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Jaffa, habibti, our relationship is complicated

Moving from Tel Aviv to Jaffa turned out to be about much more than lower rent and proximity to the sea. In a city plagued by ethnic, national and socio-economic divisions, there is no such thing as an apolitical decision that involves real estate

I moved to a mixed Arab-Jewish building in Jaffa last spring, a refugee from the astronomical rents in Tel Aviv. For more than one thousand shekels less than I paid for my previous apartment in Tel Aviv, which was an oppressively small box on a noisy street, I rented a spacious, sun-splashed space in Jaffa, with a balcony shaded by a tree, windows that open in three different directions and a breeze from the sea. The flea market is two minutes away, the local grocery shops and restaurants are excellent, and there are some serious art galleries down in the restored fishing port.

When I went to sign the contract at the home of my new landlord, a secular Ashkenazi man with a slow walk and an asthmatic wheeze who was born in Tel Aviv more than 70 years ago, he asked me why I wanted to move to Jaffa. An odd question, I thought. Did he not think his apartment was a suitable place to live? Since my financial considerations were none of his business, I said that I wanted to live closer to the sea and that I had friends in Jaffa.

“Jewish friends?” he asked.

“Yes,” I answered. “Jewish.”

Looking at me approvingly, he said, “It’s good that educated young people like you are moving to Jaffa.”

“Why?” I asked.

“So that the Arabs won’t control Jaffa,” he said.

Later I heard from Yossi, the head of the building committee, that my landlord had taken him aside and promised that he would never rent to Arabs. “Your landlord thought I was a racist just like him,” said Yossi, who happens to sit on the board of a left-wing NGO with a bi-national agenda.

While I was abroad the following month, my landlord came over and nailed a mezuzah on my front door frame – without asking my permission. Clearly, it was important for him that people identified his property as a ‘Jewish’ apartment.

Meanwhile, friends from Tel Aviv reacted strangely when they visited me. Glancing askance at the calligraphic shahada over the door of the family next door, they asked if I felt safe living in the building.  “Do you talk to your neighbours?” they asked.

“Of course I talk to my neighbours!” I answered indignantly. And I do. Samira, who works at a restaurant, feeds me cookies and gentle smiles; and Khalil, who is a garage mechanic, always has a cousin who can fix whatever breaks down. I even talk to Abed, the perpetually unsmiling drug dealer who lives on the ground floor, although he rarely answers me.

But we do not socialize. We are neighbours and acquaintances, but not friends.  And the reasons are related to class – that other political issue. When my friend Issa came to visit, he, a polyglot Christian Palestinian-Israeli who is studying for a graduate degree at Tel Aviv University, laughed and said, “You certainly chose to be a real bohemian, didn’t you?”  He would not dream of living in my dirty, un-renovated old building with its working-class tenants. Or, as my friend Nizo, a Palestinian refugee living in Canada, put it jokingly, after hearing my description of Abed and his family, “Habibti, you can have those Palestinians. It’s okay, we have plenty.”

It was only after I moved to Jaffa that I made this discovery: in general, upper middle-class Arabs who work in the professions (academia, law, journalism, medicine) do not live there. There are a few actors and intellectuals that gather at Café Yafa, and a small, predominantly Christian middle class that sends its children to the private schools run by the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches. But mostly, the intellectual and professional Palestinian-Israelis live in Neve Shalom, Nazareth, Haifa and Ramleh – or in the splashy new suburb built above Um El Fahm. The Palestinian-Israeli celebrities often live in Tel Aviv –  as do actors Clara Khoury and Yousef Sweid.

The Arabs of Jaffa are mostly poor – impoverished, even. Some of them are migrant workers from the villages in the Galilee; others are former army informants (collaborators) from the occupied territories; or maybe Egyptians who came over to work in the 1990s,  then married local women and stayed; and a few – a very few – have lived there since before 1948. They are, as a journalist from Nazareth told me, very disconnected from the Arabs in the rest of Israel. There are no Arabic-language bookshops or lending-libraries in Jaffa, unless you count the small collection of political books at Yafa Cafe. There is no cinema that screens Arabic films; no major Arab cultural events; and no local radio station in Arabic. The Alhambra Theater on Jerusalem Boulevard, where the great Egyptian singer Oum Kulthoum appeared in the late 1930s, was recently restored to its Bauhaus glory and is now a Scientology center.

Lately, National-Religious (religious right-wing) Jews have been settling in Jaffa with the stated intention of ‘Judaizing’ it. Boys study for a year between high school and army service at yeshivas that were established by rabbis from West Bank settlements. Religious girls, exempt from regular army service, perform a year of national service at the local public high school, teaching Jewish holidays and customs to a student body that is 45 percent Arab.

On several occasions, these teenage national-religious youth have held loud  demonstrations in mixed Jaffa neighbourhoods on Saturdays. As you can see in the video below, they wave flags, sing nationalist songs and dance in circles on the streets – on Shabbat. Which I find a bit strange, because in my religious youth we were taught that the Sabbath was a day for peaceful contemplation and harmony. Also, it seems pretty clear that they have not come to introduce themselves to the neighbours and invite them over for coffee.

