Over the past 70 years, the city of Jaffa has gone from being the ‘Bride of Palestine’ to the ‘Arab backyard’ of Tel Aviv. Today, as it undergoes rapid gentrification, Jaffa has become a central hub for both Palestinian and Jewish resistance. Israeli anthropologist Daniel Monterescu speaks to Fathom editor Alan Johnson about his new new book, which unpacks the history of a city that continues to be made and remade.
By Daniel Monterescu and Alan Johnson / Fathom
Part 1: Personal and intellectual influences
Alan Johnson: Can you say something about your family background and the major influences on your intellectual development, and how these have helped to form the characteristic concerns of your work?
Daniel Monterescu: The story of my family is deeply intertwined with the history of the city. My father immigrated in 1951 as a boy from Romania and after a transition period in a Ma’abara (transit camp established for new immigrants to Israel) settled in Jaffa. The neighborhood of Manshiyya, which was historically a working-class Palestinian district bordering on Tel Aviv, was completely demolished in the 1960s as part of a “slum clearing” operation, but in the 1950s it was still a bustling migrant town, full of Jewish newcomers from central Europe, the Balkans and the Middle East. The Palestinians in that context were of course present in their absence, as they were largely confined to the “Ajami ghetto.” After marrying my mother, herself a war refugee born in France to German and Swiss Orthodox parents, my parents moved to Jaffa D., a neighborhood on the southern edge of the city, which also had a significant Arab population living in orange groves (biyarat). My experience growing up among such ethnic diversity and political controversy nurtured me as an apprentice “stranger” – a fundamental sensibility, which I turned into a profession as an anthropologist.
It is however my studies at the Catholic Collège des Frères, where I learned Arabic and French, and where I was often the only Jew in class, that enabled me to develop my observation skills and multifocal approach to the city. This school, founded in 1882 as part of the French “mission civilizatrice,” catered to both the Jewish and Palestinian elites prior to 1948 and counted among its students members of the Chelouche family but also Palestinian personalities such as writer Ghassan Kanafani. After 1948 it continued to serve the Arab community and a handful of Jews and diplomats, whilst retaining a cosmopolitan environment that allowed me to look at both the Arab-Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli life-worlds from critical intimate distance.
Part 2: Mixed cities
AJ: Let’s talk about ethnically-mixed towns in general, before we talk about Jaffa specifically. Jaffa, Ramle, Lydda, Haifa, Acre are exceptional places, you note, as “more than 90 per cent of the Palestinian citizens live in Arab towns and villages and an overwhelming majority of the Jewish citizens reside in towns with no Arab population to speak of.” What are the most important characteristics of these mixed spaces, and what they might tell us about Israel’s future?
DM: Ethnically mixed towns are the only urban spaces in Israel that defy the ruling principle of ethnic separation. This however was not a planned strategy but rather the unintended consequence of a long history of displacements, immigration and more recently gentrification. In a sense these cities are the exception that confirms the rule, but precisely this exception sheds lights on the tribulations of what I like to call the violence of coexistence. This is why, despite their modest population size, mixed towns occupy a disproportionately important place in Israeli and Palestinian public discourse and national imagination.
The definition of a (Jewish-Arab) “mixed town” which I propose in the book is two-pronged. One element of it is a straightforward sociodemographic reality: a certain ethnic mix in housing zones, ongoing neighborly relations, socioeconomic proximity, and various modes of joint sociality. The second element is discursive, namely, a consciousness-based proximity whereby individuals and groups on both sides share elements of identity, symbolic traits, and cultural markers, which signify the mixed town as a shared yet contested locus of memory, affiliation, and self-identification.
