the group DAM (see the incredible documentary Slingshot Hip Hop) is always a trip. The drive to Lyd (on Israeli maps: Lod) where he lives involves passing Ben Gurion Airport, built on the lands of Lydda, speaking of dispossession. Lyd is a “mixed city” with an ancient bloody and complicated history without any of the touchy feely reconciliation stuff that “mixed” may imply today. I always think it should be called a “mixed up city.” The place consists of Palestinians (excuse me, we are in Israel so they are officially Arabs) and a mix of Jewish Ethiopians, Moroccans, and other Jews from lower socioeconomic groups. We are on a bus touring the area and Tamer never seems to age; he reminds me of a tiger about to pounce; he speaks his mind freely, crackles with sarcasm and energy, and has no verbal sensors (in keeping I suppose with being a well-known hip-hop artist!), though he seems a bit tamer now that he has a wife and son. Parenthood will do that.
We see more blaring signs on buses: “Bring back our boys!” The political frenzy is heating up and I fear what is coming. We start in a dusty, run-down center near the Great Mosque where Palestinians were first rounded up in 1948 and massacred by the Stern Gang.
One hundred and thirty people died and one survived buried under the corpses. The mosque was closed until 1994. Tamer remarks that an Israeli reporter noted that the walls of the reopened mosque were washed, but the blood soaked floor was just covered with carpets. And to think I grew up believing that Jewish soldiers only fought noble and moral wars; we did not massacre, we protected women, children, and fruit trees, we learned from our history? the making and unmaking of founding mythology is powerful, challenging work.
Tamer reviewed much of the city’s history and the various neighborhoods and their related ethnicities and socioeconomics (no surprise, the whiter the Jews, the more services, sidewalks, clean streets; the more Arab, the less of everything). If we look at today, he sees the main Zionist dilemma is one of demography.
The cry now is to build a new, “clean” city, “Yehud Lud,” bring in the extremist Jewish settlers (some from Gaza, some from France) and place them in the middle of Palestinian neighbors. Palestinians facing poverty, hostile Hassids, and little hope are faced with selling their properties to these settlers or to the drug dealers that dominate many of the neighborhoods. These are not good choices. And thus the Palestinian presence is steadily disappeared. Part of a Jewish apartment complex is located on a Muslim cemetery, so Tamer can no longer visit his father’s grave. According to Tamer, approximately 90% of the funding in Lyd is budgeted to build housing for Jews. He notes ironically that of $12 million, $2 million is for Jewish schools and services, $2 million for Jewish neighborhoods, $6 million for a separation wall (!) in the city, and $2 million to demolish Arab houses. Trends?
The neglected, poorer parts of the city are infested with drug dealers (he points out one with an “ATM,” I.e., a hole in the wall where you put your shekels and get your drugs?I did not try it even in the interests of journalism), and the only rehab center used to be owned by a drug dealer whose son committed suicide and then the father changed his tune. Mostly folks are using crystal meth, coke, and pills; the dealers are often Arabs and Bedouin clans.
As Tamer says, “Not a tasty salad.”
The confounding disaster is of course racism. Tamer explains that intellectually he feels sympathy for Ethiopian Jews, who are also on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder; but then he “has to be fucked over by an Ethiopian (Jewish) policeman who is trying to be soooo Israeli.” Recently there was a scandal when it was found that hospitals were throwing out blood donations from Ethiopian donors and that Ethiopian women were being sterilized without consent. Racial purity anyone?
With his family and a successful music career, Tamer has moved to a nicer neighborhood; his son is attending an Arabic language preschool and speaks it fluently. The parents are now teaching him Hebrew at home; after all, he does need to speak the language of the colonizer. Tamer fears that if he went to a Jewish preschool, he would lose his Arab identity. These are tough issues to negotiate.
We meander towards the “wrong side of the tracks,” where there is a railroad station, originally built by the British for Palestinian workers. Now the neighborhood is only visited by junkies, police, and settlers, “They have the country, we have the streets.” This impoverished shantytown is limited by a nearby moshav (a Jewish community), the train tracks, a highway, and a Jewish neighborhood.