Two weeks ago, a large group of those teens, who had a police license to demonstrate, gathered in front of a mosque on Jerusalem Boulevard just as evening prayers ended. According to this report (HEB) on the Maariv-owned website NRG, the teens  shouted slogans that included, according to eyewitnesses quoted in the article, “Death to Arabs” and “Mohamed is a pig.” The police had to separate the Jewish and Arab teenagers; and Sami Abu Shehadah, a community organizer, said the incident could easily have ended in “a massacre.”

Al Nazha Mosque on Jaffa's Jerusalem Boulevard, where right-wing Jewish teens demonstrated and shouted "Death to Arabs" (photo: Lisa Goldman)

Jaffa radicalized me, in a way. I think about politics when I walk through Ajami, the neighbourhood that was, until recently, an Arab ghetto. Over the past few years Ajami has been going through a gentrification process that involved pushing the Arab families out of their neglected old homes in order to make way for the construction of multi-million dollar residences with underground parking.

Rifaat “Jimmy” Turk, a community organizer who was the first Arab to play in Israel’s national soccer team back in the 1970s, rages as he points at the new playground and park. “I lived here for 50 years and the city never paved a centimeter of road. I devoted most of my adult life to co-existence. When I sat on the city council I used to beg them to have the garbage collected regularly and for a playground to be built for the kids, but they always said there was no budget, and I believed them. Then the Jews moved in and suddenly there was a budget!” Two years ago, Jimmy’s 72 year-old widowed mother received an eviction notice for the house she had moved into as a 16 year-old bride, and in which she had raised nine children.

I think about politics when I look at the crumbling and neglected Muslim cemetery, right next to the architecturally striking new building that houses the Peres Center for Peace. And I think about it when I see that the section of Yehuda Hayamit Street that runs past the Army Radio building was completely repaved in less than two months, while the road’s continuation, which runs through residential blocks occupied mostly by Arabs, was left dug up for 9 months, preventing people from walking on the sidewalks. That ended up bankrupting small business owners –  like the barber who had had his shop there for more than 40 years.

Peres Center for Peace in Ajami (photo: Ori/Wikimedia Commons)

I think about politics when I see riot control forces (Yasam) roaming around Jaffa, randomly stopping local Arabs and demanding to see their identity cards.

And I think about politics when I read that the principal of the local public high school forbade Arab students, who made up 45 percent of the student body, to speak Arabic between themselves in the classroom, even though Arabic is one of Israel’s two official languages. Meanwhile, the students from the former Soviet Union were not forbidden to speak Russian.

Jaffa is an interesting and cool place to live. It reminds me a bit of New York City’s Harlem 10 years ago, when it was an edgy place for bohemian whites to live –  and a ghetto that most blacks wanted to leave.  I just did not expect to feel like a colonizer for having moved 15 minutes’ walk from Tel Aviv. But, I do.

This post was translated into Hebrew by Ronen Wodlinguer and published on the Project Democracy blog, as well as on Ha’Okets.

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    1. Ben Israel

      I am not familiar with the situation in Yafo, but I do know there are often two sides to every story.
      It is no secret that there is frequently tension between Arabs and Jews in the mixed cities and regions (Lod, Akko, the Gailil) , particularly since the Islamic movement has become active. A common problem is turning the mosque’s loudspeaker on full blast at 4:00 in the morning. I am sure you remember the riots in Akko on Yom Kippur a couple of years ago. There was also the tragic incident in Kfar Tavor when Arabs came on Yom Kippur and drove noisily through the city in order to show who is “boss” and they ran over and killed a local girl.
      It is possible that the Shabbat demonstrations are a response to provocations that radical Islamists have been carrying out. Otherwise I can not see why the religious Jews living in Yafo would want ongoing trouble with their neighbors.
      But, let us say there are some Jewish troublemakers. The best way to deal with it is first to go make contact with the leaders of their community and you tell them that it is wrong to make noise in front of their mosque.
      If that doesn’t work, then the next step is to go make a complaint to the municipal authorities. Tel-Aviv-Yafo is not Jerusalem, it is a largely secular city with strong Left-wing representation in the municipal council (why haven’t they done anything about the poor municipal services in Yafo if they are so committed to co-existenc) so I would expect a strong response by the police and municipal authorities to breaking of the law.
      This is what needs to be done, not organzing a demonstrations with radical Arabs who go around screaming “death the Jews!”. I know that is much more fun for some Leftists but it is counterproductive.

      Reply to Comment
    2. You’re correct, Ben-Israel: as your comment shows, you are not at all familiar with the situation in Jaffa.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Ben Israel

      Could you please enlighten me regarding where I was wrong, and could you relate to my suggestions about how to deal with the problem rather than by having noisy demonstrations?

      Reply to Comment
    4. Actually, Ben Israel, I’ve decided to stop responding to your comments. Your ideological agenda conflicts with my core values and I don’t think we will come to any agreement. Arguing makes me tired.