The term ‘mixed towns’ itself (‘arim me‘oravot in Hebrew, mudun mukhtalata in Arabic) is highly politicized and has had a checkered history in Palestine/Israel. It was and still is used by Israelis and Palestinians in diverse historical and political contexts, serving a number of discursive goals and altering definitions of the urban situation. From its first mention in the report of the Peel Commission (1937), formed after the outbreak of the Arab Revolt (1936–1939), to this day it is used to denote both coexistence and enmity depending on the speaker. To the best of my knowledge, mixed towns in Israel are the only group of cities in the world that are identified as such in public discourse. While many cities worldwide exhibit different degrees of ethnic mix, only in Israel do they make up a marked category. My goal was to position this concept and the realities it describes in a more historical and ethnographic context, in everyday life.
AJ: You cite this view: “Mixed towns are a metaphor for the entire Israel-Palestinian conflict.’”Do you agree with that and what does it mean to you? You also make the case that, “embodying both the impasse and the hope of minority-majority relations in Israel, mixed towns are likely to remain pivotal for the region’s future.” What is the impasse and what is the hope?
DM: I cited this statement made by two Israeli journalists who documented the events in mixed towns in the aftermath of the October 2000 events to point to the prevalence of the discourse in public debates. Cities like Jaffa and Acre were projected with the anxieties and fantasies of many Israelis. But inasmuch as sites of Jewish-Arab interaction are a barometer to the vicissitudes of Palestinian-Israeli conflict I agree with the statement. The argument is that if real coexistence can be achieved in these cities it can be achieved elsewhere. In that respect mixed towns are a political and social laboratory where the traumas of dispossession and the hopes for a better future play out in everyday life. It is also why I see in these cities more than the sum of their parts. While at present they exhibit mainly the darker side of majority-minority relations in Israel, they could in the future serve as the starting point of reconciliation and recognition.
AJ: Mixing happens in different ways, of course. You have pointed out that “it is the newly mixed towns — originally planned as Jewish enclaves and recently reconfigured due to the migration of middle class Arabs to Jewish cities such as Nazareth Illit and Karmiel — that might herald the collapse of the exclusionary ethnic segregation policy.” I was struck by this potential when I was in Nazareth. Also by how much of a battle some people are putting up to stop it.
DM: Nazareth Illit is an excellent example of how the forces of real estate and urban capitalism run counter to the segregative forces of ethno-nationalism. Due to urban asphyxiation plans which did not allow Arab Nazareth to expand, Palestinian gentrifiers, namely upwards mobile professionals with sufficient resources, have been settling in Nazareth Illit for almost three decades now. It is currently estimated that Arabs (mostly Christians) number about 20 per cent of the total population despite tremendous efforts made by a series of anti-Arab mayors. Similar scenarios can be observed in other town like Karmiel. It is a lesson for planners and politicians that unintended consequences are often more likely to occur than Judaizing policies. The future of this country cannot but be mixed if we are to respect basic human rights such as equality under the law and freedom of movement.
AJ: You hint that mixed cities suggest an imaginary of a solution to the tragedy, “enabling historical reconciliation” not least because of “the pragmatic necessities of communal survival, social exchange and spatial cohabitation.” Can you expand on that intuition?
DM: As an ethnographer and historical anthropologist my vantage point is a bottom-up approach to social relations and ethnic politics. Following the history of social movements and collective mobilization, such as the 2011 social justice protests, which led to an unprecedented coalition between the Jaffa Palestinians and Jewish Mizrahim in the Hatikva neighborhood (in south Tel Aviv), I witnessed how the yearning to normalcy and dignity facilitate cooperation. Thus mundane struggles for affordable housing, better schools, and the safety of women against gender violence become a leverage for civic action that can yield political solidarity. The recent mobilization of feminist activist against “honor killing” in the wake of the murder of two Arab women in Jaffa was such an instance when Jewish and Palestinian publics came together to voice their protest.
Part 3: ‘Contrived coexistence’ in Jaffa
AJ: Let’s turn to Jaffa. You tell us it is about the size of a neighborhood in Chicago. There are lower-class Jews, gentrifiers and the Palestinian population, which is itself divided. In 2012, the Palestinian minority was about 30 percent, or some 15,000 out of a population of 45,000. You take the reader through five distinct phases or ruptures of the city’s history. Since 1948 Jaffa has, you say “witnessed the rise and fall of different communal and state-initiated projects.” And you foreground, I think the “anxious representations” have characterized the collective memory of the relationship between Jaffa and Tel Aviv. The key concept you use to grasp the sheer complexity of the ethnic relations, the urban regime, and the “contested nature of binational urbanism” in Jaffa is “contrived coexistence.” Can you unpack the concept for us and say why it has explanatory power for you?