While there are successful doctors and lawyers here, there is mostly a lot of poverty and unemployment. These folks are not accepted in Jewish neighborhoods. One hundred and fifty Palestinian houses (remember, all citizens of the great democracy of Israel), have been demolished due to lack of permits, but since these are unrecognized neighborhoods, there is no system to apply for anything, not that that would work anyway. And each group blames the group less fortunate: Ethiopians and Moroccans are part of the problem and they blame the Palestinians. Ironically, the millions of shekels spent on house demolitions could be used to create a viable public housing system. But this is Israel.
Tamer notes this whole insanity is actually about Judaizing Lyd.
He quips that the Jews are always complaining that the Palestinians want to throw them into the sea, but in actuality it was the Jewish forces that pushed the Palestinian civilians into the Mediterranean.
Tamer’s grandfather was “thrown into a boat” in 1948 and there are plenty of historical photos that document that frantic expulsion.
But there is a bureaucracy to racism and Judaization. Palestinian land was declared “frozen” and cannot be developed. Ten years ago, Jewish Russian neighborhoods were built on frozen land with full infrastructure and no permits. They received their retroactive permits two years ago.
And then there are the railroad tracks, all eight of them, 250 trains a day. We hold our breaths and watch kids scamper across the tracks as the lights flash and the rails come down. Well before 2006, there were no lights and no guardrails, some fifteen children were killed. Tamer made a video with the late Juliano Mer Khamis (actor and founder of the Jenin Freedom Theater) and took Israeli rock stars to this neighborhood with the media in tow, creating intense public pressure, and poof, lights and guard rails. Can you imagine such a situation in a posh neighborhood in Tel Aviv? But then they would have moved the train tracks? The promised pedestrian tunnel or bridge has yet to materialize, but no one else has been crushed by an oncoming train. I counted four trains in the few minutes we had this conversation.
We head into a dirt path, concrete walls, corrugated metal walls and roofs, piles of trash, open sewerage, bedding hung in the sun, purple bougainvillea flaunting itself. Where are we? A shanty town in Brazil? South Africa? A ten-ish-year-old girl offers our bus driver a nice drug purchase. Israel, the big success story, the start-up nation, the light unto the nations? This is shameful.
One positive development Tamer explains is that at the site of a previous demolition, a new shiny school, the Ort School of Science and Engineering, has been built, his wife teaches here, the principal is an Arab. She describes herself as apolitical, but she knows how to work the system, she is well-respected, she goes out on the streets and talks to the drug dealers, and she gets excellent results. All of her students are Palestinian.
Our final stop is the Shamir neighborhood, a Palestinian area adjacent to a moshav that demanded a separation wall of their own to protect them from the neighboring unwelcome Arabs. Activists took them to court and they said it was “an acoustic wall” due to the trains (not), then the wall was left partially built for seven to eight years. A beautiful, multistory Palestinian apartment building was built in the neighborhood without a permit (obviously since there are no permits), and some weird deal was made not to demolish this apartment building in exchange for completing the separation wall. A very weird legal system indeed.
I ask Tamer, who is this strange mix of high energy, outrage, and cynicism, what are the main barriers for the Palestinians digging themselves out of this economic, drug-trafficking mess and he replies: “Our tribal mentality.” (It seems we are all suffering from our tribal disorders, only mine has all the big guns.) But Tamer continues the good fight, pushing the boundaries, getting in everyone’s face, calling things as he sees them in all their contradictions and ugliness and sarcasm. He is releasing English language hip-hop songs: “Mama, I fell in love with a Jew,” and “Scarlett Johansson has gas” (a reference to the Sodastream campaign she promoted; Sodastream is produced in an illegal Israeli settlement). He is planning a full album and is writing a script on Palestinian hiphop.
And he is using his powerful music and his sharp tongue to continue to create political change and wake up the international community through the language of hip-hop.
I leave both inspired and appalled at the consequences of the Zionist dream: of the price of privileging Jews over everyone else, white Jews over brown Jews, of the self-destruction of communities that are pushed to the edges of society, of the terrible cost of the racism that has always been part of the fabric of this contradictory place.