      Reply to Comment
    5. I loved living in Jaffa. I still miss it. I lived in peace with all my neighbors. These days you can get stoned by kids just for looking Jewish and passing by the future settlement in Ajami. Moving there now would make me feel like a settler and I know Jewish people who are leaving because of that.
      I had had other problems in Jaffa. I didn’t like walking alone on Yefet St or Jerusalem Blvd. after dark. I didn’t like the junkies walking around, the drug deals under my window, the kids shouting until 2:00 am, the loud music from the neighbor’s window. (what is it with Jaffoites and cheesy 80’s songs?) I found myself changing my miniskirt to jeans before going to the grocery store so I wouldn’t get unwanted calls and attention from the shabab (Arab youth). I moved back to Tel-Aviv because I wanted to feel safe and free and I do, but this neighborhood doesn’t have amazing Russian delis or beautiful park on the sea shore. There are no magnificent Palestinian houses, neighbors that bring you delicious cakes; there are no community organizer cosmeticians who use only ‘balady’ (natural) ingredients. There’s no flea market and no mind boggling hummus and no giant fish restaurants with waiters singing happy birthday on the hour. I have to admit: this homogeneous down town neighborhood bores me to death.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Lisa Richlen

      As someone with a similar political agenda who moved to Jaffa two years ago, I really liked your article. I can’t say that moving her (from Baka in Jerusalem) politicized me but it has certainly made me a lot more sensitive to socio-economic issues and introduced me to an Israel I have never experienced before.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Ben Israel

      Very interesting….almost all the “progressives” or “Leftists” (or whatever you want to call yourselves) I have encountered in cyberspace have the same response…they do not want to talk to people who disagree with them. I was banned by Leonard Fine of American Friends of Peace Now because , although he is a fine fellow and never insulted me, he said he also was tired of talking to peopl who disagreed with him and he wanted to keep the discussion “within the family”.
      I actually would have welcomed learning about the situation in Yafo because, believe it or not, I strongly oppose the actions of Jews you described as happening in Yafo. However, I must come to the conclusion that there apparently is truth in what I said about there being previous Arab provocations, so I presume that you feel that getting into a discussion of it would damage the propaganda line here at 972. I am not interested in convincing you of my position and I do not read your writings in order to be convinced. I want to know the facts. The situation in Yafo is important and I thought I might find out something about it here. I guess I was wrong. But I am always checking my position which is why I spend most of my time reading views that disagree with mine.
      In a similar vein, I have repeatedly asked Yossi Gurvitz why the Arabs should make peace with Israel since he himself believes the Zionist movement is wrong and Jews have no right to make aliyah. Like you he refused to answer me other that to say he likes “Peace”, (presumably in the way he may like chocolate ice cream rather than vanilla).

      I must say I do take political comfort from your stand, it shows you do not feel you can argue your position in a free discussion and you prefer to engage in polemics. It just confirms my belief that the FACTS are with my side.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Ben Israel, if you are really interested in educating yourself, there is lots of information available. I am sure you know how to do research and I don’t get paid to answer your questions.

      You claim you want an exchange, but it’s obvious that you just want to argue, and I don’t like arguing. More to the point, I don’t have time.

      One of the cheapest debating tactics out there is to tell someone that her refusal to engage you in debate is proof that your arguments are superior. Please, spare me.

      This really is the very last time I’ll respond to your comments. If you decide to keep writing, I’ll edit your comments when I think appropriate. Please avoid making long, argumentative comments.

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    9. Lisa, Thank you for modeling civility in discourse, which means that in some situations and with some discussants, when the discourse becomes circular, pointless, and a waste of resources, it ceases to be discourse and hence, cannot continue.

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    10. Louis

      I liked the piece Lisa, I wonder though… what is the difference between Tel Aviv in relation to Yafa and Jerusalem in relation to East Jerusalem… that is to say there are clear power relations clear points of Yehud of the Other, and sometimes it matters not the ideologies of the Israeli Jews who are moving there but rather their physical presence… At the same time, well, the old paradigms of separation and parallel (‘co’) existence need to shift to an effort of fluidity, social, political, physical, entanglement…

      Reply to Comment
    11. One of the most honest, cogent and thought provoking articles ever published regarding the interaction of Israeli and Arab citizens of Israel.
      Expertize is not difficult to acquire on any number of subjects via serious news organs, but drawing personal and relevant conclusions from one’s own experience is not what one reads, or expects to read every day in the various media.
      My heart felt congratulation for a well nigh peace of reportage.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Carmen

      I deleted this comment because it was rude and did not make any positive contribution to the conversation in this thread. I will delete any related comments. (Lisa)

      Reply to Comment
    13. […] not a resident of Jaffa at the moment and on one hand I do agree with what my friend Lisa wrote in this post, mainly about the complicated relationship with Jaffa. On the other hand, you can’t disregard […]

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    14. Anna Wexler

      Excellent piece.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Hi Lisa,

      Stumbled across this great – as ever – piece, and just thought I would say “hi”.

      I don’t know Ben Israel (and whether or not he is just trying to wind you up), but it is sad that the left and right – or at least the more moderate elements thereof – can no longer even talk.

      Sorry to hear that you have left us: We don’t share the same politics . . . but with whom will I stand outside Leonard Cohen concerts?!



      Reply to Comment

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