DM: When I studied at the University of Chicago I was always struck by how complex, enigmatic, and multi-layered Jaffa is in comparison — when it’s not much larger than Hyde Park. I was looking for words to describe this complexity that defines the city. By “contrived coexistence” I mean the combination of violence, constraint and choice that mark life in mixed cities – their appeal and notoriety. Some critics have rejected the very notion of mixed spaces as being both exceptional and involuntary, while others have over-emphasized moments of cooperation. Against these debates, the concept seeks to incorporate the involuntary nature of Jewish-Arab cohabitation with the creative agency and survival tactics of its residents. Going beyond simplistic urban dualities of black and white, I wanted to point to ongoing intertwined processes whereby Arab and Jewish spaces are constantly made and remade, shared and shattered. By virtue of a history of Jewish immigration, slum-clearing policies, and gentrification what we see in Jaffa is not one ethnically homogenous urban space or two divided parts but living Jewish spaces within Arab spaces and Palestinian spaces within Israeli ones.
This material reality stands in sharp contrast to dualistic metaphors of East and West that we know from Jerusalem, or North and South as in Tel Aviv. Put differently, the intersection of urban spaces corrupts the correspondence between spatial boundaries (that would delimit neighbohoods) and social boundaries (of a certain class or ethnicity). In Jaffa as well as other mixed towns in Israel, the coupling between space and identity collapses.
AJ: You take a relational approach to Jewish and Arab communal histories, inviting the readers to see not two wholly separate, integral, and autochthonous histories but rather something much more interesting beneath the official narratives: interaction, mutual constitution, even hybridity. Would it be fair to say that is the main theme of the book, this co-mingling of “cultural reciprocities and structural inequalities?”
DM: My own biography and intimate familiarity with the different webs of affiliation in Jaffa pressed me to write “a native’s book about his city,” as Walter Benjamin once puts it. That is to address the story of the city itself as more than the sum of its separate communities (Palestinian Arabs, veteran Jews, Jewish gentrifiers, and most recently settlers). To understand such complexity I sensed that we need an alternative approach to community studies, indeed a new conceptual language that doesn’t take for granted ethnic and national categories. The perspective of relationality allowed me to think of spaces of interaction and conflict dialectically. To render visible what is often silenced, such as collaboration between Jewish and Arabs crime networks and drug dealers, joint businesses, and mixed marriages. Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish articulated beautifully this sociological paradox: “Me” or “Him.” Thus begins the war. But it ends with an awkward encounter: “Me and him.”
Part 4: ‘Everyday binationality’
AJ: I was struck by an expression you used – “everyday binationality” – and a claim you made: “Everyday binationality is far more ominous than any theoretical experiment or political musing might be.” What do you mean by “everyday binationality?” Ominous for whom?
DM: Since the establishment of the state, the specter of binationality triggered anxieties and fears of Palestinization among most Israelis. This is of course understandable, but these fears often turn violent. Most recently the arson attack on the bilingual school in Jerusalem and the public turmoil caused by far-right Jewish militants around a case of mixed marriage in Jaffa prove beyond any doubt that the stakes are higher than mere theoretical musings. I think it’s high time to confront reality and recognize that in mixed towns binationality is a social fact. In my ethnography I tried to point to moments of everyday binationality that could lead not only to secession but also to unexpected coalitions, progressive social movements and radical cultural projects like Anna Loulou and Cafe Yafa.
AJ: Some of the most powerful passages in the book, I thought, were those exploring the complexity, multi-layered and contradictory character of the relations between the peoples. You write: “These neighbors inhabit two incommensurable existential planes: while the Zionist national story unfolds from diaspora to immigration (Aliyah) and from Holocaust to national-building, the Palestinian collective narrative is one of traumatic passage from ‘the days of the Arabs’ to the national defeat of the Nakba and its ensuing resistance (Muqawama) and steadfastness (Sumud).” The life stories you discovered are about “a whole universe of contradictions and complexities.” How do people handle in practice the tension between incommensurability and the “creative agency of interpretive subjects” and how did you capture that tension in theory?
DM: In the chapter Escaping the Mythscape,” I draw on a separate collaborative research that came out as a book in Hebrew (with Professor Haim Hazan). I documented life stories of elderly Jews and Arabs, who, from their perspective of generational marginality, radically deconstruct notions of both Palestinian and Jewish nationalism. The biographical narratives of aged persons who are at liberty to criticize the violence of territorial nationalism, reveal a perspective that has often been silenced by both Israelis and Palestinians. The experiences of ordinary people on both sides of the fence are not only intertwined but are inherently mirror images of each other – though uneven and distorted, to be sure. These refracted images reflect comparable fears and longings for future coexistence and political recognition.
One such story took place during the 1967 War when a Jewish and an Arab family shared the same house (a common practice in the first decades in Jaffa) and anxiously listened to the reports from the battlefield together. When Israeli victory was announced the Arab father got up in anger and exclaimed: ‘OK. You won.’ But they continued to live and work together, sharing the kitchen and bathroom. One of the fascinating findings of the study is that in old age, the power of nationalism wanes rather than increases. Many of the interviewees engaged a deep sense of betrayal by the political leaders, the local community, the state and the grand narratives they represent.
Part 5: A new discourse of collective rights
AJ: You discern a new discourse of collective rights among the Palestinian Arabs of Jaffa and the other “mixed cities’ in the 21st century.” You quote a powerful statement by Buthayna Dabit, the head of the Shatil Housing Forum as an example of this discourse. When did this discourse emerge, why, and what political and cultural forms is it taking?
DM: A new discourse of rights emerged with the disillusionment of Arab local politics from the bear hug of the Zionist parties such as Labor and even Meretz. Sociologically it can be traced back to the rise of what Dan Rabinowitz and Khawla Abu-Baker called the “stand-tall generation,” which played a prominent role in the October 2000 events. Highly educated (in universities in Israel and abroad), ideologically motivated, and politically engaged, this generation no longer deems liberal coexistence the magic cure to the Palestinian-Israeli predicament and calls for political recognition and cultural autonomy based on a national discourse of rights. Paradoxically, this generation exhibits high level of Palestinization and Israelization simultaneously – the more they make assertive claims in national terms as Palestinians, the more they integrate de facto into Israeli economy and civil society as citizens.
AJ: You believe that the demand that Jaffa’s Arabs, and Israeli Arabs in general, choose between their Israeli and Palestinian identities is “simplistic” and “arrogant.” Is that arrogance on the rise or is it falling? How seriously does the Israeli Left take the need to develop a politics of and for the Arabs?
DM: This arrogance, which would be deemed anti-Semitic if applied to Jews in the U.K., is clearly on the rise as the political climate is turning right and downhill. Moreover, bystanders who remained silent when critical Arab voices were ostracized are now facing a similar fate. This is not anymore just the sectoral problem of the Palestinian citizens, although they pay the highest price for the sea change. Any sign of dissent is now toned down if not silenced altogether. Breaking the Silence, which is made up of veteran soldiers and concerned citizens, is publicly blacklisted and even the Association for Civil Rights in Israel is under attack. In mixed cities Arabs feel this pressure every day and increasingly so as they lose their jobs and face police brutality. This leads to a withdrawal of the political that we know from authoritarian regimes.
The crisis of the Left is one of the tragedies of our time. The Israeli Left failed miserably in standing up and practicing what it preaches – the values of democracy, equality and freedom of expression. It should come therefore as no surprise that this ongoing spinelessness backfired and young Arab voters lost confidence in the Jewish-Israeli Left. Growing alienation could spiral out of control if the Left doesn’t sober up and formulae a truly progressive agenda, which might save it from itself and the suicidal path it has taken since 2000.
Part 6: Neoliberal Jaffa
AJ: You discuss the most recent transformations in Jaffa under the label “neoliberalism.” Before we explore the transformations it has wrought, can you give our readers a definition of “neoliberalism?”
DM: In a jungle of different theories of neoliberalism, the approach I find most useful singles out the hollowing out of the welfare state through the marketization of society on the one hand, and the emergence of a new entrepreneurial subject on the other. In cities, this double process manifests itself through the arrival of gentrifiers and the emergence of gated communities.
AJ: Let’s explore neoliberalism as a source of unity and “creative marginality.” You discuss neoliberalism as a common threat to working class Jews and Palestinians and as causing the formation of new agencies and even a “search for a shared future framed in cosmopolitan, transregional, and post national terms.” Can you tell me more about these trends in Jaffa, and how significant you think they are today and could be in the future?
DM: Neoliberalism however is a double-edged process and along with gated communities and social enclaving came a host of urban actors who transformed the city. In fact we can trace the origins of the radical alternative cultural scene and Jaffa’s creative marginality back to the October 2000 events. In their aftermath, the very marking of Jaffa as a space of violent contestation and political mobilization further attracted various groups that had already expressed interest in Jewish-Arab cooperation through actual residence in the city, including hippie communes yearning for Mediterranean and multicultural exoticism (which have settled in Jaffa since the 1990s); individual leftists coming for ideological reasons to implement co-existence on the ground; binational youth communes; and Jewish-Arab mixed couples who cannot find their place in Tel Aviv. The October 2000 events also attracted political Palestinian-Israeli groups that are directly engaged with conflict-related activism, such as Anarchists Against the Wall, Reut-Sadaqa, Ta’ayush, Tarabut, and the Zochrot. While these diverse populations followed different paths, they all share a common fascination with the potential for meaning and purpose the contested city has to offer, either through political activism or individual self-searching.
Led by a general sense of frustration vis-à-vis the political stalemate, new initiatives and actors came to the fore. This is also the background for the coming together of Jewish and Palestinian activists who chose in 2011 to fight together for social justice inspired by the Arab Spring. While Palestinian activism in Jaffa has been well established – notably with the ongoing activities of the Rabita (the League for the Jaffa Arabs) from the late 1970s and the more recent Darna (Popular Committee for Land and Housing) established in 2007 –new Jewish activists have become increasingly visible. A mirror image of right-wing settlers’ new interest in mixed towns, left-leaning Jews have become involved in anti-gentrification activism while at the same time being part of the city’s gentrification. I like to call them “gentrifiers against gentrification” or “radical gentrifiers.” In the process they are rebranding Jaffa as an alternative cultural space. Some deliberately chose to “live in the open wound” as one gentrifier put it, mobilizing memory and trauma as an expressive means for political art.
One of the important outcomes of the October 2000 events was the founding of the Cafe Yaffa – the first bookstore in Jaffa since 1948 to specialize in books in Arabic. Started by Dina Lee, a Jewish gentrifier, and her Palestinian business partner Michel Rahib, Cafe Yaffa paved the way for other cultural establishments that blend business, leisure, and politics to reclaim Palestinian cultural space. Cafes and clubs such as the vegan-friendly Abu Dhabi-Kaymak Cafe, the hip cosmopolitan Anna Loulou Bar, and the Palestinian Cafe Salma point to the unintended outcomes of conflict and profit-oriented gentrification.
Among these initiatives the most fascinating and successful one is Anna Loulou Bar – a gay-friendly, binational hangout now owned by a group of Jewish and Palestinian entrepreneurs. Positioning itself at the radical fringe of the Tel Aviv cultural scene, it made virtue out of reality and merged politics with leisure and culture. Rather than shy away from politics as most bars and clubs do, the key to its success is the fusing together of the political with the eros and sexuality of nightlife. Thus you would find Arab and Jewish hipsters drinking and dancing to the tunes of Palestinian nationalist songs. But these are no ordinary hipsters – they are political hipsters who can consume city-life while debating and imagining a post-national or binational future for Jaffa and for themselves.
Part 7: Futures
AJ: You end the book with this thought: “Israelis and Palestinians alike will have to come to terms with their mutual interdependency and relationality.” Are you optimistic about the future?
DM: Despite my incurable optimistic inclinations I became ultimately a pessoptimist, to invoke Haifa native author Emile Habibi. Beyond simple naiveté, the current desperation, and blind jadedness, I’m trying to look into the future. Unless the Israeli government decides to deport Palestinian citizens of Israel, apartheid is not a viable option for the long run. With no other cards on the table, acknowledging the inevitability of a shared future is already a major step forward.
AJ: You argue that “A wise and thoughtful integration of refugees can transform them, within a generation or two, into new European citizens, saving the continent from a prolonged demographic drought that could lead to its demise.” What lessons – negative or positive – can Europe learn from Jaffa, in this regard?
DM: In the summer of 2015 I witnessed the influx of refugees and migrants from the Middle East to Europe as they were trapped in the Budapest Keleti train station. By pure serendipity I became involved in a research project that follows the migrants’ trajectory across the Balkan Route. Together with two fellow anthropologists we documented the reaction of the Hungarian state and civil society to the presence of refugees in terms of horizontal and vertical solidarity. This topic deserves a separate conversation of its own but what I found striking – beyond the debate on human rights – is the great lengths migrants went to in their search for livelihood and dignity.
Instead they were rejected as aliens, locked in camps and eventually led by the police to the border. Now we are facing a similar process on a much larger scale with Italy, Spain, Portugal and others repeating the same mistake. I call this the Hungarianization of Europe. But the statistics are clear – continental Europe is heading slowly but surely for a demographic disaster. With an average fertility rate of 1.55 the EU is moving closer to being a gerontocratic society. This requires a major rethinking of questions of alterity, integration and multiculturalism. Ethnic mixing touches on sociology’s basic question: how can strangers live together? That is the main question on a global scale, in view of the refugee crisis in Europe, the so-called American melting pot and in ethnocratic states, such as in Israel.
Part 8: Critical receptions
AJ: How has the book been received in Israel?
DM: The book was very well received in Israel and abroad. Recently it has been named finalist for the Jordan Schnitzer book award by the Association for Jewish Studies. But more importantly it culminates a personal and intellectual obsession with Jaffa that has lasted for most than half of my life, so it feels good to put that behind me or at least to see it materialize in the form of a book. The drama that is Jaffa still goes on ever more intensely but the story I wanted to tell is there for the reader to engage.
AJ: What are you working on now?
DM: While for most of my career I was invested in understanding the social worlds of the Palestinian minority and the Jewish majority in Israel, but I recently started a new project on the Jewish revival movements in Europe. Changing the perspective and looking at Jews now from the position of a vulnerable minority in cities like Budapest, Berlin, and Krakow is eye opening. It allows me to reflect on the predicament of racialized minorities in Europe, the Middle East and beyond. I position the presence of Jews in relation to Europe’s two other alterities: the Roma and the refugees. Thus for instance, looking at the reaction of Jewish diaspora communities to the refugee crisis provides a profound insight on the historical Jewish struggle to balance cosmopolitan aspirations and existential fears of dissolution.
Daniel Monterescu is the author of Jaffa Shared and Shattered: Contrived Coexistence in Israel/Palestine. An anthropologist and a Jaffa-born expert on mixed cities, his other books include A Town at Sundown: Aging Nationalism in Jaffa (with Haim Hazan) and Mixed Towns, Trapped Communities: Historical Narratives, Spatial Dynamics, Gender Relations and Cultural Encounters in Palestinian-Israeli Towns (editor with Dan Rabinowitz).
Alan Johnson is the editor of Fathom, where a version of this interview was first published.